Through the Thinking and Experiencing Techne modules on the V&A/RCA programme, students have been able to recreate a number of early modern recipes, including making azurite, amber varnish, and marbling. The idea was to reflect on practice, and on the nature of artisan knowledge and skill in the early modern period through making. After the successful workshops at Blythe House grinding azurite and amber, boiling linseed oil, and experimenting with marbling techniques under the guidance of curators and experts in medieval art, some of us decided to expand on these experiments; We wanted to explore how practice is experienced by artisans who are still working with traditional techniques today, and investigate what has changed, and what has remained the same. On a sunny Sunday in May, a group of first-year students headed to the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts to make malachite watercolour.
The Prince’s School was established as a postgraduate program in the traditional arts of the great civilizations of the world in 1984. As a development from the Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts Program (VITA) established at the RCA, its aim is to present and teach traditional arts as living skills that can be applied to contemporary art practice. The malachite workshop was taught by one of the School’s alumni, who specialized in miniature painting in India studying under an artist whose grandfather spent years going around the country recording traditional painting techniques to ensure they didn’t disappear.
Malachite is a copper carbonate hydroxide mineral, and is often found mixed with Azurite. It has been used as medicine in China, Ancient Egypt, and India, where it was believed to cure diseases of the abdomen and dental problems. In ancient Egypt, malachite has also been used to make green eye-makeup. In Europe, it was used as a pigment in 15th and 16th century paintings and murals. While today most artists buy their paints ready-made from art material suppliers, in the early modern period, artists had to make their own pigments, and, as we learned in our afternoon at the Prince’s School, many continue to work this way until today. Whilst our aim during our Azurite pigment-making workshop at Blythe House was to purify the blue by getting rid of the malachite, this time what we were interested in was creating the turquoise-green pigment malachite is famous for.
We started off by breaking down the malachite stones into smaller parts using a granite pestle and mortar. White granite is ideal for the job because it is a very strong rock that can withstand the power required to break mineral stones without getting damaged. After breaking the stones into smaller bits, we began the process of grinding. However, unlike what we did with our early modern recreation, when we ground the azurite into a fine powder and then separated the azurite from the malachite through water filtering, this time we stopped grinding once the particles were still big enough that they could be sorted out by hand. We then proceeded to separate the stones into different shades of green whilst eliminating impurities. Once the shades of green were separated, we ground each shade into a fine powder. Once the powder was fine enough, we transferred it into a new mortar by pouring it through a sieve, ensuring only the finer powder was poured into the mortar. The bits that got caught in the sieve had to be grounded again, until they were fine enough to go through.
With only the finest powder in the mortar, we added water, and continued to grind the now-liquid malachite. An important note from our instructor came at this point: The water used affects the end result of the work. Whilst for big works any kind of water could be used, for fine, delicate work, like miniature painting and manuscript work, rainwater or distilled water should be used to ensure no water marks (consequence of the minerals found in tap water) would appear in the final work.
At this point, embodied knowledge began to play a big part in the process. We had to pay attention to the sounds made when grinding, and used our fingers to feel the texture of the liquid and identify the ideal consistency. Once we achieved it, we transferred the liquid malachite into a new mortar. This time, however, we used a piece of cloth as a sieve, and pushed the pigment through it with our fingers. Only the finest bits of the liquid went through the cloth, and whatever didn’t go thought had to be ground again. At the end of this process, we had the finest liquid malachite in one mortar, ready to be turned into watercolour.
The term watercolour can be misleading. From the eighteenth century onwards, the term watercolour has been used to describe a technique where the paint is applied to paper in a water-based solution that allows the paper to glow through the paint. The kind of watercolour we were aiming to create was very different. What we were aiming for was a paint that could be applied to paper creating an even, flat surface. This technique refers to what is today called watercolour, but in the sixteenth century was known as limning, a method of painting on paper with fine pigments mixed with a water-soluble resign called gum arabic.
Gum arabic is a natural gum that comes from the sap of the branches of Acacia Senegal trees. As an edible and water-soluble binder, gum arabic has been used to bind and mix pigments for centuries. Due to its binding properties, it’s also found in shoe polish, newspaper print, and is used to bind sugar to chocolates, sweets, and soft drinks, among its many other applications. For painting, today gum Arabic can be bought in liquid form from specialist artist craft stores. However, instead of purchasing the ready-made gum arabic solution, our instructor prepared it himself by leaving the sap of gum arabic in warm water overnight to dissolve. Rather than following a recipe with strict measurements, he relied on experience to judge how much water to use. When adding the water-dissolved gum to the malachite pigment, we started with a high concentration of pigment and added the gum, testing the paint on paper. As this was done, we kept stirring the paint to keep it active.
Finding the right balance between malachite and gum Arabica is important: if not enough gum is added to the liquid malachite, once the watercolour dries the pigment will not stick to the paper, and the malachite powder will come out. If there’s too much gum arabic, once dry the paint will crack. Knowing the kind of paper you will work on, and how your paint will behave in it, is also essential to be able to judge the balance between gum and pigment. We worked on jute, a paper made of vegetable fibre belonging to the hemp family, which has fine pulp.
From grinding to filtering and mixing with gum, the whole process of making malachite watercolour was remarkably similar to what we experienced when recreating Cennino Cennini’s fifteenth century recipe for azurite. We found that, although over six hundred years have passed since Cennino published Il Libro dell’Arte, his manuscript on the art of painting with recipes for making, the techniques to obtain pigment used by artists in the early modern period are still very much alive today.