30 November 2012

the alchemy of paint

cecil collin's pigments and an artistic spillage
i remember long ago when i was studying for my gcse's my art teacher saying to me, "when you do your fine art degree you'll get shown how to make paints just like i did.....and you'll love it!" the fine art degree came and went..... more quickly than i was expecting. i left after the first year through utter disillusionment. and we didn't get shown how to make anything.

so you can imagine just how excited i was to stumble upon what i thought could be the course of my dreams a few months ago. i was doing some online research for my exhibition and i came across a course called 'the alchemy of paint; the transformation of earth, rocks, roots and berries into pigments'. and what was equally exciting was that the tutor, dr david cranswick, had been a studio apprentice to cecil collins. i've always loved cecil collins, more for his writing and ideas about art than his painting, and along with many of my favourite artists i managed to weave some of his words of wisdom into my dissertation.

the course is run through the prince's school of traditional arts in london and they have an ethos which i immediately identified with but feel is lacking in higher education art establishments today:

"Although theoretical programmes exist at postgraduate level at many western universities, there are few, if any colleges, apart from The Prince’s School, where the practical skills of the traditional arts are taught at this level. The School holds that the practice of the traditional arts is a contemplative process based upon universal spiritual truths. Art is seen as an integral part of everyday life and not a luxury; neither is it a subjective psychological experiment, nor a whimsical exercise in nostalgia.   

The School’s programmes aim to encourage an awareness amongst students that form, pattern and colour as manifested in the various branches of the traditional arts, are not simply pleasing to the senses, or demonstrations of good design, but are created to embody beauty — the beauty of the permanent that shines through into the world of the transient.  The distinction made today between ‘Fine Art’ and ‘Craft’ is entirely modern.  In a traditional society painting, pottery, carpentry, agriculture and music were all expressions of art or making and the artist’s practical activity was integrated, not only into the wider community but also into a more profound order".

upon reading this my deposit was promptly paid and all i had to do was to wait patiently for november.

my greatest surprise was to discover that the course was to be held in david's own studio within a large block of artists studios built under and next to a huge flyover. gone were my romantic dreams of grinding pigments in an old victorian building. that said, the studio was round the back and had a little outdoor area with a table of bonsai trees. once inside there was restful world music playing, coffee brewing and incense burning, along with lots of wonderful books and david's paintings. and it was exciting to be in the intimate setting of an artist's personal studio rather than the neutral classroom environment i was expecting.

and from this point an absolutely fascinating week proceeded where we discovered the miraculous processes by which our raw materials were ground, washed, purified, heated, precipitated and transformed into beautiful pure pigments. we chatted and got to know one another through this fusion of chemistry, cookery, alchemy and magic.


grinding azurite, malachite and chrysocolla in a brass pestle and mortar

raw azurite

washing azurite - a lengthy process that took all week to complete

grinding, grinding and more grinding!

and finally a pure azurite pigment

grinding malachite in brass mortar

grinding persian berries in water and potash

adding alum solution to the strained dye and watching the bubbling reaction

the bubbles continue to grow

madder root

straining the madder root and collecting the dye

extracting the last drops of dye

adding potash solution to finely ground brazil wood

madder root, persian berries, brazil wood and cochineal precipitating with alum to form a pigment from the dye

cochineal hand

gum arabic ready to be ground

yellow ochre ground in gum arabic

minium (red lead) with egg tempera

oak gall ink which darkens on exposure to light


  1. This looks absolutely wonderful! I have died papers etc with natural materials (including henna blueberries and tea) but this looks like a really interesting course. Yum - lucky you… :)

    Love your work!


  2. hi mel, thanks for your interest. yes, it was the most amazing course including far more than i've written about here.... making lamp black by burning different types of oil and capturing the soot for example. i remember dying paper with indigo a long time ago- i love it all! would like to get more of my actual work online- there's a website in progress but it's taking me some time.... best wishes, jo

  3. Hi Jo - I came across your blog while researching for my WIP Mona Lisa's Secret. I really, really enjoyed your post and wanted to thank you for including so many fabulous photos. Looks like you had an amazing time - very hands on...literally (hope that cochineal came out!) Is it ok if I share your post?

    Once again - thank you so much. Kind regards, Cassandra

    ps I am obsessed and enthralled with my research for my historical novel Mona Lisa's Secret... a work of art-related fiction set in Renaissance Florence. I would so love it if you came across and "liked" the page and added, as you saw fit, to my research endeavours. http://www.facebook.com/MonaLisasSecret

    It's a massive job, as I am sure you know, would be great to see those of you will an interest in such stories there to boost motivation


  4. hi cassandra, that's great that you found this post and your book research sounds very interesting - quite a mammoth task but it'll be totally worth it i'm sure. i'd be really interested if you are researching anything to do with paint making, natural pigments and their preparation and find anything unusual. i'm so excited by this and will check out your facebook page and leave you a message incase you don't see this here. best wishes and happy researching, jo

  5. ps. oh yes, it's fine to share my post.

  6. Hello, thanks so much for this! I'm in Australia and shall be doing a 3 month Indian Art course at SOAS at the end of September but I thought I might sneak this 5 day course in the week before! It looks great! Very interesting to see that the venue is under the freeway! :S Not really what I was expecting...which was to be in the wonderful environment that the other courses are held at. Would it take long to get from Russell Square to this place? I wasn't expecting the students to be making the paints themselves, I was thinking it might all be through observation but I guess you don't get the sense of it unless you actually do it, isn't it. Several years ago, I was in India and met a group of Miniature painters who all make their own paints and brushes...it's just what they do. When I said that I use paint in a tube, they laughed at me!!! How funny! :) Anyway, thanks once again :)

  7. hello celeste,
    oh that course sounds wonderful - hope you enjoy it. apart from it's surprising exterior setting, the studio is lovely inside and I really recommend the course. it's very practical and hands on which is great and the tutor is knowledgable and relaxed and there was always interesting music on too! much better to do it yourself and really get a feel for it. it's near paddington so should be quite easy to get to from russell square but i don't know london well. hope you enjoy it!

  8. Hello from Brazil, David!
    Is your book on colour theory out yet?
    kindest regards,
    Rogéria and Gil Queiroz