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

14 November 2012

you can't press flowers with a kindle....

i'm sitting here on the train to london with my pile of old books. the lady sitting next to me is reading on a kindle. i barely know what one is and i'm immediately repelled by this grey plastic box with a grey plastic screen housing darker grey words. anyone who knows me will be aware that i'm a big fan of grey- dove grey, slate grey, warm greys, cool greys, the pale greys of dusk, the rich charcoal greys of night and the watery light greys of the break of day. books are amazing. the colours, the feel, the weight, the texture, the smell, the craftmanship, the intrigue, the unexpected....... all this is lost with a plastic box.

a book has a history- the many thumb prints of many hands over many years. creases and tatters, scribblings and smears- a barely visible watermark of tears. open an old book and drink in the scent- often musty or smoky, mouldy and damp. open a new book and breathe in the smell- the smell of the press, the smell of the ink, of the paper, of the factory. feel the texture of the boards- the battered covers, the fluffy worn corners, the brittle skin of the elderly dust jacket. or feel the smooth, crisp, perfect cover and that first crease in the spine made by your hand as you explore from jacket through to skeleton, deeper into the body and finally through to the heart.

paper is beautiful- delicate and translucent like vellum, light and fragile like a butterfly's wing or coarse and elephant-wrinkled like a gunnera leaf in late autumn. words are woven in the type faces of the time- a thread leading back to another decade, another era. the nostalgia of childhood, the nostalgia of a grandmother's childhood or something even older. colours and design place a book in time- quaint and dated, antique and revered, fun and quirky, contemporary and cutting edge. there are scribblings, dedications, names, dates and affection- the celebration of birthdays, christmases and etched reminders of events in lives long gone. books as prizes, books hard saved for and books as surprises.

and finally, the unexpected. the little treasures trapped between the pages- the long lost bookmarks, the letters of love, the notes, the lists, the scraps of card, the pressed flowers. fragments of a life. books to read in baths, books that have travelled the world, books that have lined the libraries of the soul. books piled high, balanced precariously, a temporary stair for an extra arm's reach. books for pressing, supporting, displaying, insulating, warming. books for burning, altering, lending, shredding and sharing.

why would i want a kindle?

13 November 2012


every time i go to 'steckfensters' i have a bizzare and amusing experience. not surprising really as this wonderful shop full of antiques and curiosities in penzance is bound to attract the eccentric and curious. taxidermy creatures abound, a darlek, an array of vintage bicycles and weird and wonderful objects are crammed into this unique shop.

i totally failed to buy a mackerel box i fell in love with (i wrote a post about it back in june). at that time i was told it was £40. by the end of the summer it has gone up to £60. the next week i was told it wasn't for sale and the following week i was told that it had been sold. so when i spied a rather beautiful old 'falmouth and district laundry' box my instinct was to avoid asking the price as i thought it could be complicated.

during my last visit i was looking at some old books. out of the corner of my eye i noticed an elderly man lurking next to me. i glanced over at him, he smiled and said, "i bet this shop is right up your street isn't it". it wasn't long after my exhibition when i'd spent a week chatting to a huge number of people and the following saturday about three people i didn't know smiled and said hello to me in sainsburys. i thought to myself, i wonder if this is the beginning of the dizzying heights of local fame! i wondered if i knew this man, if maybe he'd come to my exhibition as he acted as if he knew me. i resumed the conversation to try and discover more and we chatted about all the amazing things in the shop. he followed me around as i examined various objects and when i left my details regarding the mackerel box, he leant over and looked at my name. the lady in the shop had just phoned her husband who had said the box was no longer for sale. disappointing. the old man piped up "well, go for it jo- give him a higher offer. if you really want it, it's worth it". i explained that it wasn't for sale and was slightly alarmed that he was now using my name. "so jo, " he kept saying and managed to turn the conversation to his tango lessons. it was becoming quite amusing and i could see where it was heading so i let him continue. "so jo, do you dance?" - "no," i said, "absolutely not". and he looked a bit disappointed and as i left he said, "bye jo, bye". 

when i went in yesterday i was lucky enough to overhear another conversation that made me smile. another elderly man but this time quite posh came striding in. "i see you have nearly what i want but it's not quite right". the owner of the shop: "oh what's that then?" posh man waving his hand towards a vintage mannequin speaks in a commanding manner: "i'm looking for a girl, a nice looking girl, for the back of my (i forget what he calls it but it sounds like a flash open top vintage car). he explains about it having a special fold out back seat which he sadly never gets to use but if he had a "girl" it'd be a different matter. "yar, must be sitting, must be, you know, nice looking". shop owner: "well, it's very rare to find one sitting. does it need to have legs?" posh man: "oh yes! she must have legs!" and he turns to leave. "well keep an eye out for me" and he strides out. i burst out laughing.

i return to the laundry box. the shop owner comes over and i explain that i was the one who tried to buy the mackerel box. "oh, that was a tricky one" he says. "you see i was offered £150 for that. it went to a museum". i think, that's very strange, as when i last came in his wife said to me, "your box. it's gone. he sold it to a girl for £65 just a couple of days after you were here". so i tell him that that's not what his wife had said. and he quickly replies, "well, that was just a cover story". there's definitely something a bit fishy going on! he asks me if i live in falmouth and i tell him i do. "well, this is the box for you then! the other one was from newlyn". i admire his sales tactic, i go along with it and although i much preferred the mackerel box i come away with a rather beautiful laundry box for £20.