What does it mean to have all the colours available to you as an artist?  We just can click and order, browse wondrous shops full of pigments or go onto our devices and swipe, touch and tap our way to glorious spectacular techni-colour.  Trained as a printmaker, my world started in mono-chrome until I was allowed to rummage the pigment cupboards of the Royal College of Art.  It started as a financial benefit – to make your own inks from pigment was free at the college and I could not afford to purchase the expensive tubes of pre-made ink.  Thus I started on a journey of making my own ink.  It kind of fitted with the general toil of a print-room, where physical exertion seems to be part of the soul of printmaking.  Grinding and making ink is a therapeutic, but still arduous task.  However, and importantly, it introduced me to printing inks that were not BLACK.  Hurrah.

And to this day I still like to make my own ink.  However, with my recent role as Artist in Residence of a magical conservation woodland in Hampshire, Hollybank Woods, I have begun to question some of the environmental and ethical morals behind some artistic practices.  In the case of pigments, using toxic lead white, or chemically processed cadmiums, or even rare lapis lazuli mined and shipped from the other side of the globe, a truly responsible action?  I am realising that as an artist we have a huge voice and, I feel responsibility, to the younger generation to showcase a more respectful and sensitive operation in our creative practices.  This does not mean we need quash creativity in itself, more so the opposite.  As soon as you face challenges as a creative practitioner, you often find that you rise to find the most inspiring and original approaches to express.

With this in mind, I wondered if I could start to research and create a range of UK sourced pigments, with the aim of turning them into inks to use in my own works.  I will not have the luxury of using ultramarine blue, but will have to find creative alternatives to this valuable blue pigment.  If I can.  My aim is to create, as best I can, a full spectrum of inks, which I have foraged and researched.  Of course, the ethical dilemmas remain – for instance, if the pigment is mined, to what extent can we justify that?  However, it is all about small steps.  The first is to keep it UK only, ideally South Downs based so it cuts out excess travel.  The second step is to find and process the pigment myself responsibly, if not myself, work with those who have knowledge of pigment and also collect in a responsible manner.  The third step is to process these pigments on a small scale in my own studio by hand using vegetable oils and no chemicals.  And finally, the grand fourth step is to produce a series of works where the colour is solely derived from these pigments.

For an artist who revels in colour, in particular the luminous variety, this is a huge challenge.  A-N are kindly supporting me through a Professional Development Bursary, so that gives me incentive to realise this is worth while, and of value not just to myself but to others.  It is a long-term project, that starts small scale and starts with the individual making a change.

 


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For the last few weeks I have been collecting pigment from the earth of Downland woodland.  This comes in various guises – from clay bases to sand, to pebbles to sodden mud.  However all of these earths are beginning to produce a beautiful range of earth shades from light yellow ochre (clay base) to dark red sienna (sand based).  Nearly all of these have dried to form sample amounts of ink, and my next mission is to heat some of them to create the burnt range of earth pigments.  For instance, Burnt Sienna is purely derived from carefully burning standard Sienna pigment.

When I was about 14 I remember visiting Rousillon, in the South of France, which is famed for its ochre mines.  The mines, now out of mainstream action but still open to visitors, consist of mountainous dunes of soft undulating ochres ranging from pinks to yellows to deep reds.  I, probably illegally, went round and collected small bags of various shades of earth to take home to process into pigment, in that instance, for watercolour paint.  I still vividly remember the instruction that were in the tourist shop on how to correctly process the earth into ultra fine pigment that requires little grinding.  It is this method that I have been using, very successfully, to collect the pigment from the woodland earths.

It is also the start of the major fungi season and on a friends advice who makes natural dyes, I am on the hunt for various types of fungi that can be converted into pigment.  Apparently a rather noxious and smelly affair, but if it works…


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Blue has always eluded artists.  Lapis Lazuli was one of the first blues available for use after huge processing.  But not a ‘native’ rock to the UK.  In fact, there is very little blue available in the UK for pigment.  For use in dye we resorted to woad – a tall woodland plant that after a series of processes similar to processing indigo, a beautiful blue could be acquired for dye.  However, the use of woad as a pigment as opposed to a dye is less common.  Woad should ideally be harvested in the Autumn and processed.  I have a source of woad in a physics garden in Petersfield.  I hope to harvest the leaves for the blue dye and also the seeds to then integrate into the woodland, its native habit.  For this project, I have been able to get hold of Woad pigment from www.woad.org.uk – a phenomenally brilliant company specialising in growing and processing UK woad.

The process of obtaining the pigment from the dye is something I look forward to do with my own woad this Autumn.  For now I have this beautiful blue package to experiment with.  In theory this blue pigment should bind successfully with the oil to make ink.  We shall see.

The other option for blue in the Havant area is to find a sample of Vivianite. Oddly, and amazingly, I was browsing the UCl Pigment Reference Collection and there was a sample Vivianite found in West Leigh Landfill site, which is approximately 1 mile from where I am typing.  Vivianite is a phosphate mineral often found in clay substrate forming near organic materials such as shells or bone.  This would make sense since West Leigh Landfill site is on a London clay seam.  Finding a sample myself is a case of following the seam, and digging sample holes in the most likely area where organic materials may also have become trapped in the clay.  This is a long term project, but certainly worthwhile.  The blue produced is a dark grey-blue, but blue none-the-less.

And why the hunt for blue?  Well if I can find blue, I can make green with the yellow ocres.  It is a primary colour, and thus essential to use.  The experiments continue.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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And so the first ink making has started.

It seemed sensible to start creating a stock of black as this is used readily across a variety of print media.  Black, as I have been finding out, can be made from numerous sources: bone, vine, root, charcoal, mineral, to name a few.  Having collected samples in bone, mineral and charcoal, I have decided to make my stock black from charcoal.  Practically, charcoal is the most readily available raw material I can obtain from the woodland, as well as the fact it is also a bi-product from fires, which in my mind makes it far more sustainable.

Charcoal I have found is a very powdery pigment to grind, but does make a lovely velvety soft black, and in the quantities I need.

Making and grinding the ink was a simple affair since the raw material broke down very readily and did not require much processing.  Which is brilliant.  It is just a case of producing the quantity I need to print the pieces I have in mind for this particular ink.

Charcoal is also a hugely powerful remedy across the world for stomach upsets and its healing properties make the ink a perfect choice for a series of large wall hangings to form the walls of an installation based upon UK deforestation.  The charcoal from Hollybank will offer a symbolic pointer towards a healing process for the forests and land we have already destroyed in this country.  It will be interesting to see how it prints on such a large scale.

Speaking of which, I have a tin of ink to make….

 


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