25 January 2016

Studio Workshop - Paints and Pigments

Artist Jessica Houston and natural pigment samples.

On December 19, I took a studio workshop at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, led by artist and educator Jessica Houston. Ms. Houston led the twenty or so participants through a whirlwind of activities; there was little time for coherent note-taking or reflection. So, this blog post is not a comprehensive report but more a series of images from the workshop - a "taste" of the day's agenda.

Before the  invention, in 1706, of the first commercially available pigment, Prussian Blue, artists had to make their own pigments, from mineral, animal or vegetable sources. Ms. Houston gave us a slide tour through some of the ancient and medieval pigments. The ancient Egyptians used six colors in their art: black, white, yellow, red, blue and green. Each color had religious symbolism and hence was deployed in a very specific way. Black, derived from carbon sources such as lamp black - soot - was the symbol for death and the underworld while white, made from chalk, stood for purity, and so on.

Slide show of ancient and medieval art and pigments.

We visited some of the medieval and ancient Egyptian galleries of the museum, and Ms. Houston indicated which pigments were used in the artwork. For me, this was the highlight of the day, and demonstrated the unique advantage of an art class held at a museum with encyclopedic holdings of art.

The beautiful ancient Egyptian sculpture below is wood coated with plaster, and the pigments used for the woman's dress include malachite green, cinnabar red, and some kind of carbon-based material for the black areas.

Estate figure, ca. 1981 - 1975 B.C.

While the slide show and gallery tour were fascinating, we were there to learn by doing, so we leapt into making our own pigments, using materials as varied as oak galls, spinach, blue flag iris, saffron, and egg shells, among other items.  Each table of three or four participants was in charge of processing a given material.

Oak galls, formed by the larva of a wasp living on an oak tree.

The "oak gall" table had a lot of fun, first smashing the oak galls with a hammer, then grinding them finely using a mortar and pestle. When boiled and mixed with ferrous sulphate, the tannic acid in the oak gall makes a black liquid; the addition of gum arabic to this solution makes a usable ink. Get out your quill pens!

Smashing oak galls.

Another pigment prepared using the mortar is cochineal, made from the carapace of an insect from Central America. Chemically, the pigment is carminic acid; when cochineal powder is precipitated with alum, then mixed with chalk (calcium carbonate), the resulting sludge can be dried, reground and used for purple-y pinks.

Center, a bag of dried bugs; right, a jar of processed cochineal.

Less exotic in its source material is the white pigment made from ordinary hen's eggs. The shells are first soaked in vinegar, so that the inner membrane can be removed, then the shells are crushed on a marble slab, using a muller, the marble cone-shaped thing in the image below.

Eggshells ready to crush.

Eggshells reduced to fine powder.

You may have noticed the vase of iris in the first image above.  This was not just a decorative touch for the classroom - the iris petals were macerated in the pestles and  the resulting pulp pressed through damp coffee filters into small plastic vials. The addition of a small amount of alum creates - not purple as one might expect - but green!  Green pigment can be made using the same macerate-and-strain technique on spinach; no alum required.

Iris petals mashed and strained.

Once we had our pigments we needed the binder - the "glue" that will hold the pigment onto the paper or parchment or whatever substrate is used. Before the invention of oil paint, a common binder was egg yolk - the combination of pigment and egg yolk makes tempera paint, which enjoyed a revival during the Pre-Raphaelite era and is still used by painters today. Below, Jessica shows us how to process eggs to remove the white as well as the vitelline membrane from the yolk, as the blastoderm, the egg white and any membrane are undesirable for paint-making.  Once we had our egg yolk, we mixed it with a bit of water. 

Jessica and egg yolk.

Below are our palettes with the natural pigments we fabricated - the spinach, cochineal, saffron - as well as additional pigments Jessica supplied, such as red and yellow ochre. To each little cup of pigment we added a bit of the egg-and-water mixture. At last, ready to paint!  One suggestion I would make to anyone taking this workshop is to order some paint pot strips and use these in class; when sealed the tempera paints last a long time and then one can take them home and work in the comfort of one's own studio.

Paint palette.

The Met supplied illustration board and transfer paper and using these we transferred images Jessica had provided or just drew our own free-hand. Then, using the provided brushes, we began to paint. The tempera dries quickly, so by the time we had cleaned up our work stations, we were able to pack up our artwork, after a very busy day.

Hard at work.

A talented student's work, from a previous class.

04 January 2016

Fashion and Virtue - Printed Textile Pattern Books 1520 - 1620

On view from 20 October 2015 - 10 January 2016.

In December, I enjoyed a day-long workshop at the Met (watch for future blog post).  After gobbling my lunch break salad, I ran to the Lehman Wing of the museum for a gallop through Fashion and Virtue: Textile Patterns and the Print Revolution.

If you've ever used a commercially-available cross-stitch, knitting or sewing pattern, you have a direct link to this material, never mind the chronological distance.  When, in the Western world, ornamentation in clothing and middle-class social status became linked, producers of embroidered or printed and woven textiles needed fashionable designs to satisfy market demand. 

Portraits by Mielich, 1545, showcase apparel with luxury embroidery (bulletin).

During the same period, new technology in the book arts made bound books printed on paper much more affordable.  Enterprising book publishers assembled designs in printed pattern books; one of the earliest was produced by Domenico da Sera, in 1532, who referred to his printed patterns as "things of small price" but of "great value." (From the Fashion & Virtues bulletin, see below; images scanned  from the bulletin are so indicated.)

The Met has a wonderful collection of Renaissance textile books, which were best-sellers in the 16th and 17th centuries, and a selection of these books forms the core of this interdisciplinary exhibit.

Fragment of embroidered panel (top); design for a dragon, ca. 1600 (bottom).

In the image above the dragon depicted in a piece of embroidered netting, perhaps stitched by a young girl as an exercise, is derived from a pattern book produced about 1600, which is itself a descendant of designs by Giovanni Andrea Vavassore, active from 1530 - 1573.  At the time the use of such a source wasn't viewed as unoriginal but rather as implementing a timeless motif imbued with history and symbolism.

The museum's Print Department began collecting these books early on, aided and abetted by the members of the Needle and Bobbin club, founded by scholar-collectors Gertrude Whiting and Frances Morris in 1916.  To demonstrate the relationship between the pattern books and Renaissance textiles, club member Marian Hague matched reproductions of pages from the pattern books to fragments of textiles corresponding to those illustrations.  These uniformly mounted and framed  pieces formed the basis of a popular exhibit in 1938, a cross-disciplinary show demonstrating the relationship between printed pattern books and the craftspeople who translated those book images into thread creations for home and wardrobe.

Marian Hague's pattern library.
15th c. Italian cross-stitch fragment and its book image inspiration.

Scrim with designs from a pattern book.

Most of the artifacts on display are small, but, as if to show the flexible nature of the books' designs, the exhibit designers created large printed scrims and partitions featuring the motifs.  The sheer scrims delineate the exhibit area and screen light from the Lehman Wing atrium.  The partitions permit examination of the motifs at a large scale and literally symbolize the fact that the small books had an outsize importance in the history of  design. 
Pattern books and scrim.

Exhibit partition with large-scale ornament designs.

Some of the images from the 16th century also provide us with information on traditional techniques and practices.  For example, the image below, which is the cover of the bulletin, written by curator Femke Speelberg, shows four ways in which patterns can be transferred to cloth. (I imagine the first step would have been to copy the design from the book onto some kind of thin tissue paper, as it seems unlikely anyone would rip apart the book itself.)

Before stitching it was necessary to transfer the paper pattern onto cloth. In the upper left corner, a woman uses candlelight, like an early lightbox, to prepare a design on cloth. To the right, another woman has her frame, with stretched fabric, before a bright window. (No idea how the paper pattern was held in place for tracing - pins?) Below left a woman has pricked holes in the paper and uses pounce - a bag filled with powdered chalk - to mark through the holes, a technique we still use today. Finally, in the lower right, according to the exhibit label, a woman is free-hand copying the design. She may have used a grid technique but this detail is not shown in the wood block print.

Detail of a pattern book illustration, ca. 1532 (bulletin).

Many of the motifs are very recognizable today; we still stitch their descendants.  Interlaced linear motifs seemed to be very popular.  The images below are from books printed in Venice (top) and Strasbourg (bottom).  However, the inspiration for the designs was global - sources include Asia and the Middle East -  and the dissemination of the books was widespread too.

Designs by Giovanni A. Vavassore, ca. 1530 (bulletin).

Hans Hoffman,  1556. (bulletin).

Designs by Matteo Pagano, 16th century (bulletin).

The bottom illustration in the image  above, for a technique called punti in aere or "stitches in the air", is from a book with the wonderful title Glory and Honor of Raised Embroidery and Cutwork. According to the bulletin, the popularity of openwork may have led to a resurgence in another branch of thread work, needle  and bobbin lace.  A stand-out artifact in the exhibit is the rebato (collar) below, which features lace made of gold metallic thread.  A similar collar is painstakingly rendered in Peake's oil painting, below, entitled Princess Elizabeth, later Queen of Bohemia

Rebato, French, early 17th cen.

Robert Peake the Elder, ca. 1606 (bulletin).

The lace pattern books are beautiful in themselves; moreover, this was evidently one area where publishers where not afraid to acknowledge collaboration with women designers.  Designs by Isabella Catanea Parasole  were published in Rome beginning in 1595.  Little is known about her, but perhaps her authorship could be publicly identified as skilled needle-working was regarded as a virtuous activity, indeed a necessity, for women.  This is an ancient theme - Emperor Augustus' wife Livia promoted her image as a good Roman housewife, busy at her loom.  In the Christian era, needlework was connected to the Virgin Mary, one reason that convents became centers of lace-making and other needlework.  Producing ornamental textiles provided an artistic outlet, and also a way for women to earn some extra income while remaining in the domestic sphere.

Luis Borrassa, Altarpiece of the Virgin and St. George (detail) ca. 1390-1400 (bulletin.)  

The bulletin, Vol. 73, number 2, in the Metropolitan's quarterly series, is beautifully illustrated and a bargain at $14.95 (less for Met members).