Pigment making refers to the creation of coloured insoluble particles for use as colourants. Pigments made from mineral or organic raw materials are transformed into colouring compounds using a range of different techniques which use both mechanical and chemical procedures.
|Historic area of significance||Worldwide|
|Area currently practised||England: London, Nottingham, The Lake District
Wales: Forest of Dean
|Origin in the UK||Archaeological evidence from Pickering sites of Star Carr and Flixton 9000 BC and from Red Lady of Paviland, an archaeological site in Wales, dating back 10,000 years ago.|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||7 commercial pigment makers and teachers producing a wide range of colours.
N.B. This figure does not include artists making pigment and using them in their own work.
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||0|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
The use, extraction and hand-making of pigments for use on the body, in art and more widely within culture is worldwide. There are areas of the world that have rich geology that are known for their mines and subsequently the name of the place enters the nomenclature of the colour itself e.g. Sienna pigments.
- Roussillon, France. Where they still manufacture iron-oxide rich earths into bright pigments.
- U.K, Oxford. An earth pigment called ‘Oxford Ochre’ was once manufactured in Shotover.
- Bideford Black – Mineral Black made in Bideford, U.K.
- Wales, Florence Mine
- ‘Rosso Inglese’ an iron rich earth pigment made minerals from Clearwell was used for the Sistine Chapel and is listed in the Vatican receipts archive, according to Jonathan Wright (free miner of Clearwell Caves).
Pigments are also used widely by Indigenous communities of America, Australia, Hawaii, New Zealand, Polynesia and East Africa.
Since Palaeolithic times, pigment making and its use has been important for human expression. In the U.K. we have two archaeological sites that suggest the use of hand-made pigments dates back to 9000 BC or 11,000 years ago.
These are pigments made from coloured rock, clay or sediment and are some of the most ancient forms of pigment.
For example, red ochre (ruddle, reddle) is an earth pigment that has had a multitude of different uses throughout time in the U.K:
- Mixed with animal fat and used to preserve sails in the south of England (Devon/Cornwall).
- Used as a polishing compound for lenses during the 1800s.
- Used to mark sheep by farmers (ruddle).
- Used in decoration, wall paintings, fresco, plasterwork see ‘Oxford Ochre’.
- Pigments made from dyes or ‘lake pigments’.
These are pigments that have been derived from a range of natural plant and animal dyes. A number of different manual and chemical processes converts the dyes into insoluble, more chemically stable pigments.
Lake pigments have been produced since Roman times in the U.K.
Uses of pigments in the UK today
Pigments are important substances that impart colour to other materials, most often used as surface colourants, they have a clear geographical and cultural link to a sense of place. They can be made from mineral origin, such as iron-rich clays, or of animal and plant origin as dyes converted into lake pigments. Lake pigments are made from natural dyes that have been rendered insoluble by precipitating them onto a substrate particle; this is a lengthy process that requires hand mixing, grinding, washing and drying amongst other processes.
The use of pigments to create paint and ink are associated with many cultural practices in the U.K:
- Illumination/ icon painting/ folk art/costumes
- Fine art practises: painting, printmaking (lithography, screen printing) hand tinting photographs etc.
- Architectural decoration: painting of houses with local earth (exterior and interior) e.g. Oxford ochre
- Botany (plant-based pigments)
- Dyeing textiles with organic dyes
- Re-enactments/ historical societies
Pigments are used in a wide variety of applications; for making paint, inks, or tinting plaster, fresco, ceramics, for colouring resin and varnishes. A pigment is a colouring material, usually a fine particulate that is insoluble and used in conjunction with a binder in order to make a paint. The craft of hand manufacturing historical pigments involves numerous processes and skilful hand techniques to extract clean and bright colourants from raw materials.
The following processes go into creating colour from these raw materials (these steps are all done by hand).
Processing Lake pigments:
- Identify and locate dye plant, hand-collect plant material (petals, stalks, leaves, seeds or roots).
- Process plant material (removal of unwanted parts, washed and cut into small pieces or dried and ground into a powder).
- Ferment plant material by soaking in water (sometimes with the addition of an acid).
- Put plant material into fresh water and discard old.
- Keep plant cuttings in warm or simmering water for a period of hours.
- Remove plant material from water and filter using paper filters or sieve through a fine cotton or muslin cloth.
- Weigh out alum (used as the ‘base’ to attach the dye to) and add this in a warm solution to plant decoction.
- Weigh alkali (used to ‘fix’ the dye to the alum substrate particles) and add to decoction.
- Stir solution until chemical reaction finishes.
- Filter and wash the precipitated, solid pigment.
- Dry wet pigment on a non-absorbent surface.
- Once dry, grind with a pestle and mortar.
- Sieve pigment to create a uniform and fine particle size (using a 50 mesh sieve).
Processing Earth pigments:
- Locate clay, rock, or sediment rich in iron oxide.
- Collect samples by hand using specialist trowel and put into labelled containers.
- If sample is a soft clay put it in a bucket and mix with water.
- Hard rocks need to be broken down by using different kinds of hammers and chisels to isolate striations of colour within their makeup. Sometimes rocks are placed in canvas bags and crushed with hammers.
- Remove any large organic material (leaves, twigs etc) by hand.
- Remove any large mineral impurities by hand (gravel, flint nodules etc).
- Sieve sample through a series of coarse to medium sieves.
- Let the sample settle to the bottom of the container and pour off the water leaving pigment sludge at the bottom.
- Add fresh water and repeat washing of mineral sample to remove small organic particles and soluble impurities (e.g. salt).
- Levigate sample. This is to isolate different particle sizes in the sample. This is done by adding water to sample before the particles have settled out fully. The water containing the finest samples (that are in suspension) is then poured off into a separate container.
- Allow water to evaporate from sample or spread pigment sludge sample on a non-absorbent surface.
- Once dry, grind with a pestle and mortar.
- Sieve pigment to create a uniform and fine particle size (using a 50 mesh sieve).
The pigments created from these processes can then be mixed with an appropriate binding medium to create various paints and inks or mixed into other materials (like plaster) to tint them.
These processes are by no means representative of the many different ways that pigments can be created but help to identify how pigment making uses repeated movements of the body to create colour (smashing, grinding, washing etc).
Local earth colours will produce different colours and different grain sizes in the pigments due to differences in the geology of the areas. So pigment making is linked intrinsically to place or locality.
- Paint-making / paint milling
- Painting with historical pigments
- Sand art: creation of 2d or 3d works of art using coloured sand or coarse earth pigments as artworks in their own right but also as souvenirs (e.g. Alum Bay sands)
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Skills issues – There are very few full time pigment makers practising their craft in the U.K. However there are a growing number of artists and other practitioners who are making pigments for their own use as a key part of their work, or artworks.
- Skills issues – There are insufficient full time craftspeople to transmit the craft skills to the next generation.
- Training and recruitment issues – There are no current qualifications for this craft and there are no training funds that are aimed directly at this craft.
- Market issues – Because hand making pigments take a lot of rarefied knowledge, time and processing, for the end user they can be expensive to purchase, in comparison to cheaper imported mass produced colours, thus this craft has a low financial viability.
- Market issues – There is a demand for handmade pigments made to historical British recipes but at the moment there isn’t enough support for this craft to create a larger market demand. This is also linked to the exposure this craft has within the wider cultural heritage of the U.K.
- Supply of raw materials, allied materials and tools – The prices of raw materials, tools and running costs of machinery (if used), energy prices and rental costs of studios/workshops have greatly increased since Brexit and affect the viability of the craft.
- Ageing workforce – Two of the remaining manufacturers are of an ageing demographic, so there are risks that skills and recipes may be lost. As there are no grants or awards aimed to support this craft younger practitioners lack financial support.
- Legislative issues – PPE equipment (e.g. respirators to inhibit fine particulates being breathed in or ingested and air purifiers/extractors) is expensive.
- Global and geopolitical issues – Brexit has had both positive and negative effects in that people are looking for more sustainable local colour but raw materials are more difficult to source.
- Other – Availability of primary resources of historical recipes or other research.
Craftspeople currently known
- Lucy Mayes, London Pigment
- Pip Seymour & Rebecca Wallace, Wallace Seymour – see their pigment list here
- Keith Edwards, Keith Edwards Pigments – has been hand manufacturing pigment for pigment retailers such as L. Cornelissen & Son and Kremer Pigments for over 30 years.
- Florence Mine
- Clearwell Caves – One of the earliest and last ochre mines in the UK. A small amount of yellow, brown, red and purple ochre is still mined by
- Jonathan Wright, a freeminer in the Forest of Dean.
- David Cranswick
- Caroline Ross
- Catalina Christensen
- Ruth Siddall
- UCL, The Slade: ‘Materials Research Project’ is a course led by Jo Volley as part of the BFA there. Lucy Mayes and Ruth Siddall have both taught workshops on pigment making.
- City & Guilds of London Art School and The School of Traditional Arts have previously run workshops on this subject run by David Cranswick.
- Museums/galleries/ institutions are starting to run workshops relating to pigment making to support their art history courses on colour. Lucy Mayes is teaching pigment making at The V&A and Kew Gardens this year.
There are many artists that use pigments as a part of their own individual practices, and a few that collect their own pigments but very few utilise this craft as their main income-generating activity. There is a definite trend within the arts to be more sustainable and use ethically sourced materials. This is something that is of the utmost importance; the artist must have control over the quality and sourcing of their materials in order to produce authentic, ecologically mindful work. The mining of specifically toxic heavy metals such as cobalt, cadmium and lead-based pigments (found in modern pigments and commercially made paint), rather than iron-rich earth colours, is detrimental to the environment. Toxic heavy metals are present in many pigments available to purchase from art shops world-wide. The production of modern synthetic pigments in a laboratory environment also brings up issues of safe waste removal/ pollution.
- UCL/ Slade: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/slade/news/2020/03/inaugural-world-pigment-day
- Dr Ruth Siddall/ World Pigment Day: https://www.instagram.com/worldpigmentday/?hl=en https://ucl.academia.edu/RuthSiddall/ https://wildpigmentproject.org/ruth-siddall
- The Pigment Compendium: https://www.routledge.com/Pigment-Compendium/Eastaugh-Walsh-Chaplin-Siddall/p/book/9780750689809
- Patrick Baty: Historical paint consultant
- David Cranswick: https://www.davidcranswick.com/
- Clearwell Caves ochre mining: https://clearwellcaves.com/about-us/#ochresection
- Florence Mine Arts Centre: https://www.florenceartscentre.com/
- Pip Seymour and Rebecca Wallace: https://www.wallaceseymour.co.uk/
- Nicholas Walt – owner of L. Cornelissen & Son pigment retailer