Yesterday I went to a workshop run by artist, Pete Ward, in conjunction with the Soil-Culture Exhibition at Plymouth University Gallery. It was about painting with earth pigments. I was keen to get a greater insight on the processes involved in relation to my own experiments of making inks, dyes and paints using willow and charcoal. Pete is a MA graduate of the Arts and Environment course at Falmouth and his research was around earth pigments, and has done specific research on ‘Bideford Black’- a substance with a history as a pigment. Pete had samples of various pigments in different hues that we were able to handle and try out grinding with a pestle and mortar – it was interesting to experience the very different qualities of the materials- some very soft and easy to grind, whilst others very hard, difficult to get a fine powder, and requiring sieving in varying degrees. Pete described the materials as mud stone, clay, chalk, sand stone, and the Bideford Black as almost like coal. He suggested that anything that marked when wet could potentially make a pigment. Many of his samples came from Fremington, and so those colours are a direct reflection of that place.
Pete talked about making paint in its simplest terms as requiring pigment and a binding medium. On a very simple level this could be water, but would clearly not have staying power. To fix his paints he adds PVA. I suppose I was a bit disappointed to hear this as I have been using acrylic medium with charcoal, but at the same time aware of the petro-chemical/ plastic connections that make it not the most environmentally friendly choice. He did go on to talk about the issues of practical solutions v’s principled ones, and described a project he did in one school where he was able make a piece of work that 500 children had contributed to, which would have been difficult to achieve otherwise. We then spoke about the alternatives- Egg tempera- egg yolk, linseed oil, gum Arabic and rabbit skin glue. We had a demonstration of how to extract the egg yolk without its membrane which was really helpful, a process I think would be quite difficult to describe. It seems most of the binders will work OK if the pigment is slightly moist or damp, but it is really important for the pigment to be dry if you are going to use linseed oil. The morning was full of really useful snippets of information, a chance to try things out and a lot of sharing amongst the participants.
In the afternoon we participated in making a collaborative work using a variety of earth pigments which will later be hung in the gallery. I’m really glad I went; it confirmed that what I have been doing is along the right lines, but has given me some alternatives that I can explore too. It reminded me too of the importance of opportunities to work alongside others that can give you a lift.