Learning about medieval pigments

It’s been a while and much has happened since I last wrote. Frankly I have been less than enthusiastic about my every day life. However little binding experimentations at home have been keeping me sane.

In May I had occasion to “go back to school” as it were. Cheryl Porter, director of the Montefiascone Summer School was invited to Canberra by the Tait Bindery to give a week long workshop on the history and making of medieval pigments, entitled “Recreating the medieval palette”.

Day 1 of pigment workshop; inorganic pigments

Day 1 of pigment workshop; inorganic pigments


The 5 day week was broken up into morning lectures and afternoon practical sessions. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for the afternoon sessions, but simply being there, taking notes and asking questions without having to hand in an assignment was heaven for me.

Cheryl knows this stuff inside and out. She has been working in Egypt of late, but has studied the history and manufacture of medieval manuscript pigments for decades. In her spare time she goes insect hunting or nut collecting in far off places, and experiments with pigment making.She knows people and places I could only dream of, and she knows her stuff inside out and back to front. For example, she knows that flesh tones were usually painted in earth colours because Adam came from the Earth, and green was also used quite a lot for this purpose.

We learned about organic and inorganic pigments, pigments from insects and finally discussed conservation issues.

Slide of manuscript                                                         Manuscript detail


We took in a lot of slides; slides that showed how skilled the monks were at their craft, and how laborious it must have been to get even one manuscript finished.

fibres left in the ink

This slide shows some fibres of Brazilwood not fully filtered out and still present in the ink.

To get to the nitty gritty, as it were, let’s start with inorganic pigments. These are made from rocks and minerals, and were on the whole, cheap and easy to manufacturer for the medieval colourist. These occur more often in panel paintings; examples of these would be the ochres(red and yellow), with various percentages of iron, magnesium, aluminium and silica which create different hues.

Here is a good word for all you scrabblers out there: levigation. This is the process by which powedered rock is put in water, shaken, and then filtered, ready for use.The finer the grind, the better the colour. We discussed the shapes of the molecules, their lightfastness and where were the best places to mine the various minerals.

The words ultramarine, lapis lazuli, green earth, azurite, malachite and orpiment flew out of Cheryl’s mouth and into our brains. At the end of the all morning sessions I would nod and smile, having understood every bit of the lectures, been fascinated by the innumerable slides and examples Cheryl pulled out of her hat.

Day 1: 9 pages of notes.

Day 2

Day 2

Organic pigments, on the other hand, come from plants and animals. These are more often used in manuscripts. Their problem is that they tend to turn away from their brightness to a gaudy brown.

Another Scrabble word: clothlet. This was a handy way of travelling with your pigments. Cook your colour in water. Take a plain unmordanted cloth, dip it in and then dry it, repeating as many times as the fabric can take the colour. Once dry you can roll it, fold it, do anything. If you need colour, cut a small piece off and add water; hey presto! colour.

A lake colour: this is a soluble organic pigment that has been turned into an insoluble inorganic pigment by precipitating it onto a colourless mineral base. Pigments have been used since at least the Roman period in Europe, and cochineal (from the Americas) was first used in about 1580

Who thinks these things up? Human beings have been clever for centuries!

Cheryl talked about collecting plants and insects; about how laborious each process was. Of all the medieval dyes, the insect dyes were the most expensive, probably because they came from far away places like the Middle East and the Americas. These were used for dyeing textiles for royalty. There are four main insects from which pigments are derived. Mostly this involves harvesting the old pregnancy cocoons in which the females have died.

On and on the information flowed; about inks, about the differences between ink and pigment (is there any?) Did you know that sepia comes from the ink sacs of cuttlefish and squid?

We got to touch samples of material, such as kermes cocoons, madder roots. We talked about blacks: carbon black, lamp black, ivory black, charcoal black. We talked iron gall ink, very popular for legal documents from about the 12th century as it didn’t smudge (not so good for today as old letters can attest). Iron Gall ink being a mixture of a vegetable extract, a metal sulphate (usually iron) and tannin (usually from gall or tea leaves). Yes gall is a thing: it is the egg of the gall wasp.  The laid eggs were harvested from small oak trees, soaked in water and steeped to get the tannin.

Day 2: 7 pages of notes

Amongst the slides that Cheryl showed were various details of patterns and variety of pigments and colours.


islamic panel

islamic panel

one organic red one inorganic red

one organic red one inorganic red

detail of slide

The above information is a very condensed version of 4 mornings of lectures. This is just a brief overview of a most fascinating subject. I would love to visit Montefiascone in August and re take Cheryl’s course, as well as participate in the other 3 workshops on offer during the month of August. I would encourage you to get to Italy over the summer.

We were very fortunate that she visited Canberra. Cheryl is an amazing lecturer. She was really engaging as an academic and as a person.

At the end of a very satisfying week

At the end of a very satisfying week


1 Comment

Filed under conservation, Uncategorized

One response to “Learning about medieval pigments

  1. fascinating! I always wondered how colours were obtained for illuminated manuscripts. Sounds like the workshop was very informative. Cheryl certainly is a legend in her field. Thanks for the blog


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