Follow this link to Genevieve's instructions on how to prepare Renaissance pigments:
A two-day workshop in recreating the palette of Renaissance painters at the time of Samuel de Champlain, an early explorer and map maker of Eastern Canada, was offered this weekend at the Pontiac School of the Arts in the charming riverside village of Portage-du-Fort, about 100 kilomètres from Ottawa, west along the mighty Ottawa river. Genevieve Samson, book conservator at Library and Archives Canada and specialist in pigments in medieval and Renaissance MSS and books, led the workshop, assisted by local artist Rob HInchley. Her goals for the first day were to instruct participants in the composition and making of 33 organic and inorganic pigments and on the second day, for participants to use a smaller collection of thirteen pigments under Rob's tutelage to paint watercolours of nearby riverscapes where Champlain would have travelled. What a perfect set of interesting and achievable goals! And after this the students would have a show of their work at the art school.
Along the road to the school, July wildflowers abound: Hypericum perforatum, white daisies, blue Bear's Breeches, pink wild dianthus, white Achillea, early Golden Rod and Queen Anne's Lace. Here, going down to the Ottawa river are blue and white blooms appropriately coloured blue and white for Quebec:
The Renaissance Palette and the use of powdered pigments
Using a huge array of powdered pigments originating from all over the world and obtained through Kremer in New York , KAMA in Montreal and some made by Genevieve herself, the class created thirty-three samples of paints in yellows, reds, blues, browns, greens and oranges. We used gum arabic as a binder to make watercolour paints from the pigments; we also learned how to make egg tempera paint with egg yolk and pigment. No tap water but demineralised water should be used to make the paints when water is required.
Genevieve has made efforts to obtain the pigment powders from their places of origin. It was not always possible for sometimes the supplier did not want to reveal sources…In the future she hopes to make her pigments starting from scratch using the soil, the rocks, the plants, etc. But she cautions that steps must be taken to ensure that pigments made directly, e.g., from clay, must be made free of impurities that can cause mold growth, etc.
After each paint sample was mixed and made ready, we entered the colours in the chart:
We learned that painters of the day did not blend colours together but used them pure.
For each student to take home, Genevieve had prepared in advance a set of thirteen pigments of the above colours in small pans in a watercolour tray:
As part of her presentation on pigments derived from plants, Genevieve asked me to share the results of my iris clothlet experiments previously reported here
Painters carried their pigments in white shells like these below because the colour of the shells enhanced pigments so that they “read” correctly. Genevieve showed images in medieval paintings of painters using shells for their pigments.
The top row of shells contains alum and iris pigmented linen clothlets soaked in Gum Arabic (L) and glair AKA egg white (R), with resulting colour; the shells on the bottom row contain clothlets without alum.
Tips, Tricks and Gossip a la Renaissance Pigment class
Genevieve is a warm raconteuse and tells flavourful side stories to keep us working while we mix and grind our pigments. Some examples to share:
– Renaissance painters and dyers were often a cagey lot. We have lost a lot of useful knowledge because of this tendency to keep trade secrets but at least it keeps conservators employed… Trade secrecy is maybe an issue sometimes today, too…
– One “secret recipe” for a dye process contained nasty inclusions like rancid fish oil…We wondered if this ingredient was early “disinformation” in action: the release of sketchy info in the hopes that a competitor would steal the process and suffer loss of business as a result…We speculated suspiciously that we know people can give out their pie recipes but with something missing or a false ingredient, etc…Was that Renaissance dye recipe “leak” like a modern day Wiki-leak? Controversial topics then as now…
– As recently as the 1980's in France, women conservators at the National Library were permitted to carry out only the first steps in restoring bindings. They had to pass the final finishing work to male binders and were not allowed to know how to do the males' work…
— A tip for preserving pigment “cakes”: Do not keep them in ziploc baggies where they get no air. Either vacuum seal the bag or store the pigment cake in a container that lets in some air.Here is some paint that grew mold in a ziploc bag. Gum arabic can go bad, too.
– Tips for making egg tempera paint: Use older rather than fresh eggs; the egg yolk is good for one day only – mix pigment with a new yolk the next day.
Genevieve gave permission to describe freely the content of the class and to publish photos, as did the other students. She said she would like nothing more than to spread the word about the beauty of these pigments and the fascinating processes involved in making them. As a researcher, she is committed to spreading current or new knowledge as well as restoring lost knowledge.
The link below will take you to a slide show on the How To's of Renaissance pigments a la Genevieve Samson:
Genevieve's email address:
The Fleur de Lys (“Lily Flower”) forms part of the Quebec provincial flag and is a design long associated with French history and culture in France and in Quebec. It was used in France at the time of Champlain. Its origins as a symbol go far back to the sixth century when King Clovis of the Franks adopted it in his banner. Did he intend to call this flower a lily, which is the strict meaning of the term? The symbol is pretty obviously not a lily at all but an iris. Perhaps he, as a native speaker of a Germanic language and not French, as a soldier and a conqueror, would not have worried too much about correct French plant identification. What did it matter, lily or iris? I think what most likely mattered was that this flower shows a tripartite separation of petals and in religious imagery, could have been a apt symbol of the Holy Trinity for King Clovis, a new convert to Christianity.
The adorable little lapel buttons below have clever designs within the Fleur de Lys form, demonstrating aspects of Quebec French culture:
Next post: What's new in the garden for eco dyes? And yet another stage in the Iris Camino.