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Back in Black

25 Mar

Hello. This is my third podcast and it’s about where the colour black comes from, with a bit about Swansea’s local industrial history thrown in. It is mostly based on the book:

Colour Travels Through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay

PURITANS AND PIRATES: Booze and Brothels and the Colour Black

Hiya. Rosie Scribblah here. This is my third podcast and it’s called PURITANS AND PIRATES: Booze and Brothels and the Colour Black. And it’s about where the colour black comes from, with a bit of Swansea’s industrial history thrown in.

Swansea in shades of black

But before I start on that I just want to say a little bit about when I was a kid and I lived in a council house in Swansea.  In a bit of Swansea called Landore.  I used to be in my bedroom a lot of the time, looking out my bedroom window.  That’s the sort of kid I was. And all I could see out of my bedroom window was black.  Everything was black.  Immediately behind our garden there was a railway line and then behind that was Hafod Tip. It was a massive copper slag tip that was supposed to be the biggest in Europe at the time.

And then behind that there was the big hill that overlooked the city called Kilvey Hill and that was black.  Everything was black. It was a horrible, desolate, industrial landscape.  But I used to love sitting there, looking out at it and I used to love painting.  We didn’t have much money so I used to nag relatives for Christmas and for birthdays if they could get me a sketch book and a little cheap tin of paints.  And I would sit in my bedroom window, painting what I could see.  And of course it was all black so I learnt to look and see all the different blacks that were there.

The silvery grey black of the railway, the purply black; a sort of purply-blue black of Hafod Tip.  It was slightly iridescent like petrol on puddles in the street.  And then there was the burnt, browny black of Kilvey Hill.  And then behind that there was the changing greys of the sky. It’s typical of Swansea, It’s so rainy the sky’s usually grey.  So as I grew up I got used to all the different blacks I could see in this landscape and I realised that the colour black was much more complex than you’d think.

Pliny and How Drawing Began

Anyway – here’s a bit about the history of Black, mostly from Victoria Finlay’s book Colour: Travels Through A Paintbox

According to Pliny who was an old dead Greek bloke, one of the first artists was a young woman from Corinth in Greece who was having a cwtch with her boyfriend before he went away on a long journey. She noticed his shadow on the wall, cast by the fire. She grabbed some burnt wood from the fire and filled in where is shadow was so she would have a perfect reminder of him.  That’s supposed to be the first recorded drawing. It’s really romantic isn’t it?

Burnt wood was also used in cave paintings around 30,000 years ago and I remember when I was very small, we had a coal fire and my Mam used to save bits of charred wood for me when she was clearing out the ashes, for me to draw with.  We didn’t have much money and she often couldn’t afford to get me stuff to draw with but we had brown paper bags with the groceries because back then, you didn’t get plastic bags.  She’s keep those for me and then she’d keep bits of charred wood from the fire and I’d draw with those. 

And that leads me very nicely into Charcoal, which is burnt wood. For hundreds of years willow charcoal has been the gold standard for drawing.  It is a very ancient crop grown for baskets – at one time everything used to be packed and shipped in wicker hampers.  By the mid 20th century, we had cheap plastic packaging and wicker crops weren’t profitable anymore.

Coates and Charcoal

Anyway there was this bloke Percy Coates, who was a British willow farmer and he was laid up for a few weeks after a nasty fall and had time to think about the future of his willow farm.  Unfortunately for him his land was only good for growing Willow so he didn’t have a lot of options. So he was in his living room and spotted some charcoal by the fire in the grate.  It gave him an idea and he did a bit of research, looking at 14th century instruction manuals and experimented with making willow charcoal in a biscuit tin in the fire.  And it worked and now Percy Coates firm makes some of the finest charcoal in the world.  He managed to save his farm.

The History of Graphite

But there are other blacks too. And another one apart from charcoal that’s very popular is graphite and that’s the stuff in the middle of pencils. People call them lead pencils but they’re not, that black stuff is graphite.  And up until the 16th century, artists in Europe actually did use lead to draw with, but it wasn’t stuffed into a tube of wood.  It wasn’t in pencil form.

Graphite was originally used to make cannon balls when it was called black lead. It became known as graphite when people started using it for drawing.  Queen Elizabeth 1st back in the 15 hundreds, set up a royal mine in Keswick which is where graphite came from, in the Lake District.  And they were protected like a military base because of how important they were to the defence industry, British graphite made the best cannon balls in Europe. And it was very expensive.

People who worked there used to smuggle graphite out of the mines because it was so expensive, but they were severely punished if they were caught.  If you got caught you’d be transported to the colonies as a slave. Or worse. Black Sal, one of the best smugglers, was hunted to death by the owner’s dogs.

Gradually, as cannon balls went out of fashion for wars, a method of putting graphite into wooden tubes was invented in the Lake District and one of the original pencil companies, Derwent, is still there. You can visit the national pencil museum in Keswick. I’ve been, it’s lovely. I can definitely recommend it.

Britain still had the best graphite, and best pencils in the world and there was a lot of international rivalry and at the end of the 1700s the French were trying to find a substitute because they were fed up paying all these high prices for British pencils and a bloke called Nicholas Conte invented a way of combining graphite with clay to make different grades of pencil and it worked, so the company he set up is still world famous for its excellent pencils.

Bideford

There’s one other type of black I want to touch on and it’s called Bideford Black, it’s a mineral that comes from mines in Bideford in North Devon. It feels a bit like a greasy charcoal and it looks like coal. It was mined for a couple of hundred years until the late 1960s when other cheaper blacks started to come onto the international market and the Bideford Black mines closed down. You can still go and get some on the coastline in the area, if you know where to look.

Black Ink

So, that’s black stuff for drawing with but there’s also black ink.

The Chinese and Egyptians were using ink at least 4000 years ago. Mostly it was made from soot mixed with natural binders – gums, resins, oils or alcohol.  The smell of ink was also important because the most common binder was fish skin glue so they used different perfumes like cloves, honey, musk and pine.  You can still buy Chinese inks that are really highly perfumed.

The other main source of black ink in the past was from oak galls, a growth on oak trees.  Wasps lay their eggs in oak trees which form protective growths around them, a bit like an oyster making a pearl.  These growths are harvested and they make a rich black ink because it has loads of tannin, which is also in tea.  It gives you the dark brown in tea.

Black Dyes Puritans and Pirates

That’s a bit about the history of ink, but there was also a big market for black dyes.

A few hundred years ago, in Britain there was this very powerful religious sect called the Puritans who liked to wear black clothes to show how pure and serious they were about their religion. Black clothes sort of represented turning your back on displaying your wealth, it was anti-bling.  But actually, a deep black cloth was almost impossible to make and it was very expensive, there were no natural black dyes in Europe so dyers had to dip cloth into blue, then red, then yellow to get something that looked like black.  And that’s why it was so expensive.

But in the end a dye was found for the religious Puritans clothes.  In Central America, there were trees called Logwood that made very good black dye.  Ironically, it had to be bought from retired pirates, who controlled the trade and spent the money they earned on booze and brothels and the pirate lifestyle. Not at all religious.  It grew in really horrible places, swamps that were infested with mosquitos and all sorts of nasty parasites and creepy crawlies.

Eventually Britain got complete control over the area and it became British Honduras.  But then they used slaves to harvest the logwood for black dye.  So the Puritan’s desire for black clothes to show how pious and religious they were was supplied by the slave trade.

Vantablack

Well that’s the historical stuff but what about nowadays?

Pigments, dyes and inks can be made artificially and there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle around black recently. A British company, Surrey Nanosystems invented a new black called Vantablack, supposed to be the blackest black ever made. A British artist Anish Kapoor bought the exclusive rights to use Vantablack in his art and banned other artists from using it. And that was very controversial and caused quite a fuss.  So another British artist, Stuart Semple, and a team of engineers in the USA, both made black pigments that were even blacker than Anish Kapoor’s Vantablack and put them on sale for anyone to use.  So now you can get the blackest black pigments ever made but they’re not natural.

Aberfan and Hafod Tip

So that’s a little history of the colour black. Back at the beginning I told you about my childhood, growing up in a black industrial environment. I’m glad to say it didn’t stay like that.  Things eventually changed.

First of all there was the Lower Swansea Valley Project which Swansea University started in the early 1960s. They planted all sorts of things onto Kilvey Hill, in huge squares, to see what would grow there. For a few years all you could see was a black hill with a square of yellow, or green, or purple here and there but eventually they found what worked and now, half a century later, Kilvey Hill is a rich, lush woodland with streams and wildlife. It’s beautiful.

What about Hafod Tip? Well, in 1966 the school in a little village called Aberfan in South Wales was engulfed by a coal tip and nearly 150 people, mostly schoolchildren, were killed. An entire generation of children in that village were wiped out.  After that, the government started to remove the tips and I can remember huge machines being set up on the Hafod Tip and over the next few years, the tip went lower and lower until eventually I could see the houses in Hafod from my bedroom window – I could never see the houses before. Eventually the tip was completely gone and they grassed it over and built a school on it.

And the view from my bedroom window changed from shades of black to shades of green. But that’s a colour for another podcast. Hwyl Fawr, see you next time.

Talking About Red

27 Jan
A linocut Sparta Puss in red

Here’s my second podcast. It’s about the colour red and is mostly based on the book Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay

I hope you enjoy listening to it but if you’d prefer to read, here’s a transcript of the podcast.

Hello, Rosie Scribblah here. Welcome to my second Podcast. It’s been a while since my first one but there’s a pandemic going on so things go a bit pear shaped sometimes. I’ve been having a think about what to podcast about and I fancied doing something about Red. That’s the colour Red.

I read this amazing book a while back by Victoria Finlay, called Colour: Travels Through The Paintbox. She’s a really good storyteller so I thought I’d share some of her adventures. 

Red

Sooo – Red. Well, it’s a fundamental colour.  It’s the colour of blood.  It’s the colour of lust and rage and love and power and any kind of heightened emotion. In the Comanche language the same word is used for colour, circle and red, which shows how important it is to them. And of course it’s the colour of the dragon of Wales. 

But making red for paints and dyes isn’t an easy business. Blood is obviously red but once spilled it quickly turns to a murky brown so it’s no use as a permanent dye.  The search for something which matches the richness of blood that can also be used for painting pictures and dying fabrics is almost as old as history itself.

Chemical pigments

Before chemical pigments were invented by the Victorians, colours came from nature, from animals, plants and minerals and elements.

And for thousands of years the most popular red in what we now call the Western world came from an insect called the Kermes, which comes from the Mediterranean and lives on the Kermes oak trees. They were crushed up and used by the ancient Greeks and Romans as a very expensive red dye. And from this Kermes we get the words crimson and carmine, which are both types of red. 

Another very expensive red was vermilion, which the Ancients called cinnabar. The Roman author Pliny wrote that is was the blood spilled from battles between elephants and dragons. But it’s a deadly mixture of sulphur and mercury, which is really poisonous. The Romans loved it so much that they used it in paintings, in frescos on their walls and in lipstick even though they knew it was so dangerous. But then these days people have Botox, a well-known deadly toxin injected into their faces, so who are we to judge?

The cochineal bug

Meanwhile, in the Americas they had a much richer red. The cochineal bug grows on prickly pear plants. Cultivating it is a delicate balance because left to their own devices the cochineal bugs will completely destroy the cacti.

To get at the pigment, cacti plants are infected with the bugs for 5 months at a time and then they leave the plants to rest for a few months. The insects are harvested by blowing them off the plants into bags using compressed air tipping them into massive steel vats and pulping them.  There’s no nice way of saying it. Trillions of insects die to make your chicken tikka masala look like it does. Because, cochineal is the common name for the permitted food colouring E120 and it’s in most foods that are red and pink, like processed ham and also in cosmetics like lipstick.

The deep red you get from cochineal bugs has always been very valuable.  Cardinals in the Catholic Church used to have hats dyed with it and Mary Queen of Scots wore a dress dyed with cochineal when she was beheaded. 

The ancient Incas

The ancient Incas had a very sophisticated symbolic colour system. Black was time, yellow was gold, blue was the sky and they used red to represent themselves.  Different types of red would mean different aspects of their empire. They used a sophisticated system of knotted cords to communicate across great distances.  A red cord tied with knots at the top would mean a great battle and blood red knots at the top would show how many of their own people had died. 

When Europeans stumbled across the Americas, gold wasn’t the only thing they wanted.  They were amazed by the red they found there.  It was richer than the ones they were used to and they didn’t waste any time, muscling in on the trade in cochineal and very quickly this new, brighter version of red totally swamped the European world.  Everybody wanted it for clothes and cosmetics.  At the time only the Spanish knew how the red was made and they guarded the secret fiercely.  The colour was imported into Europe as a reddish brown powder, so no one knew it was bugs, and the Spaniards tried to stop any other nation from travelling to the source of their supplies in the New World. 

Thiéry de Menonville

By the 18th Century, other nations wanted in on the Red action. The French sent Thiéry de Menonville to South America to find out.  The Spanish were suspicious of him and tried to send him home but he escaped and headed into the interior of Mexico.  Once he had discovered the secret, he then had to get the insects home to France. Because they would not settle on a plant once they had been removed, the plants complete with insects would have to be kidnapped and kept alive all the way back across to Europe. And, if he’d been caught the Spanish customs officers would have burnt him at the stake. That was their penalty for industrial espionage back then.

After months of searching and risking death from the Spanish, from bandits, disease and wild animals he got back to the French controlled island of Haiti where he lived. And then he found the cactus and bugs growing just round the corner from his house. Which must have been annoying. But it broke the Spanish monopoly of the cochineal trade.

The red produced by cochineal is so gorgeous that the 19th century British painter Turner used it despite being told time and again by his fellow artists, customers and even the manufacturers of his paints that it would fade.  And it did. And because of this many of the great Turner paintings that we see in museums are literally shadows of their former selves, because the reds have faded so much.

Turner

But he wasn’t that bothered. Turner was well known for not caring about his finished work and left a lot of his paintings in terrible conditions. He even ripped a tear in one painting to make a catflap for his seven Manx cats.  He was such a passionate, spontaneous artist that he wanted the reddest red at the moment he was painting and didn’t think of anything else. 

But he also used another popular red at that time, red lead. The proper name for it in its natural state is Minium but it can be made by heating up white lead, which is also really poisonous. It’s quite an orangey red and it was so widely used by Persian and Mughal artists that their work became known as miniatures.  The fact that the paintings are also usually very small is just a coincidence.

So what other reds did Turner get to use? In one of his most famous paintings, of the ship The Fighting Temeraire, he used iodine scarlet, which was developed by the inventor Humphrey Davey from the mineral iodine.  But like the others, it fades and the painting is now it’s just a pale reflection of when it was created. 

Post boxes

Finding a red that didn’t fade was also a problem for the Post office in the 1800s. Post boxes were originally painted green, but people complained that they kept bumping into them, so the Post Office painted their pillar boxes red. Unfortunately, they quickly faded to pink and had to keep being repainted until a good, colour fast synthetic red paint was invented.

So there we are, the colour Red – I hope you enjoyed hearing about colour as much as I do. Like I said, I got most of this from the book Colour: Travels Through The Paintbox by Victoria Finlay. Net time I’ll podcast about another colour – black maybe …. Or purple …. So many to choose from. Hwyl fawr, Bye….

A Chance To Own One Of My Artworks

I have some small screenprints for sale, inspired by my drawings of the taxidermy collection at Swansea Museum. I have given these antique artifacts a modern twist by combining them with images of rubbish – old fruit nets, bubble wrap and plastic – highlighting the problem of human pollution and how it affects wildlife.

To buy my work on the Swansea Print Workshop site please click the image to the left and to see the complete image.

Inspired by drawings of the taxidermy collection at Swansea Museum. I have given these antique artefacts a modern twist by combining them with images of rubbish – old fruit nets, bubble wrap and plastic – highlighting the problem of human pollution and how it affects wildlife.

20 percent of the cost of each screenprint sold goes to support Swansea Print Workshop, which receives no public funding.

Käthe Kollwitz by Rosie Scribblah

25 Nov

Here is my first podcast.  It is about one of my favourite artists Käthe Kollwitz.  Here is a screen print I did of her.  To own one of my series of silkscreen portraits celebrating great but often neglected women artists please click here.

Please see below the transcript of the podcast.

Most of us have a hero and Käthe Kollwitz is mine.

She was a German artist born in the 1860s at a time when women were definitely not supposed to become artists. It was a very blokey thing to do. But she came from a radical and idealistic family and grew up with this very strong sense of social responsibility.

At first, her father was a lawyer but it really messed with his head and he gave up a comfortable middle class lifestyle and retrained as a stone mason.

Kathe’s family recognised her incredible talent when she was a child so they paid for her to have drawing and printmaking lessons from a local engraver, which was very unusual at that time. I mean, she was a girl.

And then, when she was 18, her family sent her to art school in Berlin, which was very radical, a teenage woman on her own away from home, in those days.? And while she was in art school she got involved in socialist and feminist politics.

She finished her course and when she was 24 she married a socialist doctor, Karl Kollwitz, who was very principled and although they could have had a very comfortable lifestyle, instead Karl ran a clinic in a working class area where people paid a little bit every week, a kind of medical insurance. Kathe often helped him in the surgery and saw for herself the terrible effects of poverty.

Queen Victoria

This was at the end of the 19th century – Queen Victoria was on the throne over here and the lives of working class people across Europe were short and hard. Just think of the books written by Charles Dickens – the poorest people had awful lives.

Kathe was so talented – she could have made loads of money painting portraits for rich people but instead, she decided to become a printmaker, mainly doing etchings and lithographs.

That decision was because of her politics. Two reasons, one was because you can make lots of prints from an etching plate, so you can sell them far more cheaply that the cost of one painting, so it meant that people who were not very wealthy could afford to buy her art.

And the second reason is that there’s a long tradition of political printmaking and that suited her – she could bring her radical political beliefs into her work.

And what sort of things did she make art about?

Well, lots of political prints about the struggle of working people but also she did lots of portraits of working men and women. Now bear in mind that at that time, having a portrait done was something that only the wealthiest people could afford, and here was Kathe, drawing and making etchings of the ordinary working people who came to her husband’s surgery. That was radical.

The other subject she did a lot of work about was death. There was no medical insurance, nothing like the NHS. Medical science wasn’t all that advanced. There were no antibiotics and masses of people died from infections that wouldn’t bother us now. And lots of women died giving birth. And huge amounts of children died when they were babies and toddlers. Even in better off homes. As the wife of a doctor she was surrounded by death.

Now because her work was so political, she was very unpopular with the rulers of Germany, the First Reich, Emperor Wilhelm, Kaiser Bill, who started World War 1. He was violently opposed to any political art, he called it gutter art.  But despite that, her art very well thought of at home and abroad.

When World War 1 started, her much loved youngest son, Peter, volunteered to join the army. His father didn’t want him to but he persuaded Kathe to let him go. Unfortunately he was killed in battle just a few months later, when he was 18. Her grief was terrible and she couldn’t do any art for some years. Like so many parents across Europe she struggled with her personal tragedy.

The Great War

The Great War ended in 1918 and Germany was a defeated and broken country, sons and husbands and fathers died in the trenches and left a nation of women and children, which happened in the other the allied countries as well.

At the end of the day, there were no winners, only losers.

By this time the First Reich was gone and the Weimar Republic came into power. They thought a lot of Kathe and she had loads of major exhibitions and awards, she became a Professor and she was the first woman ever to be elected to the Berlin Academy of Art.

Then in the 1920s she made a series of incredible and very upsetting prints, woodcuts. I think during this time she was working through the grief of the war and losing her son.

She did one image called “This is The Sacrifice” and it’s obvious that her anguish comes through the way she has hacked the wood away to reveal the painful image underneath, a primeval image of the tragedy of motherhood, giving birth to beautiful baby boys only for them to be swallowed up as sacrifices in war. It’s so painful and so different to traditional depictions of war which glorify cruelty and heroism.

Her son Peter was butchered along with hundreds of thousands of sons, lovers, husbands, fathers, uncles and nephews by a stupid aristocratic family quarrel. The German royal family lived in comfortable exile after the war, while the working classes, devastated by WW1, struggled to find work, food, warmth. Again she does loads of art about this, usually showing the situation from women’s point of view.

Hitler and the Nazis

But these were desperate times and although there was a huge anti-war feeling after World War 1, as the 1920s went on and people lived in terrible conditions in Germany, that anti-war feeling was starting to change, and Hitler and the Nazis were on the rise.

They came to power in 1933 and established The Third Reich and Kathe’s work becomes even darker, facing the horrors of her country’s descent into fascism with horrific images, very Gothic and disturbing.

Many artists suffered under the Nazis, labelled degenerate, some killed themselves, some disappeared into concentration camps, some went into exile. Nobody was safe but Kathe’s style in the last years of her life became very free, almost abstract, because she couldn’t be political in her work anymore, because she would have been killed.

Self Portraits

So she did a whole load of self-portraits in these last few years. And you can see the sadness in her face. Germany was about to start another World War.  She’d lost her young son Peter in World War 1 and then her young grandson, also Peter in World War 2 and, now in her 70s, she withdrew from public life and into her own inner world.

Kathe died in 1945, shortly before the war ended.

Why isn’t better known? Well she’s a woman! That speaks volumes. And she’s German and Germans were not popular for decades after World War 2. But over the past few years her work has reached beyond Germany and she’s finally getting credit for being one of the great artists of the 20th century.

Finally, Kathe and her wonderful work is being loved again. I hope you look her up online and that you get to love her as much as I do.

Käthe Kollwitz

Well, that’s the story of Kathe Kollwitz. If you want to look her up, her name is spelled K. A. T. H. E.  K. O. L. L. W. I. T. Z.

I hope you enjoyed my first podcast. The next one is going to be about another artist that inspires me …. Frida Kahlo. In the meanwhile, look out for me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I’m Rosie Scribblah. Hwyl Fawr.

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