Tag Archives: art podcast

Beer, Poop And Corpses

22 Nov

BROWN

Hiya. Rosie Scribblah here with another ten minute podcast, so grab a cuppa tea and a biscuit and sit back. This one is about the colour Brown and most of it I read about in Victoria Finlay’s book “Colour: Travels Through The Paintbox” and also some bits and pieces from round and about.

First of all a joke from when I was a kid. What’s brown and sticky? A stick. Okay, I’ll get my coat.

Pink Floyd

Brown is a bit of an odd colour. It’s all around us in nature, but it’s not on the colour spectrum. If you think about the album cover of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon”, that’s a spectrum. No brown on there.

Now here’s a bit of colour theory. Most colours we see are either primary – red, blue and yellow, or secondary which are mixtures of two primaries. So, red and yellow give us the secondary colour orange; yellow and blue make the secondary colour green; and blue and red mix up the secondary colour purple. Browns are made by mixing two secondary colours, not two primary ones. So brown is a bit odd.

Yum Yum Chewing Gum

When I think of brown I remember a rhyme we kids used to chant in junior school, it goes “Yum Yum Chewing Gum, Stick It Up …..” I won’t go any further because it gets unpleasant. But brown IS a colour that’s associated with unpleasant things.

The other thing I remember about brown, is going to art galleries and wandering through room after room of 18th century British landscapes which were almost all brownish. Which isn’t realistic at all. The British landscape is full of greens and blues, whites and purples, yellows and hot pinks in Spring and Summer, moving into oranges and russets and reds in Autumn. And I never really liked these nasty looking brownish paintings, they looked a bit ychi but I could never put my finger on it. Then I found out that the brown paint they used back in those days was made from ground-up human corpses. That’s right. Dead people. Dead people smeared all over the walls of the major galleries in our country.

Ancient Egypt

How did that happen? When Europeans started digging up Ancient Egypt from the 1700s onward, they dug up huge amounts of mummies. And someone got this idea that if they ground up these mummified corpses and mixed the powdered cadavers with a bit of oil, it would make a rather smashing brown paint that would be loved by landscape painters for the next couple of centuries. They were selling “Mummy Brown” in Paris from as early as 1712.

Ychyfi!!!!!! That is so gross!!!!!

Now, the Egyptians mummified their dead because they thought their Ka or spirit double would return at some point. And go back into their bodies. So, if they returned now, they’d have a job finding their ground up bodies smeared on paintings right across Europe. 

As well as gross, it’s also immoral. Rich countries robbing the graves of poorer countries and stealing their ancestors is beyond the limits of decency. It’s disgusting.

It wasn’t nice to make or use either. It’s a thick bitumen-like gooey stuff and there’s a story about a delivery of Mummy Brown from the early 1800s. And I quote ….

 “It arrived in a mass, containing and permeating rib bone and so on – of a strong smell resembling Garlic and Ammonia – grinds easily – works rather pasty – unaffected by damp and foul air”.

But let’s get away from all that nastiness.

There are loads of shades of brown paint, from the palest beige to the deepest sepia.

But brown is also very common for dyes and inks as well, because there are loads of things in nature that make brown dye.

Cuttlefish

After the 18th century most brown ink was made from sepia which comes out of cuttlefish when they’re scared. Go BOO to a cuttlefish and there’s your ink.

There’s also walnut husk ink – I make my own and it’s gorgeous. That’s made form the fleshy fruit around the walnut, not the walnut itself. If you look at a walnut tree, it’s covered in smallish fruit looking like apples and that’s what you use to make the ink. And then there’s oak apples or oak galls, which are growths on oak trees caused by wasps and they get made into ink too.

So where else does brown come from?

Well, going back even further, brown was made from the earth, from coloured clay soils. There are loads of places to dig these up all over the world.

Umber and Ochre

There’s Umber. Which is a natural dark brown made up of an earthy pigment of iron oxide (rust) and manganese oxide. It’s named after Umbria, a mountainous region of Italy where it was historically produced. And has been used by humans since the neolithic period and it appears in cave drawings.

Then there’s Ochre, which comes from the Greek word meaning ‘pale yellow’ but it’s come to mean something browner, or earthier. And it’s probably the one people have heard about the most – it was the first colour paint. It is the colour of the oldest cave paintings. It has been used all over the world since painting began and it is still used today.

In classical times the best ochre came from the Black Sea city of Sinope, in what is now Turkey. It was so valuable it was stamped with a special seal and was known as Sealed Sinope. Later the words sinopia or sinoper became general terms for reddish brown ochre.

“Red Indians”

The first European settlers in North America called the indigenous native people “Red Indians” because they painted themselves with ochre. They believed that it protected against evil because it symbolised the good elements of the world. It also kept them warm in winter and insect free in the summer.

There are big ochre mines in the Luberon in southern France and even more famous deposits in Sienna in Tuscany.  Cennino Cennini wrote about finding ochre in Tuscany when he was a boy.  He found yellow, reddish brown, blue and white. “These colours showed up in the earth the way a wrinkle shows in the face of a man or a woman” he said.

Australia

The longest continuous painting tradition in the world is in Australia where cave painters were using ochre more than forty thousand years ago. Recently this ancient tradition has become one of the most exciting art movements in the world. It is also one of the most secretive and is protected very heavily.  

A bit closer to home, there’s plenty of ochre in Britain. A couple of months ago I went to Clearwell Caves in Gloucestershire, where ochre is still mined and ground up for pigment, that’s part of a tradition going back over 4,000 years.  https://clearwellcaves.com/about-us/

And even closer to home there’s the Red Lady of Paviland.

Who is actually a bloke. Who is more of a brown than a true red. But there we are.

He is from the old Stone Age, the Upper Paleolithic, buried here in Wales around 35,000 years ago. The bones were discovered in 1823 by William Buckland in an archaeological dig at Goat’s Hole Cave (Paviland cave) — one of the limestone caves between Port Eynon and Rhossili on the Gower Peninsula. It was a very exciting find at the time and he’s now in a museum in Oxford, far from his original burial ground. Which is a pity. We’d like him back, please.

Bristol Stool Chart

And here are a few weird facts to end up with.

  1. The world’s first colorimeter, or a colour scale, was invented to distinguish different shades of brown by Joseph Lovibond. He designed it to tell the difference between grades of beer.
  2. The Bristol Stool Chart, that’s stool as in poop, is a diagnostic medical tool designed to classify the form of human poop into seven categories. It was developed at the Bristol Royal Infirmary in 1997.
  3. There’s a bit of a modern craze for making art from poop. Chris Ofili famously made paintings using elephant dung, an artist called Katsu made a portrait of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in poop and even Pablo Picasso painted with his young daughter’s poop, as it had a unique texture and ochre colour.

And that’s it from me. Thanks for listening to my podcast about the colour brown. Next time – oooh, I don’t know, what shall I do? Come and join me and find out. Bye. Hwyl Fawr.

 

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.

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