Tag Archives: Bideford Black

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.

My Geographic Palette #3 – Walnut Ink

23 Jul

 

culvert 1a

About 3 or 4 years now some friends gave me a bag of fresh walnuts – that’s walnut fruit – the nut is in the centre of an apple sized green fruit. I made my own walnut ink from them, please click here if you want to see the technique I used.

 

 

Anyway, I used it to work up a painting using ink washes of different intensity based on one of my original sketches of culverts way up in the Brecon Beacons. I was on a field trip with colleagues from The FIRE Lab a few weeks ago and I’m using those sketches to develop a new body of artwork.

The ink looks lovely when it dries out – it rehydrates as well so it doesn’t go to waste.

walnut ink dry

The FIRE Lab has some great blog posts, check out this one about the technology of the Tawe Path walk.

 

 

 

 

My Geographic Palette #2 – Bideford Black

22 Jul

 

Bideford 4

So, day 2 of drawing from my geographic palette. This is Bideford Black, an unique oily carbon-based pigment from North Devon, where is sits in the ground next to anthracite coal. It was mined for about 200 years up until the late 1960s but lost out to cheaper competitors and the mines closed. I was sent some by artists based near the geological seams a while back, in exchange for some of my homemade walnut ink. It’s quite greasy to draw with and a bit crumbly, and when used dry it looks a bit like a dense charcoal on paper.

 

 

I put some bits into a pestle and mortar and crushed it – surprisingly tough – into a fine powder and mixed it with water to experiment into an A5 300gsm Waterford sketchbook. I like the result. It’s a dense black – I watered it down quite a bit – and it flows easily. I based the little drawing on a sketch I’d done a few weeks back while I was out on a field trip near the source of the River Tawe with colleagues from the FIRE Lab team from Swansea University. FIRE Lab has a cool website with some great blogs – here’s one on walking the River Tawe path.

 

 

 

My Geographic Palette #1 – Charcoal

21 Jul

charcoal 2

 

This is my first tryout with my geographic palette, a drawing based on a sketch I did en plein air on a field trip with colleagues from Swansea University’s FIRE Lab a couple of months ago when we went off exploring culverts up in the Brecon Beacons.

 

The charcoal I bought a few years back when I visited John Ruskin’s house, Brantwood, at Coniston Water in the Lake District. At the time they made charcoal from willow grown on the estate, using traditional methods. It’s quite crumbly and benefits from being used with a heavyweight textured paper. I’m using a 300gsm Bockingford here and I’m pleased with the results, lots of tonal variation depending on the pressure I’ve used. It’s only a small drawing, I’m using an A5 size sketchbook, spiral bound from Pink Pig in Barnsley, and I’m abstracting away from the original which is starting to excite me.

 

 

 

 

My Geographic Palette

20 Jul

Geographic Palette small

I’m thinking about how to develop from the sketches I’ve done on a couple of field trips with colleagues in the FIRE Lab team and, as the research project is about ecosystems and environment, I thought I’d try as much as possible to use natural earths, plants and minerals in my artworks, so I’m putting together a geographic palette. I’ve made a pretty good start already, with graphite, lapis lazuli, ochre, charcoal, Bideford Black, some red sandstone and my own home-made walnut ink.

Over the next few days I’ll be researching and writing about them so watch this space …. 🙂

 

 

 

On The Spot

20 Apr

 

Last Saturday I did some ‘live’ drawing at an art event at Volcano in Swansea’s High Street. My young nephew posed for the best part of 2 hours but he was happy as Larry playing games on my phone. I worked inside the building and drew onto translucent drafting film with carbon, Bideford Black and white conte crayon. Meanwhile, passers by could see the drawing developing from the outside. When I went to take a look, the white conte was far more obvious than on the inside and looked much better in my opinion. The video shows the drawing in progress.

 

Nathan Volcano and Rose 2

I like the challenge of being put on the spot and drawing live, I’ve always been a bit of an adrenaline junkie and I guess that live drawing is my middle aged version of tearing around on motorbikes in my youth. What a buzz!

If you’d like to see some of my other artworks, please click here.

Making Mistakes

19 Apr

 

 

Nathan 4 small

I did something unusual at the weekend. Fellow artist Claudia Mollzahn was holding an art event at Volcano theatre in Swansea’s High Street and offered me window space to develop something over two hours. I’ve had some translucent drawing film on a roll knocking around the place for ages so I decided to stick it on the window and draw what I could see of the street behind it. Unfortunately I made the mistake of not trying it out first and when I put it up, it wasn’t as translucent as I’d thought, I couldn’t see anything through it. Then my young nephew came to the rescue. He was easily persuaded to sit in a chair playing games on my phone while I drew a massive portrait of him. It was great drawing on the inside of the window, loads of people passing by stopped to look at the drawing being developed from the other side.

Nathan 5

I tried out different drawing materials, some worked, some didn’t. I sketched the basic drawing with a graphite block and some white conte crayon, My home-made walnut ink was a wash out, it wouldn’t stick to the surface of the film at all, so I used Bideford Black to fill in the dark areas and carbon for the lines. Making a mistake often leads to something good.

Nathan 3

If you want to see some of my other artworks, please click here.

 

 

 

The Sentinel

27 Feb

Sentinel

The Sentinel is a massive quartzite standing stone, the first ancient monument we met as we walked up Mynydd Llangyndeyrn, which translates from the Welsh as the Mountain of the Church of Saint Cyndeyrn. The stone was flat on the ground until 1976, when its socket was found and it was re-erected. Nobody is sure what the stone signifies although it may have been a way-marker and some think there may have been another opposite, forming a portal to the Bronze Age landscape of the Mynydd. As I circled the stone, looking for the right angle to draw it, I noticed the coastline in the distance. I was on the mountain with archaeologist Dewi Bowen and film maker Melvyn Williams and Dewi told me that the coastline was North Devon, around the Bideford area. Coincidentally I had some Bideford Black in my bag and so decided to use it to draw with. It’s a strange oily black pigment, a bit like coal, that used to be mined commercially in Bideford until the late 1960s. Local artists still dig it out and use it and I was lucky enough to be sent some back last year. It’s very possible that Bideford Black might have been traded and used many thousands of years ago.

Click here to find Dewi Bowen’s book about standing stones. Click here to see some of Melvyn Williams’ films. Click here to see my art for sale.

Emerging Patterns

23 Jun

d 2 final

I’m continuing to work with the paper I marbled earlier in the week, squinting and staring at the random shapes and letting them form into something that makes some sort of sense. I read recently that artists may see patterns in things more readily than other people. It didn’t take me long to see the broad shoulders emerging near the top of the paper and the rest of the male body developed very quickly.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I’m resisting the temptation to overwork it. I’m trying to keep the drawings of Egon Schiele in mind as I develop these works on marbling, keeping the line simple and flowing and not working in a lot of detail; making the figures spontaneous and minimal. The Fabriano paper has been ‘distressed’ by snails because I left it out overnight and they’ve nibbled some interesting patterns into the surface. The drawing has been done with willow charcoal, Bideford Black and white conte crayon.

Like Watching Clouds

22 Jun

marbled paper small 4

I carried on doing some intuitive drawing today, using some of the Fabriano paper I marbled last week; the ones I left outside to dry and then forgot about and left out overnight. The papers have been chewed and roughened by snails and it makes the surface more interesting. I stood across the room and squinted a bit and gradually some human shapes started to form. I tentatively drew them with willow charcoal and then, when I was happy with the line, I went over it with carbon and Bideford Black. I darkened some of the areas of marbling with the Biddy Black and finally used a white conte crayon to put in some very small highlights.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I have always worked from life, strictly observational drawings, even if I embellish them later. This process today is far more like watching clouds and seeing what patterns form in them. I remembered that when I was a small child, I used to do just that, gaze at the clouds for ages and then draw the things I saw on whatever paper was at hand. More often than not it was cut-up brown paper bags from the grocer. My mother couldn’t afford to buy me sketchpads so she’d keep all the brown bags from shopping for me to scribble on. Kids these days would find it hard to scribble on plastic grocery bags.

%d bloggers like this: