Tag Archives: sepia

Beer, Poop And Corpses

22 Nov


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.


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.


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.


The Difference Of Materials

14 Apr


The difference of materials. I was engrossed in drawing at Galerie Simpson on Swansea’s High Street a couple of days ago. I’d taken a few sheets of very different papers and lots of drawing materials and I settled down to draw a fascinating clay sculpture by Tomos Sparnon which is in the current exhibition.

sculpture 3

The first drawing I did in white, sanguine and black conté crayons onto a piece of smooth heavyweight cartridge paper that I had prepared with a coat of white acrylic gesso and then when it was dry I sponged it all over with my sepia home-made walnut ink. After drawing in conté crayons, I filled the area around the drawing with a square ended brush dipped in the walnut ink. I love the way the ink flows over gessoed paper and how it holds the brushstrokes. It’s a delicious ink to use, like liquid silk.


Then I moved my chair to take in a different angle and drew, again with the white, sanguine and black conté crayons onto a sheet of heavily textured grey Khadi paper. The result is completely different. I know I’m stating the blatantly obvious, but I was surprised at the extent of the differences. You can just see Tomos’ sculpture in the background.


Man Engine

12 Apr


Back last week I was rummaging through the drawers in my plans chest and pulled out some used paper that I thought could be reused and today I got my chance. Swansea hosted Man Engine , the largest mechanical puppet ever constructed in Britain, which has been journeying up from Cornwall. It’s amazing. I was invited to take part in a live drawing event (with afternoon tea) at Galerie Simpson on Swansea’s High Street to coincide with the behemoth’s progress through the city. It’s very slow moving so I managed to sketch the giant head outside the gallery on the pavement as it rumbled by. I drew with black, white and sanguine conté crayon and some of my home-made sepia walnut ink onto a recycled cyanotype print on Bockingford paper. If you want to know how to make walnut ink, please check out my blog post here.

The Stone By The Motorway

25 Jun

Tyn Cellar

This is a thumbnail sketch I’ve done based on field drawings and photos of the Tyn Cellar Neolithic stone, near the motorway not far from Margam. I’m doing thumbnails, small working sketches, to learn more about the subject, to get used to it, to explore different ways of making marks, looking for ways to develop it. This is starting to look like it might be good cut into wood or lino and printed up, maybe in 2 colours with some chine collé in the background. I’ve used some heavyweight Tate Gallery paper and randomly sponged it with a walnut ink wash. Once it had dried I drew into it with a 6B graphite stick and a white Kohinoor stick.


I’m travelling around South West Wales with archaeologist Dewi Bowen who is researching his new book on Neolithic / Bronze Age monuments. His previous book on the stones of Ancient Siluria (South East Wales) can be found here. Accompanying us is film maker Melvyn Williams who is recording a documentary about our experiences. Some of Melvyn’s short films can be seen here. I’m currently working on a series of expressive drawings of ancestral sites and if you want to see some of my other artworks, please click here.


Catacombs & Xmas

24 Dec


Following on from yesterday’s post, here are a couple more sepia drawings I did based on sketches from the St. Paul’s Catacombs in Rabat in Malta. The originals are very slight, quick scribbles. I wanted to try working with the walnut husk ink I made a few weeks ago. I don’t normally work with wet media so it’s good practice for me. I used several different sizes of sable brushes and watered the ink down to make a variety of paler washes. I’m really enjoying this and looking forward to seeing where it takes me.

Tomorrow is Xmas so have a Cool Yule and I hope the day is lovely for you. xxx

Sepia Catacombs

23 Dec

cata 6



You never know where and when you’ll get inspiration from. Husb and I visited Malta last week and I carried my sketchbooks, scribbling as we trekked across the lovely island. But it wasn’t until late in our stay that we visited the early Christian catacombs in Rabat. They are extraordinary and I felt a strong urge to draw, but at the same time the atmosphere was so powerful and ……. maybe sacrosanct …… that I felt inhibited and only managed a couple of quick sketches. Husb felt inhibited from taking photographs there too. I don’t know, maybe it seemed disrespectful to act like tourists in a mass grave.


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Anyway, a few days after we got back, I was working with my colleagues in the 15 Hundred Lives art collective at the Creative Bubble artspace and I decided to experiment with the walnut husk ink I made a few weeks ago. I used one of those very quick catacomb sketches as a starting point and just started to develop the drawing with a brush and ink, building up layers in the rich sepia and pale washes onto a piece of Fabriano Accademica paper. It’s a new thing for me, I really enjoyed doing it and I’m pleased with what I have so far. I’ll be doing some more experimenting over the next few weeks – there are some ideas fermenting in there! There’s a lot of marks in the piece and that reflects the reality of the catacombs which have very rough, textured surfaces left by the simple chisels they used to hack out the tombs from the soft limestone.

Walnut Husk Ink Revisited

20 Oct


It’s been about a year since I wrote this post when I made a batch of walnut ink. I’ve been using it regularly and it’s delicious, silky, smooth and rich. It seems to be lightfast, no signs of fading on any of the pieces, although I’ve been careful to use best quality acid-free paper like Fabriano and Saunders.


Here’s the most recent drawing, in carbon and white conte crayon overlaid onto a background of walnut ink.


So today I finally finished the walnut ink I started a couple of weeks ago. A friend gave me 4 fresh walnuts (juglans regia) in their husks. I peeled them and left the husks to stand in a basin of water for about a week and a half. They went very black and mushy. I put the basin, covered with tin foil,  into a slow cooker with hot water coming up to half way and left it on the lowest setting overnight, letting it cool completely for another day and night.

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Then I strained it through a ‘J’ cloth into a large jar and tested its strength on a bit of cartridge paper. It was quite pale so I boiled it on the stove and reduced it, checking occasionally until it was a decent sepia colour. There wasn’t much to bottle, about a quarter of a tea mug. The recipes I’ve looked at online suggest adding up to 20% surgical spirit (rubbing alcohol) as a preservative, but there’s so little that I think I’ll use it up pretty quickly. I’ll do some drawings with it and leave them in the light until this time next year. If they haven’t faded, I’ll see if  I can get hold of a larger amount of husks and make some more.


Another Digital Nude

21 Feb


We always finish with a long, one-hour, pose at Thursday night’s life drawing group at Swansea Print Workshop. I couldn’t be bothered to pack my drawing bag, if I’m honest, so I just took my Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 tablet and used the free Markers app. I’m learning more and more about the digital approach as time goes on. I started by laying down a background, overlaying several translucent colours with my finger – white, grey, beige and white again. Then I drew the figure and surroundings with the stylus, keeping my pallete restricted to sepia, olive, sanguine, grey and white with a splash of pink, varying the limited brushes to achieve different lines and pressures. I saved at several stages – never forget to save – I lost a few drawings in the early days – they just disappeared! The act of saving also gives you a little slideshow of the progression of the drawing too.

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On The Other Hand…….

30 Aug

Just a quickie tonight as I’ve only just come back from life drawing and it’s nearly my bedtime! Sometimes, bits of body look really weird and this is one of those. The angle of the wrist made the hand look a bit disembodied. But that’s the way it was 🙂

Drawn onto hand-made heavyweight paper stained with sepia ink with a dip pen and Indian ink and a grey wash.  Goodnight zzzzzzzzzzz

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