Saturday, 21 April 2012

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Making oil paint from scratch

In my search for relation between the digital and analogue image I have decided to embark upon a quest for real materials and to try and understand why I paint.
When I'm preparing my canvas I feel as though I'm making some kind of relationship with it. A surface is created specific to my own intentions and judgements and becomes mine with care but paint has always been a substance I have a rough knowledge of. Like a lot of painters, when I paint the origin of materials becomes much less important than their physical properties.


So far I have discovered that making paint (as I had imagined before attempting this course of action) is a long and arduous process involving toil. Lots and lots of toil.


Reading What painting is by James Elkins with its comparison of the painter to the alchemist also makes me feel more confident about my trailer park style paint making "lab" on top of my freezer.
Although my neighbors probably think I'm trying to re-create Tom Waits Whats he building in there?

The tools (mortar and pestle, hammer and chisel, marble slab and paint muller) and rocks I used
  • My process starts by going out with a hammer and chisel collecting soft looking rocks from the local area. I'm not sure of the specific rocks I collected but they were soft sedimentary rocks from the South Wales region and most likely to be old red sandstone.


  • I take the collected pieces of rock and split them again and try to get rid of large areas of impurities in the rock. Then I crush the little pieces with some water (to control dust) in a large mortar and pestle.
crushing of rocks

I had to include steps to refine the pigment material after impatiently and foolishly thinking that the rock dust particles would be fine enough to grind into paint. They weren't. What I got was paint with sand in it which looked like shit. Literally as you can see here:


First attempt at paint, probably useful for painting pictures of poo and not a lot else

So I had to start filtering the dust like so:

  • I pour water over the dust in the mortar and let the heavier sediment fall to the bottom. It takes about 20 minutes to filter out the grains that are too large.

mixed sediment and water
  • Then I carefully pour the water off out into a plastic container making sure not to let bigger grains fall in.
  • I leave this container on a window sill in the sun to evaporate the water and leave the fine sediment behind. This takes a while when you live in Wales not Venice. If Titian needed to dry out some pigment I'm going to assume it would only take a day or two in the Italian sun.
small amount of fine sediment suspended in water


Dried pigment dust
  • After the water evaporated I took the layer of dust in the bottom of the container and scraped it onto a marble slab ready to combine with a binder which in this case was cold pressed linseed oil. I used a glass paint muller to combine the pigment and binder. During the mulling the smooth surfaces of the glass and the marble coat the pigment particles in oil. It takes a little while.



The final successful paint (about 2ml)

Of course the whole process needs to be repeated as the amount of material from each batch of crushing and filtering is quite small.
The method is by no means precise and the only colours I've managed to produce are varying shades of brown and grey.
The amount of labor involved in making the tiniest amount of workable paint is amazing. The process was very meditative and calming and the hours of crushing rocks gave me time to reflect on my ideas for paintings.

I'm going to continue making pigment with this process and experiment with different binders and possibly branch out into making grounds for canvas.