Workshop – Pigments for Manuscript painting

Barbara Brend’s seminar on painting and illumination in Persian and Indian books on 1 November 2011 was followed by workshops about pigments and techniques at my studio. The picture above shows some of the classic colours derived from metals and minerals: vermilion made from cinnabar, ultramarine made from lapis lazuli, verdigris made from copper acetate, and pure refined gold. One of the most beautiful greens is made out of malachite, and the process of making the colour from pieces of the actual stone was covered in the workshop.

Mulling the malachite

©Anita Chowdry,  photograph by KT Kacur

cleaning malachite

The mineral needs to be ground up very finely with a mortar and pestle, and then carefully washed to remove all impurities that can spoil the colour. One is aiming for that luminous, cool shade of green that was so prized in the Safavid and Mughal schools. After cleaning, the malachite pigment is mulled on a sheet of ground glass with a glass muller. ‘Mulling’ is the process of refining the particles of  pigment and incorporating the medium and wetting agents until the paint is as smooth as silk. In this case the medium is gum arabic, and the wetting agent is honey.

Davidson hand-grinding gold leaf

We worked long and hard on making shell gold – both  malachite and  gold take around three days to complete, because in addition to the periods of hands-on grinding and cleaning, you also need to let them settle for several hours as part of the processes.

At the end of all that hard work, pouring the precious liquid into a shell, there to dry and settle, is truly a King Midas moment!

Another interesting technique is decorating paper with gold sprinkling – the term used in Persian and Mughal painting is zar afshan.

We first dyed the paper with indigo, aiming for a deep, rich shade to contrast with the gold. Decorated papers like this were used extensively in royal book-making workshops or kitabkhane for adorning the margins of the pages, and a variety of different coloured vegetable dyes were used to tint the paper.

Barbara gold sprinkling

The paper is carefully sized, and while it is still wet, flakes of gold leaf are gently worked through a sieve with a soft squirrel-hair mop. It is fun to watch the showers of gold float down and settle onto the paper. The trick is not to be tempted to touch it at all until it is completely dry. Only then can the excess gold be swept off (and saved, of course) and the paper polished with an agate burnisher untill it shines.

Below is a beautiful close-up photograph taken previously in my studio by photographer KT Kacur, while the paper was still wet and the gold flakes freshly sprinkled.

Gold sprinkle on indigo paper   photograph by KT Kacur

Gold sprinkle on indigo paper photograph by KT Kacur