Course review: ‘Recreating the Medieval Palette’ with Cheryl Porter, 17-21st October 2011

In October, I had the privilege of attending Cheryl Porter’s course, Recreating the Medieval Palette, the first offering from the Icon Book and Paper Group’s Co-operative Training Register, hosted at the Wellcome conservation studios in London. A fascinating and enlightening week was had by all the participants and I know we are all eagerly looking forward to what the CTR has to offer next.

Cheryl has a wealth of knowledge and experience and each day she introduced us to a particular group of pigments, linked by their origin, chemical composition, and colour (earth colours, natural minerals, inorganic colours created by alchemy, and organic pigments and lakes).

Preparing the earth pigments

Beginning in the morning with a lecture, illustrated with slides and physical examples of the pigments in their raw and prepared states, we learnt where they came from, how they were made, how to recognise them, and how they deteriorate. In the afternoon we prepared and painted out samples of the pigments, learning first-hand the skills needed by the medieval artist. We experienced how particular pigments behave, learnt how difficult some pigments are to blend with their binder, and saw the incredible variety of the medieval palette.

Green Earth and Red Ochre pigments

The studio was filled with strange aromas when we came to the organic pigments and were cooking plants such as brazilwood, saffron, woad, and weld. We learnt how dramatically sensitive the organics are to changes in pH and how to make a lake pigment from an organic dye.

Cheryl cooking yellow and red organics

On Wednesday evening we were treated to an additional lecture, held at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. Focusing on organic colours used in Armenian and Egyptian manuscripts, Cheryl emphasised the importance of analysis and made a powerful argument for the taking of samples, something that is rarely done for manuscripts, yet almost always for paintings. We were entertained by tales of hunting Porphyrophora hameli, the insect used to make Armenian cochineal, at the foot of Mt Ararat and learnt how to turn these tiny creatures into a vivid red dye and lake pigment.

We finished our study of the medieval artist’s materials by looking at gold, silver and inks, trying our hand at gilding and writing with quills and reed pens.

On the final day we began with an overview of the making of a medieval book and the manufacture of parchment. Cheryl again advocated the taking of samples, described the best analytical methods, and discussed various pigment consolidation techniques.

Painted out pigment samples

In a wonderful end to an enthralling week, we put our knowledge to the test by looking at some beautiful manuscripts from the Wellcome Collection, noticing more of the great variation in colour and seeing first-hand some of the common problems Cheryl had described.

Francesca Kathleen Lemass
24 November 2011

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