Sunday, 11 October 2009

Bones and colouring

In certain reenactment circles, mainly those concerned with reproducing artefacts from long ago using as true to era methods and materials as possible, the subject of dyeing bone comes up. Bone was used for a wide variety of tools; lucet,  knife handles (middle), needles, smoothing tools etc, a whole plethora. There are extant recipes for dyeing bone in a variety of ways, the palette may seem a little limited to us today, given the sheer range of chemicals that represent almost any colour that we could wish for. Coloured bone could be used for artefacts such as jewellery, inlay work and things such as knife handles.

The colours include:

Brazil wood, Caesalpina Sappanensis and C. Echinata, the former is the brasil wood of medieval times, the latter is the New World alternative that was discovered by early Portuguese and Spanish colonists. C. Sappanensis occurs naturally in places such as Southern India and Sri Lanka and had a long history of being exported to Europe as a very bright red dye stuff. The discovery of the C. Echinata meant an alternative source and a reduced monopoly on trade from the East.

Madder, Rubia Tinctora, the root is used, either pulverised or in small pieces, this was a common dyeing plant used across Europe for many hundreds of years. It yields colours ranging from orange tawnies to reds and browns, depending on the location of dying and mordants. There is evidence that madder was also used as a paint for woodblock prints, but its primary use was to dye cloth.

In both red dyes the mordant is alum, this enhances the colouring and binds the colour to the substrate, I used commonly available dyeing recipes, ie an amount of either brazil or madder and an amount of alum, in this case a handful of madder with two tablespoons of alum, brazil a small handful and the same amount of alum, this was rule of thumb given the quantities of bone I was dyeing.

For dyeing bone, one recipe uses what is in effect black ink, made from a source of tannin and iron salts, often oak galls and ferrous sulphate, respectively. For my black bone I simply let the bone soak in an ink batch I had lying around.

One recipe mentions the use of verdigris, or copper acetate for the colouring agent, this chemical is made by exposing copper to acid fumes, the green is then gathered from the surface and is used variously as a pigment, ink and a dye for bone and wood. The bone or wood is laid into a solution of verdigris, then over time this takes on the green colour. At the time of writing this I have a piece of bone lying in a solution, when it it is ready I shall update this entry.

The image shows four goose bones, from left to right; black (oak gall/iron), red (brazilwood), red(madder) and undyed for control. You will note the difference in colour of the two reds, the brazil is a cooler red with a blue register and the madder is a warmer red erring to the orange, also of interest the madder specimen was a deep orange rather than a red when first removed from the solution, but overnight turned more red, I regret not taking a photo of this, next time perhaps.
Close up of end of goose bone in brazil.
Close up of goose bone in madder.
Close up of goose bone in iron gall solution (ink).

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Sun helmet orb.

I recently worked at the Hampton Court Tudor joust on the August Bank Holiday, 29-31, part of the display was to show not just jousting but how some of the more ephemeral items were made.

The image below is of a helmet orb.

The specification is as follows:

Turned hardwood ball
Gesso ground
Bole and gold leaf
Vermillion and lead tin yellow
Binding medium egg yolk.

This item was produced very quickly, as can be seen by the coarseness of the brush strokes up close.

The actual method is the interesting feature IMHO, that using sgraffito, this is the laying on of colour on gold or silver leaf using the egg yolk as the binder. When dry a sharp wooden stylus is used to scrape away the paint revealing the metal leaf underneath. In this case the theme of the joust was a contest between the Knight of the Sun (Henry VIII) and the Knight of the Moon (George Boleyn). The emblems used were suns for the king, in red and crescents for Boleyn, silver on black. With that in mind I reversed the idea, and used the gold as a highlight and the red as a background where the sun shone through.

You can see the rough hatching out on the upper part, what is also visible is evidence of an earlier attempt, the hatching that is underneath the red ground, luckily this method means you can redo such things.
Why not go to greater lengths in terms of detail? yes it is eminently possible, but given that this orb could have been used by the retinue of the knight of the moon and by implication produced in some quantity and the fact that such things are not observed close up so extra detail is a waste of time. Convenient use of a very few tones to achieve depth of colour was very common so an eye for boldness is needed.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Ecranche shield

As a gift for a client I have decorated an ecranche shield in theory for parading around, however there is the possibility that he may well try to use it, his call I guess.


Plywood shield, client supplied
Linen canvas covering - client supplied
Gesso - whiting and gelatine size.
Silver leaf
Synthetic vermillion
Synthetic lead tin yellow

The client's emblem is a a crescent argent on a red (gules) background.

His motto "los en Croissant" I do not know what that means yet, but will find out soon I expect.

The crescent is raised gesso, ie layers of gesso applied in the rough shape then scraped back to the requisite profile. I will try another method where I lay on a thicker paste like gesso then sculpt it to see if there is any difference in strength, I will also use gesso grosso - plaster of paris with size, this gives a much stronger gesso, but has a short shelf life when wet as it sets, normal gesso (sottile in cenninni's world) can be kept wet using a bain marie.

I then laid bole upon the crescent, this is a red clay foundation often used under metal leaf, this allows for breaks in the leaf, faults, to be less visible, ie less contrast between the gold and the uncoloured ground, the red is more sympathetic with gold, but it does work with silver.

The area was burnished then I had to plan the layout for his motto.

As a burnished metal is quite smooth it needs a medium that will not run off the surface and Cenninni recommends using egg yolk as the binder, this not only lays on well, but is very tough when eventually chemically dry. I have tried gum arabic in the past but even if thick enough it will crack off, I have some egg laid in modelling on some gold from many years back and it is as tough as old boots.

After the text I added the figuring over the red, this was done a lot, I suspect it made a flat painted surface a bit more interesting closer up and at a distance did not interfere with the overall background colour.

First image is the silver and red background, the second is the figuring.

Friday, 14 August 2009


Above is a quick and dirty work on some red silk, the silk is dyed with brazil and weld, brazil givomg the red and the weld gives a good foundation for the red, even though it is yellow it is not orangey but slightly warmer than the cool red of brazil. Not a period mix as far as I know but an experiment from me.

For technical reasons I ended up making quite a few blodges on the work, also my three year old daughter decided to spray some plants as I was in the garden snapping my work, hence the blotchiness. The Lion/Leopard's club feet are down to me mixing the ground badly and it spread.

The idea is that this is a putative cloth badge, late medievalk, possibly worn by a town dignitary for special occasions or by an officer. Instructions on cloth gilding are well recorded, so the actual technique is no mystery, just in some cases best guesses for actual uses.

This will be stitched to a stiffer canvas backing to give it some body, then it will be stitched to a garment.

The metal is gold leaf, triple weight antique, the modelling is black paint with an egg yolk medium, egg is a good medium for painting on metal leaf, there is an addition of gum arabic.

I used a modern acrylic varnish to protect it as I have not yet managed to make a decent medieval clear varnish, due to time and safety constraints, my only varnish is the brownish sort, whilst ok for gold would not serve for silver unless I was faking gold.

Of writing and paper

Below is a selection of images of a wrap book for an American client.

He wanted a commonplace book, a book of sorts, it may contain prayers, notes, accounts, recipes, basically anything of use or potentially of use to the owner.

The soft binding seems common enough, certainly the binding in this case is strongly based on the Greenhaulgh account book, Greenhaulgh was a Bailiff to a local landowner in the middle of the 15th century and his account book survives. This style of book appears to have been used for sketch books also. It makes economic sense, you have a soft binding which can be done cheaply ad easily at home, you add in the sections as required and if you need it hard bound at some point then you can, if not then no cost incurred on the binding.

The Greenhaulgh book shows evidence of expansion inasmuch as there are two distinct sets of binding thread, one blue and one white, they also are at different heights on the spine, suggesting a possible update at a later time.

What the book below does not have what the Greenhaulgh book does is a late 14thc music sheet pasted into the wrapper to provide stiffness, that alone in the original is interesting as it still has the clear remains of the azurite or ultramarine lettering and vermillion/red lead rubrics.

I do not have permission to show the book so you will have to bear with me.

Back to the client's book.

The client had a clear idea of the contents:
A device drawn into the front page, his device being three sheaves of corn with a bend and a crescent - forgive me I do not know the heraldic form for that. I added the floral arrangement, this was based on a late 15th design with just such an escutcheon within it.

A list of ordinance, cannons.
Some metal point drawings of ordinance
A tract on fencing, early 15thc
Some useful recipes, including a corrosive liquid to clean wounds, very useful for a soldier I imagine.

The book itself is calf leather, approx 1mm, I dyed it with brazil wood.
Brazil is a dye yielding tree from the caesalpina family the name predates the country by some hundreds of years. It would appear that the discovery of similar colour yielding trees in Latin America in the early 16thc gave rise to the name of the country. The Caesalpina of the medieval world was C. sappanensis, and that of the New was C. Echinata. It would appear that most of the Brazil wood today does indeed come from Brazil. For the purposes of my work that is fine as the colour yield appears to be the same. If at such time I acquire C. Sappanensis I will conduct some trials for comparison.

The dye was prepared as per medieval recipes, the wood was shaved small and soaked in water, an amount of alum was added to the bath and boiled until the water was as red as it was going to be, allowed to settle and strained off.

In this case the leather was dyed both sides, some historic mentions say to only apply dye to the visible surface, in one particular case, the uppers of shoes, again a sensible economy, why dye the inside of something that will not be seen and most likely be corrupted by sweat?

Finally, as with all my medieval and Tudor paperwork I only use GriffenMill archive papers, these have been especially made to resemble early laid papers and they are a joy to use.
The ink is oak gall and the pens used goose quill, standard materials and tools for me.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

A quick list

Of things that I have been lucky enough to try out and work on over the last few years, not in order of when or how big, but as I can recall them. Do I have pictures of all of them? of course not.

Paper and parchment: Letters and packages, woodcut prints - devotionals, medical drawings

Cloth: Borders - painted, fenestrals - cloth windows, wall hangings, table covers, helmet flags, banners, badges. Painted, printed and or gilded. Cloth includes: silk, linen/hemp and wool.

Wood: pavises - made from scratch and painted and gilded, boxes painted and gilded.

Food: subtleties, paste work, gilded, marchpaine

Areas I want to explore:

Verre Eglomise - gilding on glass then scratching out the design with painting on the back, the link shows a third party file for a 16thc example at the V and A. Earlier examples do exist, process is much the same.

Crests - for funerary achievements or for tournament, fascinating area calling for all the skills available, painting, sewing, carving, modelling etc.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Mini gallery

This might be redone due to me getting used to this medium.

For more images click on my gallery link on the right hand column>>>>>>>>

Zodiac man, late 15thc, early 16thc, from York Barber Surgeons

Letter and package, commission, parchment and conservation paper, oak gall ink, sealing wax

Commission, banner, vermillion, lamp black, antique linen, silver leaf

Commission, badge, antique linen, genuine azurite, gold leaf

Brasil and its wonders.

The batch of 'rose colour' is now drying in a ceramic dish as is the weld yellow. The rose colour is more like a purple pink.

With the excess brasil bath I dyed some silk, I added a little weld to boost the red a bit, let it steep in hot water for a while and overnight in the pot, the result is a vibrant red, it is now drying on the line.

As I don't like wasting anything, the silk will be used as a basis for gilded badges and devices.

Brasil dyed feathers:
There are medieval sources for dyeing feathers, I tried this last year, with the ubiquitous brasil and the reds were fine and visible but what was surprising was that the feathers whilst faded considerably in my she window have retained a fair amount of the colour. I will aim to reproduce this in the summer, conducting a control test by having some wrapped and hidden, the other half exposed to sunlight, pics will be posted.

Why dye feathers? 
Plumes for helmets and crests, presumably for other decorative use - possibly food subtleties
A fragment of text in the Cennini treatise mentions dyed quills for quilling, but nothing more than that tantalising snippet.

I will also try other colours, but not being a dyer will most likely rely on:
reds, yellow and black. I don't have the kit for woad etc.

I have just realised that the 16thc Booke of Secrets -  also mentions quill dyeing, interestingly only the three colours listed above, see here.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Ok, so I wont be winning any blogger of the year awards, seeing as my last post was in late 2007. 

Above images show a textile sample with gilded device and a paper sketch, with gilding, both sent to client. I will try to get client's permission to post an image of the flag in situ.

I was in the shed today and mused about the blog and for some reason thought it was only a few months ago. I was wrong. 

A brief recap on the projects mentioned:

Helmet flag for UK client, went well, I still have reservations about the way he wanted the flag to fly, I don;t think it looked right in that context, in others it might have done.

The US client was over the moon with the purple silk with modelled gilded figures, (click here) I confess to having been rather proud of that project and saw it very much as a labour of love and gladly put my all into it. I wanted to manage the project from a soley modern design led method. Agree brief with the client, sent samples of the idea to the client to agree style and content, plus samples of the intended silk, have design approval, finish project. As it happens there was very little different in that approach to the medievals, ok they didn't have to sort out UPS and send what was a simple job in medieval terms half way across the globe. But the agreement of ideas and style with an acceptance of the artist's personal touch goes way back. As a trained graphic designer it is nice to know that some things have not changed. 

Other projects have included more written reproductions, a few pilgrim letters and some work for the Salt Museum, Northwich, Chester Writers Exhibition, where I was asked to produce and source a number of items that a literate (in the modern sense) late 14thc person might have. It appears that one iteration of Gawaine and the Green Knight was written in the Chester region, hence the request. The items included: pens, wax, paper, written items - namely a page from GatGK and two pen knives, one blunt for visitor handling and the other sharp for use. Both made by the late and very talented John Buttifint, who died last summer (2008) after a long battle with cancer. A finer man you could not want to have dealings with, a superb cutler and someone who relished a real challenge. It was an honour to attend his funeral, in my view a good way of saying goodbye, swapping stories and also renewing old acquaintances. 

I am one of the many lucky people who own some of John's work, knives that are meant to cut, I cut pens and prepare my food with his items and by so doing I remember a decent man and a fantastic craftsman.

Back to weld. I have to send the rest of an order to a client, namely some weld reacted with chalk, to make a yellow colour. Fine, I boiled up some weld and alum and decanted the liquor, I then had the brain wave of making another batch with the leavings, to eke out the colour, I do think like a medieval chap sometimes, save, save, save. So I promptly provided some fresh pee and boiled it up. I left the mixture to steep on a low heat and went to chat to the next door neighbour about his back.  A while later the wife pops her head out and says the mixture is boiling over. I return to the kitchen and the wife complains that the house smells of urine.....oops. She was lucky it was fresh pee, the aged variety as is oft specified is a much headier brew. The yellow was good, although not for the client, for my own 'personal use'.

I have also dyed my new Sally Pointer statute cap, not being a dyer but being a nosey git I tried the old oak gall dye and to be honest was happily surprised with the result, I had to double dye it and the end product is a deepish blue grey, the first dyeing was more a purplish blue grey. There are some areas where the wool has gone very black, mainly because I did not have a pan big enough and I see areas of better steepage. The hat will get well used over the next few years, it will be interesting to see how the dye reacts to sweat and light etc and if the wool degrades appreciably. 

The best thing is I now have enough ink to last me about 8 lifetimes, anyone want some?