Vegetable or Mineral
I have had the opportunity to study a wide variety of prehistoric painted artifacts from the NW Coast and have only found one object that had a color on it that wasn’t an inorganic pigment. I was fortunate in picking a time to do some research at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Museum of Anthropology when they had several old Coast Salish horn rattles on loan from another museum. One of those rattles dated at 300-400 years old and was unique in a number of ways, not the least of which were two small spots of pinkish red are on the backside. Both spots are transparent, and faded and are obviously berry juice rather than a pigment. After looking at hundreds, if not thousands, of artifacts, and finding only one that has vegetable color on it makes it quite apparent to me that NW Coast indigenous peoples clearly grasped the difference between a pigment and a dye.
Around the world throughout history many people have substituted vegetable dyes for mineral pigments with little success. Vegetable matter such as berries, flowers, leaves, roots, even bark are chemically and physically different from pigments, and while many work beautifully as dyes, they cannot give the same results as pigments. Dyes are colorants with small particulates which are soluble in water and typically need a mordant, or fixative, to make them bond semi permanently or permanently with the fibers of fabric. On leather, wood, and other materials with which they cannot be fixed or bonded, they tend to fade rapidly, simply soak into the medium and can’t be seen, and are not waterproof.
Pigments are pure colored particulates that are not soluble in water, oils, or resins. The colored particles are mixed with a liquid binder or vehicle (in the case of NW Coast paints I have most often seen them mixed with animal fats or water) in which the particle is suspended. If there are not sufficient pigment particulates in the binder you end up with a transparent, weakly colored paint. Mixing plenty of pigment into the binder gives an even textured and evenly opaque (opaque means not allowing any light or background show through) paint with good saturation of color. Most pigments, unlike vegetable dyes, are lightfast, waterproof and “stand” on the surface of the support (support is the material on which the paint is applied.) as a film rather than soaking in and staining the surface like dyes.
Prior to the manufacture of paints, the process to achieve a good paint was not simple even if one already knew where to find the pigment and knew the process. One had to go to the nearest deposit (which could be a long distance) and collect the pigment (pigment is not usually found just laying around on the ground here in the Northwest. In the days before shopping malls and housing developments it would have been easy for people to spot pigment deposits in the landscapes with which they were familiar. Once the pigment is located it would be extracted and cleaned of debris and impurities. If it is in a hard state (clay or stone) it needs to be broken down and ground to small grains. It can be cleaned of impurities such as silica and quartz by washing in a container and letting anything lighter in weight float off while heavy particles sink to the bottom, and then pouring off the lighter pigment into another container. It is then left in suspension, letting most of the fluid evaporate. When the pigment reaches a point where the water has evaporated but is still moist it can be ground into a paste. Often, at this stage the pigment is formed into a cake or ball and let dry for easy storage. The pigment can also be left until dry. Before mixing as paint it would need to be ground to a fine powder.
Fig 19. Pigment grinding stone. Personal collection.
Grinding requires a fairly flat or hollowed surface without bumps or holes (although a polished surface will not abrade the pigment grains and reduce them). If the pigment is in a cake or ball form it can simply be rubbed against the grinding surface to create a fine powder; if loose it can be ground between two stones to create the pigment powder. In my research I have come across many grinding stones, many of which have been carefully carved to represent an animal or shaped in such a way as to contain the pigment while grinding. A great deal of effort and time went into these tools indicating the high regard and respect Indigenous people had for their materials and tools. Sometimes nature provided a stone that served the purpose with no alterations.
Fig 20. Pigment mortar. Blue pigment. Burke Museum.
Fig 20. is a particularly good example of a mortar that was chosen wisely. Its shape is ergonomic, with the point on the left acting as a handle; I tested it and it can be gripped very comfortably in your hand while working. It is heavy enough to stay in place while working but light enough to carry around easily. But the time spent hollowing it is incalculable as with the small mortar below and with all the grinders, mortars, and dishes I have studied. I have seen many small mortars like this which fit into the palm of a hand perfectly. While the outer shape may be mostly natural, the hollow is obviously human work. The uniformity of the walls of the small mortar in Fig 22. along with the little rolled inner lip makes this mortar a piece of artwork unto itself.
Fig 21. Double pigment dish. Red and yellow ochre. UBC Museum of Anthropology.
Fig 22. Small pigment mortar. Red ochre pigment. Burke Museum.
Studying pigment grinders, mortars, paint bowls and brushes has shown me very clearly that early artists were usually meticulous in the use and care of their tools. Grinding stones, mortars, paint bowls and brushes all indicate the use of a single pigment for each; to date I have yet to see any of these tools with more than one pigment on it. This means that an artist would have at least one of these tools for each color used. This coincides with my own practices and care of my tools. Early in my career as an artist I learned to have separate tools for each pigment and paint I use. I discovered that red paint (I use Golden Acrylics exclusively when working with manufactured paint) wears out my brushes (I use only one brand and size of brush for all my work) faster than any other color no matter what I am painting on: wood, leather, cedar bark, grandsons, etc. And I learned quickly that it is all but impossible to clean all the pigment out of a brush before using it for another color. I use separate containers of water for each color when rinsing my brushes as well. Since I only have one large mortar for breaking down the chunkier pieces of pigment, I scour it thoroughly and bleach it so as not to contaminate the next pigment I grind in it. I have small mortars and pestles for grinding different colors finely. The fact that artists were meticulous in using individual tools for each color is yet another aspect to the lengthy task of getting to where they could actually apply paint. An artist would have to make a number of mortars, grinding stones, etc., as part of the prep work. Fortunately, once made, if taken care of they could be used for lifetimes if not generations.
Once ground the pigment can be stored for indefinite periods of time. When the artist is ready to use it, he would have finely ground some in a mortar; typically, only enough for one day would be mixed with the binder because the paint would dry out and be unusable by the next day. He would (I say “he” because there is no evidence of women carvers and painters until modern times) then add a binder (or mix with water) and human spit to the pigment to create paint. Early people knew paint which was mixed with human spit adheres better and spit became part of all the paint recipes (some of the earliest cave paintings are handprints which have been made by putting pigment in the mouth and spitting it around the hand). Human spit carries an enzyme which helps to bind the pigment molecules together. Sometimes pigments were simply mixed with water and spit then painted on. With this technique I have discovered that adding some spit helps to keep the pigment evenly dispersed in the water and helps with adhesion.
Fig 23. Detail of spoked spindle whorl. Red ochre and celadonite on surface altered by lanolin. Burke Museum.
Altering hue and patina
In my research I have had the opportunity to study hundreds, if not thousands, of artifacts, some of which are painted with lipid-based paint, some of which are painted with water-based paint. I have found that there is little difference in the durability between the two techniques, both showing good adhesion and about equal signs of wear through use. What does occur is a change in texture, patina, and hue. When pigments are mixed with water they have a gouache-like texture and powdery patina; the hue remains the same as the pigment. When mixed with salmon egg oils the paint takes on an almost plastic texture and a satiny finish. The hue is usually darkened with a little more saturation of color. Of course, this also depends upon how much pigment has been mixed into the binder. When the pigment has been heavily loaded it overrides the oils and can take on a flat, grainy finish. Rendered animal fats are not the only fat that changes the paint though. Fig 23. is a detail of a spoked spindle whorl painted with red ochre and celadonite pigments and water. The surface paint of this spindle whorl has a smooth satiny finish and both pigments have darkened from the lanolin soaking into it from spinning sheep wool.
Fig 24. Detail of edge of spoke on spindle whorl showing the original color and finish of the paint before lanolin soaked into the top.
In Fig 24. you can see along the edge of one spoke where the original green pigment is a pale, soft color with a flat finish. This is what the green originally looked like all over. This is just one example of artifacts I have studied that show alterations like this. Many objects that were handled often are marked with fingerprints where they have been touched; the oils in human skin being picked up by the paint and remaining throughout the centuries. There seems to be little difference in the durability of water-based and oil-based paints.
Even today it is a time-consuming and detailed process to make paint. For colors of which I don’t have large amounts of natural pigment, I can buy them from reliable suppliers. Although it is a lengthy process to do it today, I am lucky in that I have plenty of light, warmth, premade mortars and brushes, reusable containers for water, a comfy chair and workbench, and containers that seal tightly for storing paint, so I don’t have to make a new batch each day. I try to imagine how difficult it must have been to do this under the conditions in which ancient artists lived and just can not imagine myself pulling it off. It takes determination, stamina, knowledge, technical skills and physical abilities, and a deep commitment to achieve just one dish of paint.