Ever since I did the 100 Mile ART Project for the city of Cambridge in 2008, the studio has used indigo for its blue pigment. Finding a local blue in southern Ontario was one of the project’s biggest challenges. As with most of the work, it was the fantastic community that formed around the project that offered the solution of growing woad plants and harvesting indigo from their leaves. (More can be read about that part of the project on my artist page: www.vandonkelaar.ca/pilgrimage/newtonville-look-what-came).
Today we grow and harvest the blue we needed each year. This use of local pigments for the studio’s palette is one of the unique aspects of the Conestoga Iconographic Studio, and I’ve shared with many how doing so is the basis of the studio’s work. From the stylization of the traditional Byzantine iconography to the local Ever since, we’ve grown and harvested the blue we needed each year. The use of local pigments for the studio’s palette is one of the unique aspects of the Conestoga Iconographic Studio, and I’ve shared with many how doing so is the basis of the studio’s work.
The harvesting of indigo from our woad plants offers a unique hue (a video about that process can be watched here: www.conestogaicons.com/woad-blue), but harvesting the pigment is only the first step of the process. To make this colour lightfast, the raw indigo has to fuse with a special clay. This process is one that was invented by the Maya civilization around 800AD, but it was lost in the early colonial period because of its connection with human sacrifice. It has only been within the last couple of decades that the technique of making Maya blue has been rediscovered, and the studio has continued to work in creating a quality pigment by following the research done by scientists around the world.
Making Conestoga Blue
Last week, my youngest daughter and I decided to continue our work developing a Conestoga Blue following the techniques used to create Maya blue. To that end, we ground up the new clay we had recently received with last year’s woad harvest, and experimented with the duration and intensity of heating it. While the initial results of our experiments were quite greenish (which was beautiful, but not our goal), by the end of the week, we were able to create a gorgeous blue pigment that was very exciting.
As with so many things related to indigo blue, the most crucial ingredient was oxygen. Megan Gannon’s article, Maya Blue Paint Recipe Deciphered, clarified that in ancient Maya blue samples, a secondary pigment was present. This secondary pigment, dehydroindigo, is formed when the mixture is exposed to oxygen. Dehydroindigo is a yellow pigment, which also explained why our pigment had been turning out green, since mixing this yellow pigment with the blue of indigo would create a green. With this vital detail discovered, we began stirring our samples as we prepared them, and the results were fantastic. This stirring also allowed us to better regulate the temperature of the pigment throughout the whole sample.
While we began our efforts hoping to create a suitable pigment for the studio, we actually created two! Both the purer blue Conestoga Blue pigment, and its as-of-yet-unnamed greener form. Together they make a beautiful set of colours that will appear in the studio’s icons as long as our woad plants keep providing the indigo blue.
The naming pigments is one of the joys of making them in my experience, we’re currently a little stumped on this one. In the hope of sharing that joy, the studio is having a contest for finding the best name for this new green-coloured pigment based on Maya blue. The person who suggests the best name will receive a little ¼oz jar of this colour as a prize and a thank you. Submit your suggestions below before the end of the month to have it considered!
In the meantime, with this new pigment ready to be made into paint, I’ll be sure to share images of its results as the work continues here in the studio.
The studio was significantly helped in making this pigment. My daughter, Elise, tirelessly ground up batches of clay for our experiments and was enthusiastic about each batches’ unique colours. As mentioned above, the article by Megan Gannon also provided new insights. If interested in reading more about this discovery, please check out the article: www.livescience.com/28381-maya-blue-paint-recipe-discovered.html. Also, the article by artist Natalie Stopka sharing her experiments helped share a baseline ratio for the pigment. It can be read here: www.nataliestopka.com/goingson/postid-6. Lastly, the new Sepiolite clay for these experiments was provided by Jaxon Filtration in Georgia. The owner of this company was very supportive of our experiments, for which I am grateful.