Paint Preparation for Manuscript Illumination

Referring to the table of pigments, we see that a number are toxic, if not poisonous. Unless you're going to make your own, pigment comes supplied in powder form, in small bags or jars. When handling these dusty pigments, it is important to take precautions to protect your health. You do not want to inhale the dust, especially pigments like Orpiment, Realgar and Vermillion – you'll end up poisoning yourself.
  • A sensible precaution is to wear a dust mask when handling dry pigment.
  • Particularly when handling toxic pigments, wear gloves or use a barrier cream.
  • Do not work near a draught or fan – you don't want a toxic pigment blown all over you.
  • Do not eat, drink, rub your eyes, pick your nose, etc. when handling pigment.
  • Wash hands thoroughly after preparing pigment. Wash hands before eating, drinking, using the toilet, etc. If you have any break in the skin, make sure it is adequately covered. You do not want Orpiment or Vermillion in your system.

Preparation of Pigment

1. Place a small amount of pigment on a clean slab of glass or marble. Ensure that the slab is on a stable surface.
2. Add a little water. If using toxic pigments, you may want to add the pigment to the water, to reduce the dust risk as soon as possible.
3. Using a glass muller (I have resorted before now to a large, flat, smooth, hard stone), grind the pigment in a circular motion. Apply a small degree of pressure.
4. If the pigment spreads out too much, use a palette knife to scrape it back into the middle of the slab.
5. Add more water if the pigment gets too dry, a few drops at a time.
6. Different pigments require grinding for different lengths of time. Pigments that derive from stone or earth generally need a lot of grinding.
7. Listen to the pigment as you grind it. At first it will be quite noisy. As the particles are ground down and become finer, they get quieter. When the pigment grinds quietly, it is probably ready. There are some pigments that you could grind until doomsday and they would still benefit from a little more! Good old Orpiment is one of these.

I hate grinding pigment. I must confess that I frequently grind it in the shell as I'm preparing the paint. This doesn't work all that well for indigo or earth pigments.

The binding medium used in manuscript painting, particularly in Europe, was egg. The white of the egg is used most often. Egg yolk is greasier and doesn't stick all that well to vellum or parchment. Having said that, there are recipes for using egg yolk and the proprietary egg tempera paints available use the yolk. Egg yolk gets tougher and harder as it dries. On a flexible surface, it is liable to crack. The general rule is to have a small offcut of vellum or paper and experiment to see what works and what doesn't.

To make egg tempera, you first need eggs. I'm not aware of whether there is any one egg that is superior to all others. Old recipes tend not to say. I would think that they used what was plentiful – probably chicken. There is a marked difference between organic, free range, barn and factory eggs. If you are using the egg yolk, this difference may be very important. Free range, organic eggs have a much richer, deeper yellow yolk. There is also some difference in the colour of the white; organic, again, being slightly more yellow. It's worth thinking about, especially if you're after a lovely, bright white.

Preparing the Glair for Egg Tempera Paint

Take a thoroughly clean bowl. Break your egg carefully over the bowl, being sure to separate the yolk from the white.
  1. To separate the yolk, pass it from one half of the broken shell to the other. You can also use your hands - but this is very messy and sticky.
  2. Catch the white of the egg in the bowl. If you also want to use the yolk, pass it from one hand to the other, CAREFULLY, to dry it out. When dry (doesn't have to be bone dry), hold the yolk carefully in your cupped hand. Use your little finger to hold it in place. Pierce the yolk sac and allow the contents to run out into a clean jar. DO NOT let the sac fall into the yolk. Now wash your hands :)
  3. For the egg white, take a clean whisk or fork and beat the living daylights out of it, until it is about stiff peaks stage. Cennino Cennini (14th Century monk)  said that you couldn't beat the white too much. Beat it until you're fed up and/or aching.
  4. Leave the bowl of white froth in the fridge over night. The next day, there will be some liquid that has drained down and collected in the bottom of the bowl. Pour this (the glair) into a clean jar and put the lid on the jar, to keep the glair clean.
  5. There are a number of different recipes out there as to what you do now with the glair to make your paint. Additives include honey, gum arabic, white wine vinegar, even ear wax! I tend to use just glair:
  6. In a shell (something like an oyster, clam or mussel shell) or saucer, add a small amount of glair. I use wide, shallow shells for the paint, reserving one shell for each pigment.
  7. Add a few drops of water to the glair to dilute it a little. The amount of water varies according to the surface. I find that painting on vellum requires a weaker solution than painting on paper.
  8. At this stage, I also add a few drops of garlic (beat garlic bulbs to a pulp, gather in a cotton cloth or similar, squeeze until you can't squeeze any more. Collect juice in a clean jar. Stink of garlic for days after).
  9. Add a tiny amount of pigment. With pure pigments, a little goes a long, long way. Which is just as well, given the price of some of them. By little, I mean no more than about one third of the size of you little fingernail. Grind the pigment into the liquid with a palette knife or similar. Do not use this implement for anything else (see poisonous and toxic pigments).
  10. Test a little of the paint on a scrap of vellum/ paper. Paint a small strip or blob and allow to dry. When dry, rub the paint. If it is too weak, it will rub off - add more glair. If it is too strong, it will crack off - add more water. The strength of the paint needs to be varied according to the pigment. Minium requires stronger glair than most pigments – or the paint rubs off.
  11. Generally, I add 4 drops of glair to the shell, a teeny bit of pigment,3 drops of water and 2 or 3 drops of garlic, on average. I then grind the mix well, using a palette knife. NEXT (Applying the Paint)
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