"ECOS" Film Screening and Discussion at Sala Rekalde, Bilbao

On the 24th March at 19.00 there will be a screening of films by Luce Choules, Sigrid Holmwood, Lucá Loren and Miranda Whall with a discussion afterwards. Theme is the relationship between the artist and the materials during the creative process, and relates to the current exhibition of work by Isabel Garay, on show at Sala Rekalde, Bilbao. ECOS is a series of screenings of documentaries, short films and video artworks, that explore the main themes of of the exhibitions at Sala Rekalde. ECOS #11 is curated by Gonzaga Gómez-Cortázar Romero.

El 24 de marzo a las 19.00 habrá una proyección de películas de Luce Choules, Sigrid Holmwood, Lucá Loren y Miranda Whall con una discusión. El tema es la relación entre el artista y los materiales durante el proceso creativo, y se relaciona con la exposición actual de Isabel Garay, en la Sala Rekalde de Bilbao. ECOS un serie de encuentros de lectura audiovisual donde a través del visionado de documentales, cortometrajes y piezas de video creación, se exploran los temas principales de las exposiciones de Sala Rekalde. ECOS #11 está comisariada por Gonzaga Gómez-Romero Cortázar.

"Creating the Countryside: Thomas Gainsburgh to Today" at Compton Verney

A major exhibition examining our relationship with the countryside, bringing together Old Masters and contemporary artists whose work spans more than 350 years.

Creating the Countryside provokes reflection on the artistic, social and political forces that have played an important role in forming successive generations’ perceptions of this ‘green and pleasant land’.
The rural idyll occupies a deeply rooted place in the nation’s psyche – Compton Verney’s ‘Capability’ Brown landscaped grounds are themselves an expression of this. Creating the Countryside explores how artists have shaped the vision of rural life and landscape, offering a new perspective on the countryside and its expression in contemporary art and society.
Works by artists including Thomas Gainsborough, Claude Lorrain, George Stubbs and Stanley Spencer are joined by pieces from contemporary artists such as Mat Collishaw, Anna Fox, Sigrid Holmwood and Grayson Perry to present you with a broad spectrum of responses to, and interpretations of, this sceptred isle.

Sat 18 March – Sun 18 June 2017, 11am – 5pm

Sigrid Holmwood, Off to Work We Go, 2016, ink and gesso on calico dyed and mordant printed with cochineal, dyer's broom, and madder, on board. 110.5cm x 178cm 

Sigrid Holmwood, Off to Work We Go, 2016, ink and gesso on calico dyed and mordant printed with cochineal, dyer's broom, and madder, on board. 110.5cm x 178cm 

A Peasant Painter’s Garden: ASC Gallery

An exhibition combining rare peasant folk paintings from Hallands Konstmuseum in Sweden with Sigrid Holmwood’s paintings made in response with hand made pigments. A garden of  wild meadow flowers and dye plants was planted in the gallery garden for workshops and performances in pigment-making.

6th June – 8th August 2014

ASC Gallery, Erlang House, 128 Blackfriars Road, London, SE1 8EQ

'Cultivo y Color' (Cultivating Colour) – a second visit to Cortijada Los Gázquez to clear the land

Towards the end of this October I had my second visit to La Cortijada Los Gazquez in the mountains of the Sierra María-Los Vélez, where I am designing a dye and pigment garden with Simon and Donna Beckman. It is part of a trans-disciplinary project called ‘Sistemas Efímeros’ (Ephemeral Systems), focussing on the old water catchment system on the land. You can read more about it on the Joya: arte + ecología

I revisited the terrace where we are going to build the garden. In the clear autumn sunshine, the crisp dry meadow rustled as I walked through it.

It was time to clear the land in preparation for the garden in the coming year, but before we did so, I managed to collect some seed of some meadow flowers that we could use in the garden as dye plants. They are difficult to identify in such a dry state after a long dry summer, but it is either Centaurea jacea (brown knapweed) which is quite common across Europe, or a sub-species, Centaurea dracunculifolia which is native to Eastern Spain. Brown knapweed has been used in the past as a yellow dye, so we should be able to make yellow pigment from the leaves and flowers.

In order to clear the land, we had help from Andrés, who is currently volunteering at Los Gázquez. He is from the area and his family have farmed the land for generations. Before they got to know him, Simon and Donna had wondered about the bearded young man they saw tending his flock of sheep, book in hand. He is a qualified vet and will be leaving soon to start a job in Belgium. In the meanwhile, he is a great help, not least because of his local knowledge and anecdotes. For instance, he told me the local name of the ‘split-crotch aprons’ that I had sewn for the team after spotting a photo of farmers wearing them during harvest in the local museum – they are called a 'zamarro'.

Andrés Fajardo Sánchez, wearing one of the ´Zamarros´or split-crotch aprons that I sewed for the team, clears the land with his hoe, as I rake behind him.

Andrés Fajardo Sánchez, wearing one of the ´Zamarros´or split-crotch aprons that I sewed for the team, clears the land with his hoe, as I rake behind him.

At the end of the day we had a very careful bonfire of the cut down meadow. We have to take care in such a dry landscape as a forest fire could easily spread. Andrés separated the large pile into smaller piles in cleared fields where flying sparks posed no danger. We will burn some on the original land and dig the ash into the soil to return the nutrients to the future garden. As we watched the bonfire, while the sun went down, we realised it was halloween – a festival believed to have pre-Christian roots in marking the end of the harvest and the death of the year, the end of one cycle in order to start the new.

A pigment garden at Cortijada Los Gázquez – finding native plants

I have just had my first visit to La Cortijada Los Gázquez, an arts project situated in the Sierra María Los Vélez in the province of Almería, Andalucía, Spain. It is run by Simon and Donna Beckman, who have succeeded in renovating an abandoned traditional farmhouse, making it completely off the grid, using solar and wind power. A major part of the plans for Los Gázquez includes investigating, and hopefully reinstating, the old water catchment system on the farm, as a part of  ‘Sistemas Efímeros’ – a collaborative project that brings together the expertise of disciplines such as landscape historians, geologists, botanists through artist-lead works that will augment the perception of the natural value of arid landscapes.

I will be developing a dye and pigment garden on one of the terraces of the water catchment system. The climate of these mountains is very harsh, being not only very hot and dry during summer but also very cold, frequently well below zero during the winter. However, old folk who remember the farm before it was abandoned in the sixties remember tomatoes being grown on the terraces of the water catchment system, and that the ‘balsa’ (the reservoir) was always full of water. Since the water catchment system is not yet fully functional and the well and ‘balsa’ are currently dry, I will be basing the garden on native plants that grow wild in Sierra María Los Vélez and which are therefore already adapted to the dry conditions.  Simon has suggested the first terrace immediately under the ‘balsa’ as the location since there are signs that it does have some moisture in the soil and that the terracing of the catchment system are still functioning to a certain extent. There is a white poplar tree, a classic sign of water, which has self seeded and is thriving in the tracks of one of the ‘acequias’ (irrigation ditch) leading from the ‘balsa’. Under the shade of the poplar there are also the shoots of a couple of fig trees sprouting from an ancient root.

I will be developing a dye and pigment garden on one of the terraces of the water catchment system. The climate of these mountains is very harsh, being not only very hot and dry during summer but also very cold, frequently well below zero during the winter. However, old folk who remember the farm before it was abandoned in the sixties remember tomatoes being grown on the terraces of the water catchment system, and that the ‘balsa’ (the reservoir) was always full of water. Since the water catchment system is not yet fully functional and the well and ‘balsa’ are currently dry, I will be basing the garden on native plants that grow wild in Sierra María Los Vélez and which are therefore already adapted to the dry conditions.  Simon has suggested the first terrace immediately under the ‘balsa’ as the location since there are signs that it does have some moisture in the soil and that the terracing of the catchment system are still functioning to a certain extent. There is a white poplar tree, a classic sign of water, which has self seeded and is thriving in the tracks of one of the ‘acequias’ (irrigation ditch) leading from the ‘balsa’. Under the shade of the poplar there are also the shoots of a couple of fig trees sprouting from an ancient root.

The proposed site for the pigment garden, with the poplar tree at the far side.

The proposed site for the pigment garden, with the poplar tree at the far side.

Despite the promising indications of the poplar tree, it will safest, and indeed more interesting, to investigate to local plants adapted for the climate. The main purpose of this first visit was to identify the possible native plants which may make good dyes and pigments. The local botanical gardens were a fantastic resource, and I managed to identify a number of good candidates for the garden.

Wild madder (Rubia peregrina)

Wild madder (Rubia peregrina)

A definite for the garden is wild madder (Rubia peregrina) which grows wild in the area. It is similar to the historically cultivated dye plant, madder (Rubia tinctoria) except it has more robust, spiny leaves and seems better built for the dry conditions. Like madder, its roots will yield a red colour – one of its Spanish common names is tinta huevos, which means ‘dye eggs’.

A member of the bedstraw family (Galium)

A member of the bedstraw family (Galium)

Tangled in with the wild madder, I also found a member of the bedstraw family, Galium aparine, I believe. It is also a member of Rubiaceae, and its roots will also yield a red colour.

Yellow is generally the easiest colour to come by in the plant kingdom, with many plants to chose from. However, it is worth being discerning when choosing your yellow dye plants and is yellow is always the most fugitive colour and it worth picking plants that produce more lightfast dyes. Looking to history allows us to see which plants come to be valued the most as the best yellows.

Espino de tintes (Rhamnus saxatilis)

Espino de tintes (Rhamnus saxatilis)

This thorny bush is typical of the mountains of los Vélez. The berries of Rhamnus saxatilis were extensively used for dyeing and for making yellow and green pigments in the past. The unripe berries make a yellow colour and were used in recipes for the dutch ‘Schiet’ yellow, while the ripe berries were used for the famous green water colour pigment ‘sap green’. In English the berries are called Persian berries or Avignon berries, alluding to the types of terrain where these spiny bushes grow. In Spanish it is called ‘Espino de Tintes’ – the thorn of colours.

Broom (Cytisus scoparius)

Broom (Cytisus scoparius)

Another plentiful plant on the mountains is broom. The flowers can be used to make a yellow. I am not sure of the lightfastness of this yellow, although it does have a history of use as a dye for wool. However, since this plant is a legume it should have nitrogen-fixing properties and will hopefully be beneficial to the soil and thus the other plants in the garden.

A knapweed native to the area (Centaura dracunculifolia)

A knapweed native to the area (Centaura dracunculifolia)

Brown Knapweed (Centaurea jacea)

Brown Knapweed (Centaurea jacea)

I noticed some remaining knapweed flowers around the proposed site, although most of them had been burned to a crisp by the sun. Apparently they are abundant in May to June. Brown knapweed (Centaurea jacea) grows extensively in europe, but I discovered in the botanical gardens that there is also a knapweed particular to this region of Spain (Centaurea dracunculifolia). I have found references to brown knapweed containing the flavonoid luteolin, which is a good lightfast dye contained in weld (Reseda luteola), which has been cultivated extensively throughout history for its yellow dye. It is also present as a pigment in the dark green background of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Since this wildflower grows quickly and may contain make a good lightfast yellow I think it would be a good addition to the garden and the slower growing Espino de Tintes and Broom.

Finally – what about blue? Blue is one of the rarest and most difficult colours to obtain in nature. There do not appear to be any native colours which will make a good lightfast blue. One possibility is ‘Raíz Colorá’ – meaning ‘coloured root’ (Echium flavum). It is a type of bugloss, member of the family Boraginaceae. I am not certain that this plant can make a blue but other plants in the Boraginaceae family have a dye in their roots which will turn red in acidic conditions and blue in alkali. The Spanish name of Raíz Colorá certainly suggests that the roots produce dye. However, the buglosses do not make very lightfast or reliable pigments and do not have a big history of use in painting, although its behaviour with regard to ph sensitivity is similar to turnsole, which was used in medieval illuminated manuscripts.

Raíz colorá (Echium flavum)

Raíz colorá (Echium flavum)

While I think it is worth with experimenting with Raíz colorá in the garden, we should also try cultivating some woad (Isatis tinctoria). While this plant is not native to the area the are several pointers that suggest it may thrive, or at least survive,  in the garden. Firstly, it is native to the desert and steppe zones of the Caucasus and has a long tap root, so it is clearly adapted to dry conditions. It can also survive frost since I know from experience that it can be grown in Sweden. It was cultivated by the Moors around Granada in the times of Al Andalus, and wild woad has been spotted growing in the nearby Sierra Nevada. Finally, there is a wild mustard growing abundantly in the area which is clearly a close relative to woad. If this wild mustard can thrive, hopefully woad can too.

Having identified our candidates for the garden, the next stage will the collection of seeds and cuttings, designing the layout and the actual hard labour of turning the soil…

 

Pigment-making at Unnaryd’s Bonads Museum in Sweden, July 2013

This little museum is situated in Unnaryd, a village of 759 inhabitants in Småland, Sweden. It has a wonderful collection of ‘Bonader’, paintings made by the local peasant farmers in the 18th and 19th century. Every summer, Sue Prince, an English organic farmer who paints in the tradition of the Swedish ‘Bonad’ painting does a workshop in Bonad painting. This summer, in tandem with my exhibition at Hallands Konstmuseum, I was invited to contribute a workshop in pigment-making from wildflowers and plants to the week of Bonads painting.

One of the most common and important pigments used by the Swedish Peasant Painters was the blue pigment from woad (Isatis tinctoria). The plant would have been cultivated in Sweden. I sent some woad seeds to Gunilla and Sören Kabell, the guardians of the museum, earlier in the spring so that the plants would be ready for harvest at the workshop this summer.

 
The rosettes of woad tenderly cultivated by Gunilla Kabell.

The rosettes of woad tenderly cultivated by Gunilla Kabell.

 

The woad plant is a brassica, in the mustard and cabbage family. It is biannual, flowering only in the second year. It is during the first year, when it doesn’t flower that one harvests the leaves for extracting the indigo blue pigment.

Steeping the torn woad leaves in hot water.

Steeping the torn woad leaves in hot water.

First we tore up the freshly harvest woad leaves, then plunged them into water at 80c. We kept them at 80c for 10 minutes, then we plunged the whole pan of leaves into a tub of ice cold water. The aim is to cool the bath of leaves down to 55c within five minutes, according to a recipe by Jenny Dean.

Cooling down the woad bath with ice packs.

Cooling down the woad bath with ice packs.

Then we strained off the leaves from the bath, taking care to squeeze out all the leaves.

Everyone joins in squeezing out the leaves.

Everyone joins in squeezing out the leaves.

At this point the water has a brownish colour – no blue is visible as yet. To reveal the magic of woad we must add some alkali to bring the ph to around 9. One can use soda ash, lime water or stale urine. We had potash to hand that we were going to use later on in the workshop for other pigments, so that is what we used. We carefully dissolved some in warm water and added it to the brown water, testing with ph paper until we reached the correct level. At this point the bath takes on a greener colour, but still no blue. The next stage was to whisk it…

Whisking oxygen into the woad bath.

Whisking oxygen into the woad bath.

The indigo contained within woad only becomes blue when it is in contact with oxygen. As we introduce oxygen into the woad bath by whisking, we start to see blue colour in the froth. When indigo is oxygenated, it also becomes insoluble in water. We pour the blue-containing liquid into jars and let the blue settle out on the bottom.

 
Jars of dark, indigo-containing liquid.

Jars of dark, indigo-containing liquid.

 

When the blue had settled out on the bottom, we syphoned off the brown brackish liquid that lay over it. At first it is very hard to see the deposit of blue pigment through the dark water. We didn’t want to loose any of the precious blue so we left an cm or so of the brown liquid over the blue deposit on the bottom.

 
Syphoning the brackish brown water from the blue indigo pigment.

Syphoning the brackish brown water from the blue indigo pigment.

 

We poured fresh clean water over the blue pigment and allowed it to settle out again. We repeated the syphoning and fresh water process until the water above the deposit of pigment was clear.

A close up of the deposit of indigo from woad on the bottom of the jar.

A close up of the deposit of indigo from woad on the bottom of the jar.

When the water was clear, we were ready to strain the pigment. The pigment particles are very small, so we used two layers of tightly woven cotton cloth.

Now that we had a blue, we needed yellows and reds to create a complete palette. For this we used a ‘laking process’, a variety of wildflowers to see what colours we could get.

Rosebay willowherb and goldenrod.

Rosebay willowherb and goldenrod.

For yellows, amongst others, we tried birch leaves, rosebay willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium), goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), and yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Birch leaves have been found to be one of the plants used by the bonads painters to make pigment. Ingalill Nyström completed her phd in autumn 2012, analysing the materials and technique used by the Southern Swedish bonads painters. It is the first time these works have undergone technical analysis and Ingalill was invited to come and give a fascinating talk about her findings at the museum on the first day of the week of workshops at Unnaryd.

Birches were important healing trees for the Swedish peasants, not only could they absorb toothache, but they could also absorb any emotional pain if you told the tree about your worries or sadness. Yarrow was also a medicinal herb, used to stem bleeding. Rosebay willowherb was given to cows to increase their milk yields – one of its many names in Swedish is ‘mjölkört’ (milk herb). The particular goldenrod pictured is Canadian goldenrod, which was grown in gardens and has now gone wild and is very common in Sweden. There are also some native goldenrods (Solidago virgaurea, S. alpestris) which can form hybrids with the native goldenrod where they grow together, as they do round Unnaryd. Goldenrod was used as a strengthening tonic and to treat kidney problems.

For reds we used madder roots and surprise webcap mushrooms for purples. Madder (Rubia tinctoria) would have been cultivated in Sweden, but there are also related native plants which contain the same red dyestuff in the roots. They are the bedstraws (Galium), such as lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) and Northern bedstraw (Galium boreale). The roots are best kept for a year before use, so I brought some madder roots to the workshop, but I indicated the wild plants which are types of Galium.

Harvesting lady's bedstraw (Galium verum) roots for red.

Harvesting lady's bedstraw (Galium verum) roots for red.

These Lady’s bedstraw roots that I harvested will be used in a years time. It spreads through rhizomes so the best is to dig quite deep to find the larger, older roots that connect the various spreading clumps. I leave plenty of plants in each clump so that it is sustainable.

The process for making pigments from all of these plants uses the same ‘laking’ process which is distinct from the process of extracting indigo from woad. First the plant matter, the leaves, flowers or roots depending on the plant, is simmered in water with alum (potassium aluminium sulphate), ideally for a couple of hours to extract as much colour as possible. With the majority of plants it is best not to overheat, keeping it below boiling point at around 70c to 80c, as too much heat can destroy the beautiful colour.

Madder roots simmering with alum.

Madder roots simmering with alum.

When then drained the various plant matter from the dye baths. At this point we had beautifully coloured dye baths, but this is not suitable for painting. We need an insoluble pigment which we can grind up in egg or oil. The ‘laking’ process is what makes an insoluble pigment. We did this by adding potash (potassium carbonate) to the dye bath. The proportions are about one part potash to two and a half parts alum, however, we used ph papers to make sure the we had poured the correct about of potash in. Alum is acidic, and potash is alkali so they neutralise each other. The results are quite dramatic:

 
The fizzing reaction of potash and alum.

The fizzing reaction of potash and alum.

 

The potash and alum react with each other, giving off carbon dioxide (hence all the foam), and forming a precipitate which has been coloured by the plant dyes which settles on the bottom of the bucket. Once all the fizzing foam had subsided after a few hours, we strained the pigment through old pillow cases which we hung in trees. We rinsed the pigment in fresh warm water to get rid of any excess alum and strained through the pillow cases again. Then laid out the wet pigment on newspapers to dry. We got a full range of stunning pigments:

Birch leaf pigment

Birch leaf pigment

Goldenrod pigment

Goldenrod pigment

 
Woad pigment with a woad plant behind to the right.

Woad pigment with a woad plant behind to the right.

 
 
Purple from surprise webcaps (Cortinarius semisanguineus) and red from madder roots (Rubia tinctoria).

Purple from surprise webcaps (Cortinarius semisanguineus) and red from madder roots (Rubia tinctoria).