In this age of ever-present political turmoil and fear of the effects of global warming upon the earth, there’s no knowing what kind of cruel era the human race could enter. Ever wondered what art making would be like under a regime without access to the manufactured resources our free market is so inclined to produce for its consumers, or let’s say, in a post-apocalyptic world? Professor Bill Petit’s Painting, Materials and Techniques course on Temple Rome’s campus will teach you all this and more.
Our first day in this class, we were each given a cuttlefish to dissect and harvest an ink sac from. Once we emptied these into a glass mason jar, we mixed it with a cup of water and a dash of white wine vinegar (to keep any mold from forming), creating our own sepia ink to draw with! Disclaimer: it does smell like dead fish, but here in Rome the vendors at the market are kind enough to harvest the ink sac for you if you ask politely! And it’s much more cost effective than purchasing a bottle of india ink from the store. In the spirit of using all the parts of the animal, Bill encouraged us to take the flesh from the cuttlefish and cook it in a risotto with butter, onion and whatever else we feel like.
Our first assignment in the class was to research natural pigments and begin our own color logs in our sketchbook; we had to record the plants we are responsible for fermenting or boiling down and extracting dye from on our own to create useable inks and dyes. Professor Petit exemplified this by teaching us to make our own inks from the rind of a pomegranate, and again with crushed oak galls, both which were fermented in water and a little white wine vinegar for several weeks. We then drained them separately in their own jars and added ferrous sulfate (water infused with iron of a rusty nail) to make them darker. We also spent a class harvesting elderberries, and crushing and boiling them down. Later we added a bit of white wine vinegar and when tested this pigment found that we had made a beautifully rich blue ink from them. I could go on for pages about the creation of indigo pigment from woad and green from buckthorne, which grows locally on all the trees in Rome and purple from beets, etc.
Our most recent assignment has been to create an icon painting in the traditional format that orthodox monks do. I can see why there aren’t a lot of people volunteering for this job. This is easily the most painstaking painting I have ever made. It involves lots of boiling of rabbit skin glue and creating your own gesso mixture from scratch, then sanding the surface down over and over again and burnishing it with an agate stone till it is as smooth as the outside of a jet plane. Then your design must be transferred on with graphite, inked, and engraved. Then the parts that are meant to be gold-leafed must be primed with a special clay, and sanded about a half dozen more times with various different papers. Only after it has been decorated with gold leaf can the artist begin painting in their subject.
From the birth of painting in the Lascaux Caves up until the twentieth century most materials were made of organic, non-toxic elements mixed with a binder (usually animal fat, egg yolk, or oil) to be smeared on whatever surface the artist saw fit. Within this project students are learning one of the oldest and most archival forms of painting to date: egg tempera. We have made many of the pigments ourselves. For example black can be made from slowly cooking chicken bones or grape vines in a dutch oven over the coals of a fire for 6 or more hours and yellow can be made by harvesting saffron, white can be made with egg shells, and verde gris can be made by soaking copper in water for weeks. All of these can be crushed with a glass muller and put in a mix of egg yolk, water and white wine vinegar to be painted with.
Who knows if, in the event of the apocalypse or political upheaval I will have access to chickens or cuttlefish. However I will know the basic chemistry of painting, and in the age of late capitalism, being in touch with the earth and the properties it offers to us is a radical statement that may bear fruit in time to come.