Hare Bone Black

Alchemy

Nowadays a painter can get virtually any colour imaginable straight from a tube. It’s easy but there’s little by way of mystery involved. It wasn’t always like that though – the tube is less than two centuries old – and for centuries painters, or their apprentices, made their own paint. There’s something alchemical about transforming some everyday substance into a tool for creative expression. As I painted the hare skeleton it struck me that bone black is one of the colours painters would traditionally have made for themselves and that, as pigment, the hare could continue to have a life.

Chemistry

The first step was to collect as much of the skeleton as possible, all those smithereens of femur included, and to break them into manageable fragments. Bones are white (well, whitish) so how come bone black is, well, black? The answer is the alchemists’ old friend fire. As with making charcoal, the essential process is to burn the bones in the absence of oxygen.

The bones are tightly wrapped in tinfoil to exclude as much oxygen as possible from the reaction. This packet is then put into a tin with a blow hole punched into it so that the escaping gas from the burning bones can burn off. The tin is placed in the hottest part of the fire. I couldn’t find any exact timings so I left the tin in the fire until it had died down late in the evening. By morning it was cool enough for the next stage.

The burnt bones are a glossy black and even before the grinding process they have an elegance to them that hints at the beauty of the marks that they might one day make.

It’s striking at this stage how little material is left of the hare.

After a half an hour of grinding with the mortar and pestle the bones have been reduced to a powder but you may be able to see a few reflective points where there is still enough surface on the fragment to bounce back light. The pigment needs to be finer so another spell with the mortar is called for.

Another half an hour later and any breath in the direction of the pestle sends tiny plumes of dust upward. Enough grinding. The bones have been transformed to pigment. Adding a little linseed oil will make paint but I have different plans. The hare and I are going to make prints together and over the winter I’ll prepare plates. When the light improves I’ll make ink with my hare bone black pigment and proof them.

The Hare’s Tale

A death

About a year ago, driving home, I saw the car in front of me clip something. There was a lay-by I could pull into so I stopped and walked back along the roadside, cars careering past. It didn’t take long to find the hare, thrown into the ditch by the car that had spun it from the road. It was still alive, its chest pumping, its eyes flared. I thought I might be able to save it but as I lifted it I saw that one of its back legs was pointing in the wrong direction and there was blood leaking everywhere. By the time I got it to the car it was dead. I put it in the boot and brought it home, thinking that I might paint it, to tell its story and make its place in the world something tangible.

Hare diptych, oil on panel, 2019 – 2020, 60 x 40cm each

An entombment

As I painted it I started to dwell on how serene it looked for all that it was broken and bloodied. I built a cairn of sorts over it on an old garden slab down the side of the shed so that the rats wouldn’t carry away its bones and as the days past I found my self thinking about it and I knew that as the flesh fell away the broken bones would fall away and it would tell a much clearer story of its grim end.

A resurrection

Exactly a year after I built the tomb around it I uncovered it again. Some of the bones had fallen in unexpected ways and some had moved far farther than I would have thought possible but it was the bones of its pelvis and back legs that spoke most clearly of the violence of its demise. I painted the hare a second time.

The Anatomy Lesson, 2020

With that second painting complete I set about itemising the bone fragments, 535 pieces, some no bigger than specks of dust. I may have missed some in what remained of the rotted down carcass but what remained I decided to try and coax one final act of transcendence from by making bone black pigment. I’ll tell you about that another day. For now contemplate the hare’s tale.

A TAle of Two Studios

I loved my old studio even when, as you can see below, the ceiling fell in destroying a couple of months work. I loved it’s light and the sense of infinite space that the high Victorian ceilings gave it. All good things come to an end though and that house is being sold so I’ve had to relocate.

The old studio, after the one hundred and fifty year old plaster and lath ceiling collapsed

I haven’t got the new studio set up properly yet and I haven’t been able to start work on some new pieces I’m very excited about. There’s nowhere yet for me to coat the panels in gesso and to be honest, like a lot of painters, I like my routines and I’m happiest when I can work in my normal way. I needed to paint something though. I had been gifted a canvas a while ago (I never paint on canvas) and I had also laid down some paper on board as I’ve long wanted to try that as a surface. Both of these were painted fast and loose and I’m not sure I would revisit either process (at least without tweaking) but I like both well enough to share the results on here.

Eating Pears, 61x76cm, oil on canvas, 2020
Kerr’s Pinks, 30x30cm, oil on paper laid down on board, 2020

Things glimpsed from a moving train

This was a breakthrough painting for me in a number of ways. I started working in Edinburgh in December 2016, getting on a train at just after 7.00a.m., in the dark, coming back again, at 6.00p.m., in the dark. I wasn’t seeing daylight at all and was barely managing to make any work. Then, as the day’s started to get lighter, I first noticed this little break in the solid wall of sandstone the train cut through. Flooded quarry workings near the shale bings. I started trying to pin down a few details on paper but it was there and gone again in no more than a couple of seconds. Finally I buckled, worked out where it was on google maps and took a day off work to go and find it. There was some off road driving involved and maybe the tiniest bit of trespassing but I got a good drawing made and was able to work up a painting on the back of it. I’m still happy with that little pink flash of foliage on the right which, for me, was the message to put the brush down. It sold in the next year’s RSA Open exhibition so hopefully it’s still making someone happy

Interview

Una-Minh Kavanagh, an Irish journalist and Irish language educator, recently caught up with me to ask a few questions about the direction my work has taken since I arrived in Scotland. She asked some very perceptive questions and I think the interview gives you a flavour of what I’m like as a person. You can read it at https://weareirish.ie/culture/greag-art-painting-visual-ireland/

A bit about the name

I realise my name can seem a bit of a challenge for anyone who doesn’t have a smattering of Irish but names are important to the Irish. Our language was taken from us over centuries, place names as well as personal names lost any attachment to their original meaning. In English my name is McAteer, but it can also be brought into English as McTeer, McTear, McIntyre, McIntire, all approximations of the original phrase mac an tsaoir, son of the free man. The Irish for free is saor but in this context it is a very specific form of freedom. In mediaeval Ireland with it’s complex systems of chiefs and minor kings the ordinary man in the field paid certain taxes, or owed specific obligations, to any leader further up the chain. Makers though, people who worked wood or stone, were free from these obligation and formed a class outside the conventional structure. As close as my father’s generation my family were quarry men, still working stone. So for me the name Mac a’ tSaoir still has a resonance and a sense of purpose that McAteer has failed to bring into English with it.

Silence of the birds

This summer has swung from swelter to monsoon and it has played havoc with the birds. Crows and pigeons railing against the squall, feathers pushed this way and that have alternated with days so bright the goldfinches have been flying blind, colliding with windows and garden walls. I’ve tried to rescue both but it hasn’t always been possible.

Dead Goldfinches, 30x30cm, oil on panel, 2020