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.
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.