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Summer Colours

Art by Siobhan Fraser, Robin Wilson & Rosie Cholmeley- Fairfax, Peter Blakemore & Beatrice Hoffman

Harking back to the earliest inks, you’ll find artists Robin Wilson and Rosie Cholmeley-Fairfax in their woodland studio making their own ink from oak galls

For forty years, research has indicated a palette that reflected far better the colourful characters in Greek and Roman myths: a sunshine yellow lion sporting a blue mane, an archer with harlequin leggings, and a warrior of dark complexion with stones inset for eyes, for example.

Matching the residual pigments of which traces have been found on the originals, these replicas are as they might have been, alongside a display of mineral pigments: stunning stones expensive for centuries because of their potential for painting, blue from azurite, cinnabar red, yellow ochre, and green from malachite.

And today Wheatley artist Siobhan Fraser hand-paints traditional Greek, Russian and Ethiopian icons using age-old traditional techniques on wooden panels: her ‘tempera’ is made from natural ground pigments and egg yolk and gesso (a chalk-base), gilded with gold leaf.


In the not too distant past, all dyes and paints were obtained from the natural world: animals, minerals and plants. The colours were less permanent and rich as the synthetic colours we use today, but each carried with it a history, a journey and a meaning.

Weld is a natural dyestuff obtained from the cultivated plant Dyer's Rocket, the first European dye plant, a five foot tall relative of the garden mignonette, with small pale yellow flowers that appear in early June, attracting bumble bees and other insects. Weld was used for dying materials long before it was used for making oil paints. It was one of the most popular organic yellows before the introduction of the modern synthetic organics and is still grown for dyeing silk.

An expensive pigment during the Renaissance was a deep red colorant extracted from a crude resin produced by an insect indigenous to southeast Asia and used to make ‘Indian Lake’ for manuscript and easel painting whilst early green pigments were mostly copper-based or which Verdigris was the most vibrant available until the 19th century.

Deep blue ultramarine (‘beyond the sea’) was imported into Europe from mines in Afghanistan by Italian traders during the 14th and 15th century, where the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli was ground to powder. It was the finest blue in the Renaissance era and was used for the robes of the Virgin Mary, symbolizing holiness. Synthetic ultramarine was invented in 1826 after which this hue could then abound from the artist’s palette!

The eighteenth and nineteenth century saw a huge expansion in the use of and demand for natural dyes in parallel with the considerable technological developments in the textile industry. In response synthetic processes were developed, producing dyes far more permanent than ‘fugitive’ dyes from flowers and plants that fade in the light.

Over in Wytham Woods, an area of ancient semi-natural woodland to the west of Oxford, which is used for environmental research and can be enjoyed by all of us, you’ll find an exceptionally rich flora and fauna including a variety of habitats including ancient seminatural woodland and a variety of ponds and 800 species of butterflies and moths!

Here, harking back to the earliest inks, you’ll find artists Robin Wilson and Rosie Cholmeley-Fairfax in their woodland studio making their own ink from oak galls. These grow when a gall wasp lays its eggs onto the punctured underside of an oak leaf. As the larva develops, the tree secretes gallic and tannic acids, creating the oak gall, a spherical shape clearly distinct from acorns. The oak galls are dried and then crushed with a pestle and mortar, soaked in water and strained – then a dash of a ferrous sulphate is added to create a permanent ink. Ink made this way has been found, possibly as early as 588BCE, in a series of letters written in in Ancient Hebrew on clay ostraca and discovered in 1935 in Lachish, a city dating back to ancient Judah, seventeen of which are currently in the British Museum, although the use of ferrous sulphate was used in the manufacture inks became far more commonplace in the middle ages.

Flowers and trees have long provided inspiration as well as pigments for painters and you’ll find the magic of the cricket green and the village fete, the gardening show, and England’s green and pleasant land all depicted in today’s art.

And as summer blooms, look out for art in gardens whether nature’s own as seen at the Blenheim’s Annual Flower; sculpture which, says Garford sculptor Beatrice Hoffman, ‘can enhance a garden and give emphasis to design and plantings throughout the year.’; or ‘pop-up exhibitions’ at Open Gardens events – in Berrick Salome on 20 and 21 June, for example, discover an art-in-the-garden trail leading to St Helen’s, a quirky church that’s interesting architecturally and hosting a choir from Ohio for the event. And you’ll find beautiful open gardens welcoming you in across the county that weekend for Father’s Day! Why not buy Dad a sketchbook and some (ready prepared) paints instead of the usual slippers?

It’s worth heading to the Ashmolean before the end of their Gods in
Colour exhibition to see more than twenty full-size reconstructions of Greek and Roman sculptures which challenge the popular view of classical sculpture as pure white marble: you’ll find bright reds and jade green, startling against the originals of the same statues.

Find out more about The Gods of Colour at The Ashmolean and the Blenheim Palace Flower Show; for Open Gardens search on your postcode at opengardens.co.uk.

See more art by Siobhan Fraser, Robin Wilson & Rosie Cholmeley-Fairfax, Peter Blakemore and Beatrice Hoffman.

- Esther Lafferty


Top Image - Jim Robinson

Bottom Image - Cassie Butcher


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