This weekend I got to work preparing the pigment I collected along the Conestogo River for use as paint. A number of things came together to make this happen—An unexpected, free day; a couple road-side wooden skids; and the clarity that comes with a little bit of inspiration. And, I had help … LOTS of help (as the photos below will document …). There was no lack of interest or assistance as I got to work on my plans. And, by the end of the day, I think everyone involved had all had a lot of fun.
The soil I collected down by the river needed to be cleaned and purified to make the colour bright and opaque but, because of the amount of it, I found myself needing to think creatively about how I was going to do this. In the past, I’ve made use of big plastic buckets to wash the pigment I’ve collected but with two of these buckets already full of colour, I had no room to add extra water. Also, washing in such deep buckets has never dried very quickly … their narrow mouths and depth doesn’t allow for either the air circulation or surface area to allow for quick evaporation.
By suspending soil in water—thus washing the raw pigment—you can change a lot about the characteristics of earth pigments. Typically, organics (such as roots) will float on top of the water, which can then be skimmed off. This is desirable because such organics can decompose later within paint and cause all kinds of problems. Also, heavier materials within the soil will sink faster than lighter ones, and this can sometimes allow for a more concentrated colour to be created. It’s especially helpful in sandy soil, where the sand sinks very quickly, and if left present when ground up tends to make the pigment too transparent. In the case of the soil I collected along the riverbank, it’s a very bright raw sienna colour that is clayish and has some organics.
What I needed was to create a drying table—a wide and shallow container where I could wash a sizeable amount of colour and have it dry quickly. As the project took shape, I added an additional goal—I wanted to do it on the cheap. Given that I don’t know how often I’ll be working with such amounts of pigment, I didn’t want to spend a lot of money (I also remain unconvinced that to do so would create better results …). I cut a couple of junk skids in half, and by prying a few extra boards off of one side, I recombined them into a standing table. In the end, I even reused the nails that I pulled … showing my son how to straighten them as my grandfather showed me. Then, suspending a plastic sheet in-between this wooden frame, I ended up with a perfectly serviceable drying table!
The pigment washing went quite well as a couple of handfuls of earth were put into smaller buckets and then filled with water. After stirring up the submerged earth, the kids made a rousing chorus of counting to 60 … and then we poured off the colour still floating in the water into the drying tables. This process was repeated, with each table held a bucket of washed pigment. After a couple of hours, the colour had settled enough that I could siphon off the additional water.
What surprised me was the worms! Both their presence, and the fact that they remained suspended in the water long enough to be decanted was unexpected. At first I remained unaware of them, but after a hour or so a few little wiggling bodies began to appear (which I rescued and moved into our family garden). It was the ones that appeared even later that produced interesting trail lines across the pigment’s muddy surface that I really enjoyed. Their journey’s lines, left across the bright Conestogo colour, immediately reminded me of maps I had draw of the area earlier this year—long lines inviting the viewer to follow, and spin their own narrative about, the journey taken.