Materials Matter Summer Workshops
Materials Matter, Ábhar Ábhar is a container, a holder, a way of thinking and a movement, that explores the production of sustainable art materials. The aim is to bring together practices and forgotten ways of working that are passed along, embellished, reworked, indigenous or partially remembered.
Clare Breen, Mary Conroy and Laura Ní Fhliabhín initiated Materials Matter and invited Kari Cahill, Claire McCluskey and Chloe Brennan to deliver a series of workshops with them on the grounds of VISUAL, Carlow throughout the Summer (2021). These workshops explore bio colour, earth pigments, processing wild clay, making charcoal, pit-firing clay and the practical application of these materials in institutional settings.
The first workshop, Making Pigment, Ink and Paint from the Natural Landscape with Kari Cahill, took place at VISUAL on the 24th of July.
Kari Cahill is a Sligo-based artist whose practice is site-responsive. Landscape plays a vital role in Kari’s practice; she creates pigment, paint and ink from materials foraged from her surrounding environments. She responds to landscape through drawing, paintings and sculpture, and she allows the elemental forces at play in the natural landscape to interact with her work.
Kari began by introducing her practice and the variety of processes: the extraction method (soaking materials to release their colour); the grinding method (breaking up a material into smaller particles by bashing it in a pestle and mortar or with stones or hammers); and the boiling method (breaking up fibrous plant structures with heat to release their colour). We also covered lake pigment extraction, a method of turning ink into pigment, and modifiers, substances that tweak the ph of an ink and may change the colour.
Kari talked us through her system for experimenting with colour and documenting these explorations. She explained that biocolour (inks and paints made from plant material) are reactive to the light and these are often fleeting or fugitive colours. Plants are also often deceptive, for instance, a bright blue bluebell flower usually produces a bright yellow ink. Earth pigments, are usually much more true to their colour. If you find a clump of earth you’d like to try to make a pigment from, drawing the clump along a rough stone will leave a line, like a chalk line. If it’s white it's a rock, if it’s coloured it’s a pigment. It will also give you a good indication of the colour of pigment you’re likely to get. Kari explained that in her practice she is learning to love the more muted shades and palettes working with bio colours and earth pigments can achieve, palettes of browns, greens, yellows and greys rather than neon pinks and blues! She also explained that it is important to be clear that UV light effects the lightfastness of biocolour inks and paints and this is just a part of the process and rather than fighting against it, it is better to be transparent about that and embrace the changes.
We spent a little bit of time foraging on the grounds of VISUAL, talked about qualities of plants that make them better for processing into inks and pigments (for instance waxy, pulpy berries, leaves and fruit are often not great for extracting colour). We decided to collect nettles to make some nettle ink. It is important when foraging material to only take 10% of something from an area and then move on to another area. When collecting plants or seaweed, only cut a part of the plant, never pull it up or break a seaweed’s holdfast on the rock. The nettles went in a pot with some water and boiled for an hour and a half.
After lunch Kari demonstrated grinding an earth pigment, we did this in a heavy pestle and mortar. The process should not be too tough on the arms and the clay clump should break down easily with a little water added. We then separated the pigment from other rocks and debris using water, pouring the liquid through decreasing grades of sieve. The last step was to run the sieved liquid through a coffee filter, the material left in the filter was the pigment. Pigment just means colour. Pigment can also be collected after boiling down a liquid to make an ink and then allowing it to evaporate.
When the pigment is extracted it should be ground again down into a fine powder and it can be mixed into a paint or ink. We mixed the earth pigment into a thick paint-like mixture, making a little pile on a glass slab and adding equal parts water and gum arabic, using a spatula and then a muller. Mulling is just a way to get the liquids and solids more evenly combined.
Kari finally showed us the lake pigment extraction method. She added aluminium sulphate and soda ash to ink. This process helps pigment suspended in water to settle and the pigment can then be gathered using a filter. You could use this method to extract pigment from a dye bath. We then tested the nettle ink, and earth pigment on paper and used modifiers to alter the colour of the ink including citric acid, liquid iron and bicarbonate of soda.
Kari Cahill’s website: https://www.karicahill.com