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An Introduction to Paint Making

By Maitresse Yvianne de Castel d’Avignon, OL ..... AEthelmearc

This handout will explain the processes I use to make paint. Neither the written material nor the class it is intended to accompany will provide you with all of the information you will need to work with period materials. I encourage you to seek out other sources of information and speak with other scribes. Experimentation will prove itself a useful teacher, but please do so carefully.

The simple recipe for making paint is to take a pigment, or coloring agent, and mix it with a binder or glue ... right? OK, basically that's right, but there's a little more to it if you want to make a usable paint. When you make your own paints, the pigment first needs to be prepared to be mixed into the binder (mulled and made into a paste) and by the way.... which binder? Gum arabic, glair (egg white) or egg yolk are all good binders and each has different qualities which make it desirable for various purposes.

Watercolors are made from pigment mixed with a binder. Gouaches are watercolors with a little white pigment added to make the paint less transparent. Modern tube paints usually contain gum arabic as a binder. They also contain a bit of glycerin to help keep paints from drying out. The pigments are often a blend of natural and/or synthetic materials. Some tube paints are just as dangerous to use as the medieval pigments we are replacing. By making your own paints, aside from the pure pleasure of being able to experience more closely the methods and medieval scribes, you will know what your paints are made of. Some tips on working with dry pigments

**Know what you are using.

**Keep all materials in a safe location, under lock and key if necessary to prevent accidental exposure... especially good tip to protect children and pets.

**Use caution in the disposal of contaminated materials

**Screw top containers are better for storage than stoppers.

**Painting with malachite is like painting with sand. It requires a completely distinct technique to apply. The dried paint is often compared to green sandpaper.

**Some pigments when ground too fine will turn into a white powder (malachite and azurite are the first to come to mind) What a waste of good pigment. :-(

**Levigating and removing the finer pigment particles can intensify some colors.

**You can skip the whole grinding process and use tube watercolors or gouaches. This takes half of the fun out of making your own paints, but it also removes a lot of the risk.

Preparing the pigments

The most dangerous part is making the pigment into paste. It's really easy to inhale the dust or get it into your eyes or a cut. Some scribes will just hold their breath while they mix paints. This is not a particularly safe habit to get into. With knowledge of your materials comes a bit more understanding of which pigments you can do this with and which ones you should never attempt it with. There is no such thing as being "too cautious". If you are using toxic materials or are unsure of what you are doing, wear a mask, gloves and eye protection. Once you have a usable paint, the risks lessen, but with the more dangerous materials you may want to keep the gloves on. You can gain confidence by practicing with ochres. They are not dangerous at all (unless you happen to be allergic to them). Ochres are also easily available and cheap. I have found several sources for free.

Dry pigments come in various stages of preparation. Before you mix the pigment with the binder you will need to grind it to a fine, uniform powder using a muller. Technically, a muller is a flat bottomed piece of wood or glass similar to a pestle. Just as a mortar and pestle are used as a set, a muller is used with a mulling plate. Commonly, the set is often referred to as a muller. You can use a couple of pieces of marble tile or heavy glass and grind the pigment between them if you don't have a commercial muller. Some of the softer pigments (ochres or terra verte for example) can be mulled with the bulb end of a dropper in a plastic palette. To use a muller, place a small amount of pigment powder on the mulling plate. Adding a drop or two of distilled water will help keep the dust down and will result in a paste that can then be added to your binder without making clumps like a dry pigment would. You can even add your binder right to the muller to make sure everything is well incorporated. Grind in a circular motion. You will have to keep pushing the pigment paste back to the center of the mulling plate.

The Binders


Yes, pigments do act and look different in the various binders. Gum arabic is the easiest to work with. That's what is in most tube gouaches and watercolors, so you are probably familiar with how it handles. Although it is mainly harvested from the acacia tree, less desirable grades of gum arabic can be harvested from cherry, plum, almond or any other tree that produce something that resembles acacia sap. While these other saps or gums were used, they were not as good as that harvested from the acacia. To make a liquid from dry, powdered gum arabic, combine the 1 part gum arabic to 7 parts distilled water, let sit for 1 hour before using. To make a paint using liquid gum arabic - use about equal parts gum arabic and pigment, then add water to the desired consistency. These amounts are variable. Some pigments require more binder than others. The more gum arabic you add - the glossier and more brittle the paint. A **little** honey or sugar added to the paint will help it become less fragile. To test - paint a small area on a piece of paper or vellum and allow it to dry. If the pigment doesn't rub off when dry, then you have a usable paint. If it does rub off, add more binder. If the paint is too transparent, try adding a little more pigment paste.


Egg yolk gives a richer and sometimes darker appearance to the pigments. It leaves a very glossy, somewhat oily appearance to the dried paint. It also gives a depth you don't get with gum arabic- (similar to the difference between using paper and vellum). It clots on the brush, so you have to work with small amounts. Work wet and keep your brush clean. It is very hard to do blending with. Building up layers of cross hatching is more effective than trying to mix layers of paint. You only have about 5 seconds before the paint starts to set up. Never try to paint over a wet area. It is best to wait a bit for the paint to set up and then paint another coat. This is a very soft paint and may smear even after completely dry. It was used more for panel paintings than manuscript pages because just the friction of pages being turned would cause the colors to smudge.

Use the freshest eggs you can get. Separate the yolk from the white. Gently place the yolk sack on a paper towel and roll it around to remove all of the white. Poke a small hole in the yolk and pour into a small jar. This will keep for several days. Add egg yolk to pigment paste and enough water to paint. The ratio of pigment to egg yolk is a guessing game. Some pigments require a little more egg than others. To test- paint onto a smooth surface and allow to dry. Try to scrape off the dried paint with a craft knife. If it can be peeled of in a continuous tough film, there is enough egg to bind it; if it powders or flakes off there is not enough. If the paint dries almost immediately and clogs the brush so you can not paint with it, you have used too much egg yolk. It is best to add more pigment paste, not water. The amount of water added to make the desired consistency affects the transparency of the paint, not the binding power of the egg yolk.


Working with glair takes a little getting used to. Like egg yolk, it also dries rather quickly on the brush and is harder to blend. It adds a depth to the work, but not nearly as much as egg yolk. It has a tendency to be brittle. It will crack and chip off of the page if it is too brittle or too thick. I add a **little** honey or sugar to the paint. Adding too much honey will produce a sticky goo that will take forever to dry. The right amount adds flexibility to the paint. Glair was a common binder used in paints for illuminating manuscript pages. Unlike egg yolk and gums which can be used immediately, glair takes a while before it can be used as a binder. It needs to sit, a few hours to overnight will work, but the older it is, the better it gets. Glair will keep for quite a while in a sealed jar. Old glair, 6 months or more, is different from fresh glair... it handles more like water than a binder, is less brittle and smells much worse.

To make glair- take an egg (fresh eggs are better, free range chicken eggs are best) and separate the yolk from the white. Place the white in a glass bowl and whisk it up similar to making a meringue. If you don't beat it enough, the glair will be stringy. Let it sit. Scoop any meringue off of the top and throw it out. Glair is the liquid left in the bottom, not the stiff crusty stuff on top. Add the glair to the pigment paste. Mix in a little sugar or honey and distilled water to make the paint into the desired consistency. Test the same as paint made using gum arabic. Paint a small patch and let the paint dry. If the pigment doesn't rub off when dry, then you have a usable paint.

Binders can also be combined to create desired results. Egg yolk was often mixed with glair to get the depth and richness of egg yolk combined with the durability and gloss of glair. Some tube watercolors or gouaches are under bound. Occasionally scribes will add more gum arabic for extra binding strength or a bit of glair for a glossy, semi waterproof base that is wonderful to do crisp white work on top of.

You might find yourself going back to tube paints eventually. They have a lot going for them. Aside from the obvious ease to work with, some of the medieval pigments just aren't as colorful as you wish they were. Vermilion can be a bit of a disappointment. It had a nasty habit of turning black in period and modern processing causes this to happen more often. Given how poisonous vermilion is, and the poor results you may want to consider using it only as a demonstration tool or for color comparison. Some pigments when mixed into or even placed near other pigments cause chemical reactions that will eventually cause the paint to change color. Real pigments can be expensive too. Top grade lapis ultramarine pigment runs $158 for 5 grams.

My best advice is....

If you don't already own Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting get a copy. It will tell you a lot about pigments and binders. Then take the time to practice with each binder. Learn how they handle and how they affect the appearance of the paint. You will learn far more from experimenting with period pigments and binders than any book or teacher will ever be able to convey.


Cennini, Cennino. Il Libro dell' Arte - The Craftman's Handbook
Dover Publications,New York. 1933, 1960 ISBN 0-486-20054-X

De Arte Illuminandi: a 14th century treatise by anonymous
Translated from Latin by Daniel V. Thompson New Haven, 1933

Smith, Ray.The Artist's Handbook
Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York - Random House of Canada, Toronto. 1987 ISBN 0-394-55585-6

Theophilus On Divers Arts
Dover Publications,New York. 1963, 1979 ISBN 0-486-23784-2

Thompson,Daniel V. The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting
Dover Publications,New York. 1936, 1956 ISBN 0-486-20327-1

Copyright © 2006 Maitresse Yvianne de Castel d'Avignon, OL (AEthelmearc)

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