From the Art Hut – the permanence of pigments
By Karen Wallis
On July 17, 2018, I made this oil painting of Marc excavating a hearth in Structure One.
The colour of the deposits was extremely rich and varied. I had already attempted to paint them in watercolour, but was unable to capture their subtlety. So the oil painting documents the situation in place of any accurate record of the hearth itself. Nevertheless, colour on the Ness site has continued to fascinate me.
In my first season as Artist in Residence in 2016, Martha ‘The Rock Lady’ introduced me to colours found in various stones. This opened up a whole alternative collection of images as I began to record samples of pigments, by grinding each piece of rock, making marks with the powder using various media and putting the remainder in little bags.
Over my four seasons on the dig I have continued to collect these pigment samples. It has been a convenient way of continuing to work when having to remain in the Art Hut, either to receive visitors on Open Days or when rain prevents drawing on site.
Some of these samples have been made into ‘spot’ paintings using a range of mediums for each rock. The top row is a piece of each rock in a bag, the second row is the mark made directly on to the canvas, the third row is pigment mixed with water, the fourth row is mixed with beef dripping (spoof Neolithic oil paint), and on the ledge at the bottom is a piece of stone with pigment chalked on to it.
This has been a mock scientific experiment in which I simply enjoy the amazing range of colours apparent through different amounts of iron oxide – from the palest pinks and ochres through to dark ‘Venetian’ reds.
This ‘play’ with rock colours is quite separate and totally different from my usual method of working.
The sketchbook drawings, plein air paintings and sound recordings are being made into a film, whereas it is difficult to see where the collection of rock pigments might lead. However, it is possible that I am becoming involved in some serious research on behalf of the dig – experimenting with the longevity of marks made on rocks.
In 2018, Martha, The Rock Lady, shared a piece of red sandstone by breaking it on the pavement. There was substantial rain the next two weeks but the colour mark on the paving remained.
I had already decided to leave some pigment ground in beef fat exposed outside over winter. Martha told me there would have been lots of eggs around the site in the Neolithic. So, encouraged by Martha and Anne, Ness of Brodgar project manager who is in charge of finds, I put samples of dry pigment, plus the same mixed with beef fat, egg white, egg yolk and whole egg, on a large stone and left it in one of the trenches to see how it changed over winter.
As can be seen from the before and after picture, nothing much remained except the beef fat.
Realising that leaving it outside exposed to the weather was not replicating an accurate situation, in 2019 I made another set of samples, using duck eggs and adding duck fat into the range.
Reading from left to right: 1. dry pigment directly on to the stone, 2. applied with water, 3. mixed with duck egg white, 4. duck egg yolk, 5. whole duck egg, 6. duck fat, 7. beef dripping.
The stone has spent this last winter in a stone built outhouse. The idea being to see how it weathers over time in an environment as near as possible to one of the Neolithic buildings where colour has been discovered on the walls. Unfortunately, I have not been able to return to Orkney to see the result…
This work with pigments is as close as I get to being directly involved in the actual archaeology. My main function remains as ‘sketchy person’ in the Art Hut doing what is now recognised as a form of documentation that records the human activity on site.