Dragon’s Blood Powder and Lapis Lazuli: How to Use Pigments

A major part of traditional Japanese and Chinese painting is the use of mineral pigments. Nowadays, colours and paint can be made synthetically and acquired in tubes. This may be more convenient and cheap; but for some, using mineral pigments the traditional way has its own special charm.

For me, using mineral pigments has taught me to appreciate not just the varieties of colours but also their history and the lengths people went to acquire colours we now take for granted. When you are using mineral pigments, there isn’t just simply ‘blue’: there’s ultramarine, lapis lazuli, azurite, smalt, manganese, cobalt, etc. Each pigment has their own subtleties and properties. Only through using mineral pigments does one truly recognise this.

Just to give an example of the fascinating history of colour and its influences across the globe, during the Middle Ages, Lapis Lazuli was exported from Afghanistan to Europe via the Silk Road, and it became the most important blue pigment of the Renaissance. It was highly expensive (it still is) and was reserved for the most important figures in a painting, which is why European cultures usually associate the Virgin Mary with the colour blue. Later, the 18th Century saw the development of a chemical colour, Prussian blue, which was exported to Japan and made a huge impression on woodblock print artists such as Hokusai and Eisen, where it was known as Berin (Berlin) blue. The great wave print uses this Prussian blue.

Katsushika Hokusai, ‘The Great Wave’, circa 1830, British Museum

Some have asked me if I use Japanese mineral pigments. Being based in London, the cost of imported Japanese mineral pigments is extremely expensive. A set of 8 'Japanese' brand pigments in one shop can cost around £80-100, if not more. The mineral from which the pigment is made from however, can be found usually in many parts of the world including the UK. It doesn’t have to be azurite from Japan specifically. Azurite from the UK or Europe is the same. I therefore use pigments from a shop in London called Cornelissen & Son. These pigments are used mostly for oil paints, but it is the same mineral; I just use an animal glue binder to make them water based paint, instead of an oil based binder such as linseed oil.

Pigments in Cornelissen & Son

It is a wonderful shop, and they have pretty much everything including marvellously named substances like ‘Dragon’s Blood powder’. The feeling is a bit like entering a medieval apothecary or a wizard’s shop in Harry Potter.

Dragon’s Blood Powder anyone?

I can’t help but explain a little bit more about this pigment called dragon‘s blood. No doubt many of you reading this might be interested. Pliny wrote that “India contributes the ooze of her rivers and the blood of dragons and elephants”. He was referring to dragon’s blood. The belief was that elephants had cooling blood and that dragons, during the dry season, craved something cool to quench their thirst. The dragons would hide in trees, waiting to ambush any unsuspecting elephants. Sometimes, according to legend, they killed the elephants outright and drank their blood, but sometimes the elephant would crush the dragon and they would die together, their two bloods mixing to form a red resinous substance called ‘dragon’s blood’. As Kassia St Clair explains in her book, ‘The Secret Lives of Colour’, no animals, even mythological animals, were harmed in the making of this pigment; rather it is a wound-red resin drawn from the Dracaena genus of trees. Still, who wouldn’t want to say they painted with dragon’s blood? :p

Now for the details. Pigments can be first divided into natural or synthetic. Natural pigments can be found or made through items accessible in the natural world and processed for use without modern chemistry or technology, for example, lapis lazuli. Synthetic pigments are often dependent upon modern technology and chemistry as part of their production: one example is Prussian blue. Both types of pigment are useful And I don’t take the approach of only using natural mineral pigments. If Prussian blue was good enough for Hokusai, it’s good enough for me. A small jar of pigment with between 5-11 grams, as can be seen in the photo can cost around £5 or more depending on the type. I recently purchased 4 jars for £20.

How to Mix Pigments

1) To use these pigments in traditional Japanese painting, including painting on top of gold leaf, put a bit of the pigment in a small dish. You can always add more if you need, but since they are expensive to use, start with a small amount.

2) Add some nikawa (the animal glue, which I explained how to make in an earlier blog post. This can also be purchased either online or in some art supply shops for about £8).

3) Use your finger to mix the pigment with the nikawa until it is like a thin paste. Then add water. Depending on how strong or weak you want to make the pigment you may wish to add water slowly. It is easier to add, but hard to take away, so test. Then you will then be ready to paint!

Nikawa glue, purchased from a shop in London called ‘Choosing and Keeping’

Things to Keep in Mind

1) Just remember that if you are painting on gold leaf, you need to apply a layer of sizing or nikawa glue first. Once dry, this allows the pigment to fix onto the metal sheets.

2) Also, if you do happen to use Japanese mineral pigments, they will sometimes be described as coarse or fine, or given a number which grades the coarseness. Japanese pigments are ground into 16 variations from coarse to fine. The higher the number the finer the grind. #11 is more like what is used in the West for oil and watercolour painting and probably what I’m using. Coarse pigments have deeper colours compared with finer pigments, because fine grains reflect more light.

3) Finally, just experiment and see what works best for you, and have fun.


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