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The Crimson Worm
Of Bugs and Colour
“Red, I said. Sudden, red.”
Robert Haas The Problem of Describing Colour
There are a lot of ways to get to intense permanent red, and it seems that many of these paths are strewn with the bodies of insects.
The Oldest carpet in the world was found frozen in the Altai Mountains of Siberia in 1948. Its 1,250,000 double knots depict warriors on horseback and a line of broad antlered spotted deer with anatomically accurate internal organs. For a naturally dyed almost 4000 year old rug it’s looking pretty bright. Recent analysis suggest that a wool fermentation process involving sourdough kept the colour from fading and meanwhile analyses of ancient red dyes were conducted determining natural dyes of plant origin (alizarin and purpurin) and of insect origin (carminic acid and kermesic acids).
It began, as is so often the case, with a letter. I received an incredible package in the mail the other day from fellow inkmaker Tim McLaughlin. Tim and his extraordinary notebooks will be featured in The Colour of Ink, a film that’s shaping up to be a labyrinthine quest into the world of wild pigments. Tim also got me thinking about bugs. I have been using shellac to bind and add a shimmer to my inks for years and I’ve often noted that this natural substance has been used to make M&Ms shiny, and India ink waterproof, and I knew it was made by some kind of insect but had only heard whisperings of the lac bug and the colour that it made.
My letter came in a package with 3 peculiar resin-encrusted sticks collected in the mountains of India almost twenty years ago. I poured hot water over the sticks and stirred them to separate the red dye from the shellac. The results were a kind of reddish brown that turned closer to burgundy when I microwaved it. Microwaving helped separate the colour but melted the shellac and made an almost sculptural mess. I tested the lac tones on paper while reading up on Turkish carpets, the ancient helmet-shaped scale insects that make kermes, carmine, and lac pigments and the tola’ath or crimson worm of biblical scripture which of course led me to the wormhole of Christian bloggers which is usually the place to stop and go back to just experimenting.
The colour really started to take off when I added some dissolved chunks of alum salts I’d found at a Middle Eastern grocery store in a strip mall in Washington State. The magenta’s and pinks that emerged seemed much closer to the almost electric carmine reds of the cactus-intensifying cochineal insect.
After playing for a week or so with this seemingly inexhaustible treasure and going down more than one wormhole, I decided maybe I should talk to Tim and instead of elegantly weaving his answers into my newsletter I have included most of our interview below which is well worth the read.
Tim McLaughlin is a Canadian artist, writer, and photographer. He has been making and experimenting with small batches of traditional hand-made inks and teaches the art of natural inkmaking in Vancouver in partnership with Charllotte Kwon and Maiwa Handprints.
How would you describe yourself and your practice in a few words?
Most of what I do I love: photography, video editing, graphic design. But ink is a way to turn off the screen and focus on one thing. Making ink and using it are complementary. You make ink, you dip your pen into it and set your pen on the page and the world changes. If you are a writer - ink is already in your blood.
What is the role of mail in your practice?
Mail is an anachronistic way to send artifacts back and forth. In the eighties I was involved in a number of attempts to reconfigure communications systems to artistic ends. Mail art was an attempt to rethink a system as art. In some ways the idea was to see the entire mechanism of postal service as an artistic medium. Design your own stamps, envelopes, cancellations, letters, etc. etc.
Today, I still use the postal system in the old way - to send missives that could have been written a hundred years ago. It was a time of epistolary magnificence. To be able to record your thoughts in ink on a page and communicate them, at a distance, to someone else, is just such an opportunity. I often wonder how long it will last.
Can you tell me about the landscape surrounding this sample of stick lac? Did you break it off the bush on some misty mountain top shared with a scrawny goat trade it for an envelope full of copper dust at a night market?
The stick lac comes to you through the adventures of Charllotte Kwon, my wife and the founder/owner/director of Maiwa. It was collected by her in Orissa (now Odesha). Charllotte was part of a group of people who walked into the forest, led by the local lac harvester, selected the correct infested tree, and broke off the appropriate branch. The branch is then trimmed. Locally, the pieces of branch are sold as “stick lac” if someone takes the time to break off all the hardened insect colonies crush them and then wash them repeatedly, that material is sold as seed lac. The lac must come from certain varieties of trees to get the red dye (mostly Dhak - flame of the forest - Butea monosperma). The red dye is soluble in water - cold water is often used so that the minimum of shellac dissolves. These sticks came from there. They are now almost 20 years old.
Can you talk about insects and colour. I always think of them as fellow inkmakers intensifying and altering the organic world like a grasshopper chewing grass into yellowbrown juice or the Cochineal scale making extra bright cactus syrup.
Yes - nice analogy. Well ... all of the colour that we get from insects is obtained from what are known as “scale insects” that would be cochineal Dactylopius coccus (which you know), lac Kerria lacca. (from the lac insect), Kermes - Kermes vermilio also known as vermillion or grana (grain - hence ingrained). Kermes is a weird insect. When mature it has neither mouth nor eyes, nor really legs, it looks just like a tiny gall on the branch.
Are you working on a particular ingredient or ink right now?
I have become enchanted by lake production - and by the possibility (with the right chemistry) of stopping the formation of a lake to get a non-pigment ink. For example cochineal can be combined with alum to get a stable colourant. The acidity of cochineal actually means you have to push it quite a bit to get the lake. So as an ink maker - why not keep it soluble? It makes sense and the alum keeps it from decomposing. So I am experimenting with other colourants to keep the colourant as a dye rather than a lake pigment. For my personal work, I am actually trying to get a very light yellow ocher - but from plants rather than minerals. I’ve worked with weld for so long, and it is a fantastic, strong, powerful yellow - its a real kick in the teeth of a colour. So I am looking for a saturated plant based light ocher for washes. It’s kind of a funny goal. Usually with natural dyes we are hunting for stronger faster colours. Also its possible to get a dull buff colour from almost any plant - so my problem lies not in finding a plant - but in finding the exact right plant.
Do you have a project or event that you might want to share with the audience?
Hmmm - well I am always teaching an ink making workshop for Maiwa. I actually love communicating with my students via the comments section. It’s, again, a kind of epistolary format. So many of my students seem to have an abiding interest in textiles and the book arts —I learn quite a bit from them.
I’m also working on a course with Charllotte which is a basic chemistry/science overview for dyers, artists, printmakers, and pigment hunters. Most undergraduate chemistry courses are four years - that’s a tough slog through difficult territory. I’m trying to distill that mass of information down to give people the metaphors of science and chemistry without the burden of calculations and memorization and confusion.
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I promise to write less next week. But in the meantime please spread the word. The Colour is free!