Monday, August 29, 2011

A pigment conundrum for you!

I have a conundrum for you - which will appeal especially to those who know about pigments and art materials.

Can anybody tell me and photographer Peter Hunt what is the object (case and phials) in the three images you can see below?  It appears to be some form of pigment - contained in numbered glass phials with a cork stopper, in a leather container which folds up into a neat box.

Some queries:
  1. What is it?
  2. What's it used for?
  3. Why is (the pigment?) contained in this way?
The phials unpacked in their container (images courtesy Peter Hunt)

The Phials - and pigment(?) (images courtesy Peter Hunt)

Container of phials (images courtesy Peter Hunt)
The phials look as if they are glass.  The cork stoppers suggest to me that they could be rather old.  That's also suggested by the materials for the case.

I'm thinking pigment - but the palette seems to me to very odd as there are very few blues and browns.  The the phials are very small and maybe these are the colours in the ones which are missing.

Possibly this is pigment used in some special way?

Over to you art detectives - what do you think it is?



This is a very full response that I received via email from Judy Niholt-Strong (Kats-in-Klompen) which I've got her permission to add into the post. I think you'll find it an absolutely fascinating read - it's packed full of useful information.

Not to start a debate on your post with the tiny vials of color, I decided to write you this email instead.

I really do believe those vials contain china paint and as such, contrary to what some of the folks who replied on the post suggested, you can not use them as you might do if they were just vials of pure pigment. Unlike normal painting pigment, China Paint pigment does not dissolve in water or oil mediums, because china paint pigments are made up of metallic oxides with fine powered glass (basically powdered silica) included in each pigment. The fine ground glass acts as a flux so that when the temperature in kiln reaches around 1100F, the glaze on the object that was painted on becomes slightly tacky and the flux in the china paint melts allowing the color to adhere permanently to the object.

See this from an article on China Paints:

"China paint (and glass paint) unlike water colors and most other stains and paints, does not dissolve in the medium. China paint is a mixture of finely ground metallic oxides and glass (flux). The thickness, or viscosity, of the medium holds these particles in suspension, allowing the artist to brush them onto a surface. Seen through a microscope, unfired china paint on a glazed surface, looks like gravel spread in thin and thick layers. Using a more viscous medium permits the brush to lay down thicker piles of these color particles to yield a deeper, more intense shade of the color."

Therefore, I would not feel comfortable suggesting anyone use the pigments in those vials for "normal" painting without first finding out, for certain, if they are china paint pigments or normal paint pigments.

It's my understanding from reading your post, that you don't own this set, so I'd suggest that the person who owns it would be better off taking it to a reputable dealer in china paint supplies or a reputable art supply house and asking further if the vials contain normal painting pigment or china paint pigments - if the owner of the set does intend to use them.

Also, the color range of the set and the odd labling, without any manufacturer's name on the labels, suggests to me that the set might have been owned by a pottery factory line painter (one of several employed to paint pre-fired/glazed blanks each day). If that might be the case, then the vials having only numbers and no paint names on the labels makes sense in that pottery factory line painters normally worked from pre-determined color schemes and would refer to a numbered diagram for whatever multiple pieces they were painting - sort of a china paint "paint by number". Over the years as a potter, I have visited many pottery factories and know this is how they work or worked - including the Royal Dutch Porcelain factory in Delft, and  recently a couple of pottery factories in Limoges. Renoir started out as a porcelain painter in Limoges, but you probably already know that. :) This would also explain that vast array of different colors in the set, especially all the colors that might have been used for florals patterns.

If this is a set of china paints, I also don't think it's a set intended for use by porcelain doll painters - there's too many colors in the set that a doll painter would never use. And, I doubt the missing vials were thrown away, it's possible that either they broke, were lost, or fell out of the case, or were left somewhere out of the case ( say on a work bench) - no one who owned/used such a beautiful set would ever throw vials away when you could always just refill the vials with whatever color might have been used up. However, I also doubt the colors were used up completely as, if they are china paints, you would only ever be working with  a very small amount of pigment from a vial each time you used a color - normally  less than say a 1/4 of a teaspoon. I used to china paint on my porcelain sculptures in the final firing stage after already having fired the pieces 3 times before at higher temperatures, for a total of 4 firings each piece. Occasionally there might be another firing if I was adding an area of fired gold to a piece with the china painted areas.

So there you have it, I still say they are china paints. If you find out differently, please let me know by email, because I'm curious.

Cheers,< Judy


  1. I can only think it must be powder pigment to be mixed for egg tempera painting, icon painting (which incorporates egg tempera), or possibly for making oil paint, since powder pigment is used both ways. It would be easy to dispense a little pigment onto a ceramic palette for mixing from these vials, add some egg yolk and distilled water and mix it into paint on the go, so it may also have been a way to transport pigment, and would have been ideal for an egg tempera painter who travels. Perhaps also an introductory pigment set, but old, yes, especially if there are no warning labels about the contents except numbers.

  2. Hi there! I'm afraid I don't know the answer (I'll tell you quickly so you don't get over excited!) but my suggestion would be you contact somewhere like the old Cornelissen shop in Great Russel Street, where they have so much knowledge about these things. Where on earth did you find them?? Hope you solve the mystery!

  3. Hi Katherine,

    As someone who has a degree in the ceramic arts, I recognize those vials as containing China Paint colors - used for painting on china. In fact, I have some of the same glass vials of pigment with very similar lables on them...they last forever.

    The pigments are, for the most part, very fine grained so no further mulling is usually necessary. In order to paint on china with them, a pigment will be mixed with a heavy,thick oil (usually mixed with lavender oil) as a medium to then paint on an already glaze fired china plate, tea cup, etc. After the decoration is dried, the object is then fired again at a very low temperature, the oily medium burns out and leaves the painted decoration permanently adhered to the surface of the china object.

    I'm pretty certain that's what those vials are. My old professor used to have a smaller black leather case of those vials. I never had such a lovely thing as that...just an old tackle box. :D


  4. What an interesting mystery! I don't know what it is, but I'd love to have something like that!

  5. You might check with Winsor & Newton. According to their site, they at one time had salesmen who carried kits that contained samples of dry pigments:

  6. Looks like porcelain (china) paints. They are only sold in powder form and some still come with cork stoppers. The reason for the mumbering could be from a set of paints used by a particular porcelain/china manufacturer.

  7. Looks like powdered pigments for making your own pastels, I hear some artists like to do that as they can mix their colors so precisely and get exactly what colors they want. What a great find!

  8. by the way, someone experienced in color mixing wouldn't need many browns as they can mix colors opposite each other on the color wheel and make brown...

  9. Well I was reading through, mentally saying to myself "Yup - suggested that", "Yup - given him the link for them" until I got to Judy's post.

    Knowing Judy as I do I'd have said "Got it!" straight off. To have her answer backed up by Vivienne suggests we do indeed have an answer.

    For the record Peter bought this set this weekend in a second hand shop in Ashburton, Devon.

  10. Forgot to say - the other thing that convinces me that this must be the answer is that china paints also provides an answer to the question of the weird palette.

    I'm guessing that the blue paints have already been exhausted and the glass phials chucked.

  11. Possibly salesman's samples? The ancient drug store, now the museum in the next town, has a lot of powdered pigments in larger jars...

    Though J. Nijholt-Strong's suggestion sounds good too...a friend recently called from an antiques mall wanting to know if I wanted a set he'd found that had powdered pigments labeled somewhere as vitreous. I knew they were for painting on china...

  12. And I should have read all the comments first...

  13. I have no idea....but loving most things old, I think this is very cool! Just love the way it folds to a box!

  14. Hello Katherine,
    I have seen theses vials before and yes they are colour pigments that you can mix with oil for painting.

    I know that the ones I saw came from Cornelissen & son, artists' colourmen. You can still buy pigments from them, they are in London near the British Museum the link is

    Pricey but the selection is great, thirteen different yellows. I think for the professional artist its a gem of a place.

    Best wishes

    Roger Gregory

  15. I agree that while they could be for ceramics - they could equally simply be pigments for mixing with oil (or water to create pastels).

    As has been said, and I know you know Cornellissens well, they are still available - and historically they were often carried like this.

    A while ago I visited the vaults of our local museum and gallery and one of the things I was shown was the plein air wooden box of Sir George Beaumont. It contained both glass vials and paper packages of powdered pigments and bottles of oils for mixing. This was from the 1850's.

    I don't know how old this box is that you are querying but it looks old?

  16. a message from Peter - who's the chap who bought these

    " Thank you so much, what a great network you have.

    Please pass on my thanks to your friends I tried to my self but its too early in the morning to work out how to set up an google account.


  17. Another response from a reader of this blog

    "The pigment container looks very interesting. I think it dates from the days when artists mixed their own pigment with linseed oil to make oil paint. The great masters had students to grind the pigment for them. Ready mixed oil paint has only been available since about the 1880s (an art historian would know the exact date). Ready mixed paint made paint more transportable and made it easier to paint out of doors."

  18. I think there are too many tints to be oil paints and too few for pastels. The colours would suggest they are 20th century. Also there are no earth colours though they could well have been in another case. If they were either for oils or pastels then why numbered and not named? Also I am curious as to why all the phials seem to be full or nearly full. Just a suggesstion Katherine but why not email Cornellissen and ask?

  19. Vivien - did the phials you saw have as many as this - with this sort of colour scheme? I think we have to explain the whole and not just that pigment was carried in glass phials in the past.

    Vivienne - did you see the update from Judy re china paint pigments?


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