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