The intense blue of ultramarine, from lapis lazuli stone, is like no other colour, as Cennino Cennini, at the beginning of the 15th century, wrote in his book ‘The Craftsman’s Handbook’ – a colour illustrious, beautiful and most perfect, beyond all other colours. It was the colour adopted for the robes of the Virgin Mary (see right) as the cult of the Virgin grew towards the end of the first millennium. The intense blue was thought to be a similar colour to the sky, which emphasised the proximity of Mary to God, and it was also very expensive and so would be used only for the most precious things, indicating Mary’s importance.
The colour was not restricted to manuscripts only, however. It was also used by the pharaohs of Egypt, famously in the funeral mask of Tutankhamun, where lapis lazuli blue alternated with yellow gold in his headdress. Clearly the value and rarity of the stone along with the brilliance and depth of the colour was recognised as being suitable for the highest in the land.
When I first started learning about vellum, quills, calligraphy and painting, ultramarine (Latin for: over the sea) mainly came from the Badakshan mines, at a place called Sar-e-Sang in north-west Afghanistan. Sar-e-sang means place of the stone, appropriately enough. A tiny pan of the colour, about one quarter of a pan of watercolour, cost £70, and that was some time ago. Nowadays a new, excellent, source from Chile, has reduced the price significantly, and you can buy small pans of ultramarine watercolour, similar in size to shell gold for less than £20 from Cornelissen,
The pigment was made by first grinding the stone and then mixing with pine resin, mastic, and wax or linseed oil and boiling the compound. After soaking, the mass was kneaded in lye (lye was obtained by leaching ashes which were high in potash or potassium carbonate) until the blue colour came out.
The best and strongest colour came out of this first batch. Further kneading yielded less strong – and cheaper – pigment and finally ultramarine ash was formed, which is a blue-grey transparent pigment. When I first started learning you could get tubes of ultramarine ash watercolour, and it was a lovely colour to use as it had tiny fragments of the stone which glistened in the light – wonderful for painting skies. It is still possible to get ultramarine ash powder to make into paints, but I haven’t been able to find tubes of ultramarine ash paint for many years.
There are recipes online for making egg tempera, but few of them are exact, and nor is mine! The method for making egg tempera is shown on my DVD, and there are details also in my latest book on Illumination. So, if you want to make your own ultramarine egg tempera (or any egg tempera) then you will need:
- Powdered pigment (available from Cornelissen)
- Ground glass slab and muller (also available from Cornelissen)
- Teaspoon and a little water
- Flexible kitchen spatula
- 2 small containers such as crucibles or tiny flat-bottomed jam jars
- A fresh egg
- Three clean cups
- A few sheets of paper kitchen towel
- Sharp-bladed pointed knife
- Ink dropper
- An old saucer or smooth glazed tile
- Small paintbrush
(As this involves a powder, you might want to wear a face mask for safely, particularly if you are susceptible to powders in the atmosphere.)
- Use the flexible spatula to mix gently a teaspoon of pigment powder with drops of water.
- When the consistency of a flexible paste (you may need to add more water with the ink dropper, but always add individual drops to the mix, rather than a huge squirt which will make it too wet and difficult to grind) grind on the ground glass slab with the muller in a figure-of-eight motion for about 3 minutes until it is a very smooth paste (you can use a pestle and mortar but it isn’t quite as good). Grinding with water first enables a better mix with egg.
- Scrape the resulting paste together into a crucible or tiny flat-bottomed jam jar.
- Separate the yolk from the white of the egg, allowing the white to drop into one cup and the yolk (unbroken!) into another.
- Have paper kitchen towels to hand and slide the yolk really carefully out of the cup on to your palm (fresh eggs tend to be better as the yolk sac is thicker).
- Carefully pass the yolk from the palm of one hand to the palm of another, wiping your hands alternately on paper kitchen towels to remove any trace of the white.
- When the egg sac is quite ‘dry’, with your non-dominant hand carefully pinch the yolk sac and hold it over the third clean cup.
- Prick the sac with the knife and allow the yolk to fall into the cup; discard the egg sac.
- With the knife lift a small amount of the pigment paste into the clean crucible or tiny jam jar.
- Use the ink dropper to suck up some of the egg yolk.
- Add a few drops of the yolk to mix to smooth paste.
- With the brush paint a patch on to the saucer and allow to dry.
- When dry use a fingernail to lift the corner of the paint. If it comes off in one piece and sort of keeps its shape then this is the correct amount of egg and you can use it as paint. If it breaks up and is powdery then there is not enough egg, so add another drop or two and repeat. If it is too sticky to use, add a couple of drops of water and repeat this process. It is very much trial and error, but you will soon ‘feel’ when the egg and pigment mix is about right.
- Egg tempera keeps for a few days on the saucer, but do not cover completely or it goes bad (and stinks!). Just loosely place a piece of paper on top.