Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

06 May 2014

Recreating the Medieval Palette

In February this year the British Library hosted a course called ‘Recreating the Medieval Palette’ run by pigment expert Cheryl Porter who is also Director of the Montefiascone Project and a freelance conservator. Those of us attending were a small group of conservators and material specialists from the British Library and other institutions hoping to deepen our knowledge of the materials we work with. The course was an interesting mixture of theory and practice, with the morning lectures covering the basic colour groups and the afternoons providing a more hands-on approach giving us the opportunity to prepare and paint out the pigments and inks on a variety of papers and parchment.

Five women wearing aprons stand behind a white table. The wall behind them is grey and a lot of light is coming into the room through a large window. Two women in the middle and far right of the photo are holding paintbrushes. All are looking down at the table, on which there are small pots of green, orange and blue pigment, as well as a large beaker containing paintbrushes. Also on the table are a camera and four pieces of paper with stripes in different shades of brown, yellow, red and blue painted on them.
Recreating the Medieval Palette

CC by The group painting out some examples of earth colours made from rocks and minerals – the oldest pigments used by our ancestors

Alongside the history and manufacturing processes of the pigments we learnt about their chemical composition, visual characteristics, behaviour in response to their environment and modes of deterioration. This is essential background knowledge when undertaking a conservation treatment.

The medieval alchemists didn’t worry too much about health and safety in their search for vivid and enduring colours; hence the highly poisonous production methods for concocting pigments such as lead white, red lead, lead tin yellow, verdigris and cinnabar/vermilion. When preparing the pigments for painting, the powder has to be mixed with a binding medium to give viscosity and adhere it to the page. We experimented with different binding agents – egg white and gum arabic – which changed the working characteristics of the pigments when painted out.

A piece of paper with stripes in different shades of green, blue and grey lies on a white table top. Sitting on the piece of paper are a glass jar with a white lid and label containing a green powder, and a glass bowl containing a small amount of bright green pigment and a paintbrush. Behind the bowl and jar is a second, partially curled-up piece of paper on which two leaf motifs have been drawn in black ink.

CC by Malachite or ‘mountain green’; a naturally mined carbonate of copper

On the left side of the photo six pots and dishes containing white, blue and yellow pigment sit on a table top covered in white paper. On the right side of the photo, on the same table top, two hands are grinding white pigment on a glass tile using a solid glass tool shaped like a doorknob.
Lead grinding

CC by Grinding lead white pigment on glass in a figure-of-eight motion

Making some of the lake colours provided an opportunity to see some real alchemy. A lake is a dyestuff made from organic matter which is precipitated onto a colourless mineral base. Plants such as buckthorn, weld and saffron were used to make a variety of colours, and insects such as kermes and cochineal produced shades of red.

A right hand mixes yellow and blue pigments on a glass tile while a left hand holds a glass jar lid above the tile. A dish of yellow pigment with a white-handled metal spoon in it sits in the bottom right corner of the photo. In the background of the photo are a jar of blue pigment and two overlapping pieces of paper, the uppermost of which has horizontal yellow stripes painted on it.
Mixing saffron


Two pieces of white paper lie on a grey background. Both are painted with vertical stripes in different shades of blue, which have pencil annotations above and below them.
Painted-out medieval blues

CC by Left: Experimenting with mixing saffron (yellow) with verdigris (green). Right: Painted-out medieval blues; the brighter colours are mineral-based azurite and ultramarine and the subtler shades, indigo and woad

We also had an opportunity to learn about inks used in manuscripts. This was extremely interesting from a conservator’s point of view as we discovered that inks can often be identified by the way in which they deteriorate over time. The earliest writing implements were reed pen and quill, and the group’s attempts at writing with these proved that both skill and practice were required!


Four people bend over a table, the surface of which is covered with cameras, notebooks, feathers and beakers of water. The two people closest to the camera are writing in black ink on pieces of white paper.
Reed pen


Two pieces of paper lie on a white table top, along with a quill pen, a jar of water and a block of carbon ink. The block of ink is rectangular in shape and is decorated with a white and yellow picture of a person in traditional Chinese dress. The two pieces of paper have horizonal stripes of different inks drawn on to them, and are annotated in the same inks. The annotations state what kind of ink (ivory black, lamp black, bone black) it is and what kind of pen it was applied with (quill, reed).
Quill pen

CC by Left: Practising writing with reed and quill pens. Right: A quill and block of Chinese carbon ink

Two pieces of paper on a white table top, surrounded by two jars of pigment and a beaker of water. The pieces of paper are covered in colour samples, mainly taking the form of stripes and solid blocks of colour, though there is also a pattern of interlocking circles and a picture of a bird.
Colour sample sheet

  CC by Left: One participant's colour sample sheets

 At the end of this highly informative and entertaining week we went away having learnt a lot from Cheryl’s wealth of knowledge and experience, as well as having enjoyed stories of her adventures collecting and researching pigments. Our array of sample sheets will also provide a valuable visual and chemical reference for identifying pigments in the future.


Vicky West


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