Patience and the Paint Makers: Mountain Stones

Raw mineral stones that make up a classic palette for Indian Miniature Painting.

Raw mineral stones that make up a classic palette for Indian Miniature Painting.

The first secret of Indian Miniature Painting? A little of the magic comes directly from the rare gemstones and minerals that make up the paint in the image. And to paint with all the wild colours of the earth just feels so different to buying a plastic tube of artificial colour.

Indian Miniature Painting uses only natural materials, and the artist always makes all their tools by hand, including the paint itself. Great care and patience goes into the preparation and creation of all components of the painting as each part of the process is of equal importance to the artist. Before any painting can commence, the rigorous and careful ritual of paint making must occur, and this is what we're looking at in some detail here.

For the miniature artist, mastery of technique depends upon their understanding and application of colour, including a deep knowledge of the source material, its natural properties and the process involved in turning raw material into high quality paint. Traditionally, raw material is first collected from a wide range of natural sources that are available in the region, and the material is then processed by hand, using particular methods as passed down from master to student. Working with natural colours gives a lustrous tone and brilliance to the paintings, which cannot be matched by any artificial product. The artists therefore still use the traditional techniques and do not take short cuts with artificially prepared paint.

The natural colour used in miniature painting can be categorized into four main groups, according to source: Mineral Stones, Organic Inks and Dyes, Earth Colours and Metals. The preparation steps are different for each natural material, and this post will specifically look at the Mineral, or often dubbed 'Mountain' Stones.

Raw minerals arrive as various sized stones, ready to be ground down and turned into pigment.

Raw minerals arrive as various sized stones, ready to be ground down and turned into pigment.

Mountain Stones

Mineral Stones, including precious gem stones, are mined from the earth and mostly come from the mountains around the region of the artists. The stones yield paint that has a natural brilliance to it. This is a unique quality of the mineral pigment, whereby the multi-faceted structure of the mineral particle allows for enhanced reflection of light and this creates that glittering jewel-like quality within the paint. This effect cannot be replicated by synthetic pigments that have homogeneously shaped particles. Furthermore, light is able to pass through layers of mineral colour paint, which results in increased colour intensity as multiple layers are applied.

Different minerals have varying degrees of lightfastness: resistance to fading if exposed to natural light for extended time. In general, all mineral colours are much more lightfast as compared to natural dyes. Under intense heat, certain mineral colours will become darker or change colour. Some artists will use this property of the material as a way to achieve a particular colour scheme while retaining purity of the mineral pigment.

Minerals yield pigment colours in the form of insoluble powders. Fineness and purity of the powder pigment is therefore really important, in order for the smoothest application of paint that can match the flow of soluble pigments. The process is long and tedious but gives the artist a deep sense of connection with the natural and hand prepared paint, and thereby a deep connection to the art.

Raw mineral stones when wet, showing different qualities to their characteristics when dry.

Raw mineral stones when wet, showing different qualities to their characteristics when dry.

Preparation of Mineral Pigment

To create usable colour from mineral pigment, raw mineral stones are first immersed in water and ground with pestle and mortar until the stone transforms into fine granules. This takes around three to four days, after which the pigment is then mixed with more water in a large container, using a 1:10 pigment to water ratio. The artists carefully filter this mixture by folding together two corners of a sieve cloth and then holding each of the remaining two ends. While one artist holds the cloth, another will slowly pour the mixture over the sieve, all the time moving in a steady back and forth motion to aid efficiency of the process. This part of the filtration will take another day to complete.

After filtration, the colour is refined further by stirring the resulting mixture and then letting it stand for a few moments so that the course sediment begins to sink. The majority of the mixture will be poured into another container, leaving behind the larger impurities, and the process is repeated. This repetition continues for at least twenty to twenty-five times, in order to obtain only the finest of particles; a necessary process because any slight impurities will affect the finesse and vibrancy of the colour.

The remaining mixture is then left to stand for 24 hours, which allows for complete sedimentation of the pigment. The water that sits on top of the sediment is poured out quickly, and then any remaining moisture is removed by immersing at least half of a long, thick, cotton thread into the sediment mixture, and letting the other end of the thread hanging below the container. The thread absorbs the water and removes it drop by drop, and in this way the pigment becomes thoroughly dried after about three days.

The dry pigment is then ready for the final step of refinement. The artist stretches an incredibly fine cloth over a new container, and rubs the dry powder through the cloth using his hand. This last step will remove any remaining dust particles that could potentially affect the purity of the colour.

To test whether the created pigment is then of suitable quality for painting, the artist will rub the powder between two fingers. This not only allows the artist to feel the calibre of the pigment, but also to check if the powder is fine enough to fill the lines of his finger print. If so, the colour is ready, and will be mixed with a binding agent to be used for painting.

Raw Gum Arabic, the most common binding agent that is used in pigment preparation for Indian Miniature Painting.

Raw Gum Arabic, the most common binding agent that is used in pigment preparation for Indian Miniature Painting.

Gum Arabic is commonly used to bind pigment, and it is crucial that the correct amount is added as this will affect the quality of the paint. Too little gum will result in cracks and flaking of paint, as the pigment will not be able to fasten to the painting surface. Too much gum however will result in uneven colour, and will also affect the vibrancy of the natural colour. A yellowish shiny layer will appear on the surface of the paint. It thus takes practical experience to be able to know the correct amount of gum to use, and this will vary according to the properties of the pigments. The artists obtain the gum in its raw form, and then turn it into bindable liquid (but let's save that story for another time!).

A selection of classic mineral pigments, stored in the sipi and ready for use.

A selection of classic mineral pigments, stored in the sipi and ready for use.

Traditionally artists will mix the gum and pigments in sipi, a mussel shell, using their finger until the powder is thoroughly absorbed by the gum. Water is added only once all the powder has mixed with the gum, as otherwise the pigment will not bind properly and might not securely stay on the painting. The added water creates the desired thinness that is appropriate for painting, and any unused paint can be left to dry in the sipi until it is next needed, at which point it can again be mixed with water. It is essential that the artist mixes all the pigment even if only a small amount is required for painting; this is because any excess gum will float to the top when the mixture dries, so only by mixing thoroughly with water will the correct pigment to gum ratios be maintained. When using the paint, the artists might also add in a little oil from the Indian Soap Nut; a substance that will give a smoother application to the paint and that can be especially useful giving the best quality flow to insoluble pigment colours.

The Indian Soap Nut, cracked open to release the oil of the nut, which is then added to a pigment that requires a smoother application during fine line work.

The Indian Soap Nut, cracked open to release the oil of the nut, which is then added to a pigment that requires a smoother application during fine line work.

Using natural materials and making everything by hand gives the artists a deep sense of connection with their work. The whole thing becomes a living practice, a relationship. The use of organic materials allow for a more natural connection with the earth, and this I believe adds to the spiritual quality of the practice.

This process can take a month to complete, for the purest quality paint. Although just one aspect to the art form, the patience and discipline required to even prepare the materials before getting anywhere near a painting, shows the graceful and calm attitude that is required to embark in the practice of miniature painting. A steady tolerance is required, and this quality becomes a shared characteristic of all the master artists. Truly a people of great patience and grace.

A classic palette for Indian Miniature Painting, consisting of natural pigment stored in sipi shell.

A classic palette for Indian Miniature Painting, consisting of natural pigment stored in sipi shell.