Tag Archives: medieval

Step Four: we got better ink!

In case you’re wondering what those lollipop things are—Gutenberg used goose-skin inking balls to apply ink to the form.

So oil paint was a hot ticket in the art world of the mid-1400s. If you’re Johannes Gutenberg and you need to figure out how to get ink to stick to your metal type, that oil binder looks pretty good. He developed an oil-based ink that’s thick, sticks to metal and can be applied evenly. Gutenberg created a blacker-than-black pigment by mixing carbon (charred bone), graphite, copper, lead, titanium and sulfur. The graphite and copper give the ink sheen (I’m guessing it’s the orangey copper that’s powdered somehow—like when you saw through a copper pipe with a hacksaw—rather than scraping the green corrosion).

https://www.historytoday.com/history-matters/history-ink-six-objects
Scroll down to Making Relief Ink to see how to make your own oil-based ink: https://www.lawrence.co.uk/blog/how-to-make-your-own-paint-relief-ink/
https://www.speedballart.com/our-product-lines/speedball-printmaking/speedball-blockrelief-printing/speedball-block-printing-inks/speedball-oil-based-inks/

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How to get better ink: Step Three

My take on A Man In A Red Turban, thought to be Jan van Eyck’s self-portrait.

A painter in the Netherlands, Jan van Eyck (yahn wahn IKE), made oil paint famous. You can get fine details and dramatic lighting effects and smooth blending of tones with oil paint more easily than in other media, and van Eyck was a master oil painter (as well as a master at drawing). Look at any of his paintings and you’ll see what I mean. Van Eyck mixed pigment with varnish to create transparent glazes of color—your eye looks through the layers. His paintings are like jewels. He may not have invented oil paint, but van Eyck put it on the map.*

Speaking of maps, Ghent isn’t all that far from Mainz. Gutenberg must have been aware of the Flemish art scene. https://geology.com/world/netherlands-satellite-image.shtml

* It used to be thought that Jan and his brother Hubert invented oil paint. That’s what Giorgio Vasari told me in his book The Lives of the Artists, and I believed him. It turns out they didn’t. Now I need to call all my old History of Graphic Design students and tell them the bad news.
https://www.thriftbooks.com/w/the-lives-of-the-artists_giorgio-vasari/325683/item/1243619/?gclid=Cj0KCQjw_dWGBhDAARIsAMcYuJxUnr29Uil9zgUCCGHw4FvdpotvBxBVQt6wyJf1nvNF5IO6po_-E28aAroxEALw_wcB#idiq=1243619&edition=3580770
A pet peeve: Historians, nobody ‘discovered’ oil paint. It was invented.

http://www.oil-painting-techniques.com/analysis-jan-van-eyck.html
https://www.oilpaintingguide.com/brief-history-of-oil-painting/
https://biography.yourdictionary.com/hubert-and-jan-van-eyck
https://www.art.com/products/p12972944-sa-i2208828/jan-van-eyck-a-man-in-a-red-turban-self-portrait-of-jan-van-eyck-1433.htm?upi=P145KXO1ZOO&RFID=217825&ProductTarget=12972944-P145KXO1ZOO&utm_medium=cpc&utm_source=google&utm_campaign=PLA&gclid=CjwKCAjwrPCGBhALEiwAUl9X07zWpfGHcidrW5VW3uTpfJPZzPXU5i0zCbmyXc23qqHbcI5F5yOZDxoCFQsQAvD_BwE

Here’s where I use to teach History of Graphic Design back when it was Pittsburgh Technical Institute: https://ptcollege.edu/

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How to get better ink: Step Two

Egg tempera dries really quickly. I’m not a methodical painter. I would get frustrated with having to cross-hatch a transition from one color to another. I like to blend paint while it’s wet. Sometime in the 1400s artists must’ve started adding oil to the egg tempera recipe to prolong its drying time (this egg-and-oil paint is called tempera grasso). They tried oils from nuts and seeds. If you go to the grocery store you can find similar oils for cooking—vegetable oil, grape seed oil, olive oil. Raphael even tried walnut oil for his paint. The one that seemed to work best was linseed oil. Oil and water don’t mix, so turpentine is the solvent. You use turpentine to thin the paint and clean your brushes.

Eventually artists ditched the egg and just used oil.

Watch this video to see how you get oil out of linseed, then use it to make paint:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UxsAij-ykg
Turpentine is made out of pine sap. It’s distilled. A still is a sealed, contained cooking pot with a pipe coming out of the lid. You heat the sap and the fumes go up the pipe. The fumes condense as they cool and drip out the other end of the pipe. I couldn’t find you a video that shows in a straight-forward way how to distill turpentine. I found lots of videos of guys not quite making turpentine. Watch these if you dare:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_fRnEpQ55E
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uvduGMTadwk
Everything you want to know about pigment is in this book:
https://www.amazon.com/Color-Natural-History-Victoria-Finlay-ebook/dp/B000XUBDIA/ref=sr_1_4?dchild=1&keywords=color&qid=1624668736&s=books&sr=1-4
More egg tempera: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=geafR2FlHO4
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fTYhS91rIUE
Here’s an artist painting with tempera grasso: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMXb8jNaaeU

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How to get better ink: Step One

Fresh eggs

If you remember from way back when we were looking at ancient Egypt, ‘medium’ is the word we artists use when we talk about the substance that makes marks—ink, paint, crayon, pencil, pastel, chalk. Every medium needs 2 parts: pigment and binder. The pigment is the color. You get pigment from vegetable, animal, or mineral sources. The binder is what holds the pigment together and makes it stick to a surface. Liquid medium needs a third part: solvent.

Here’s how this new paint came to be invented—

Let’s go back to the Middle Ages. Mediæval painters used to bind pigment with egg yolk—seriously!—and water is the solvent. You have to paint methodically with egg tempera because the brush strokes dry quickly. It’s difficult to blend 2 colors together wet-on-wet. So, many egg tempera paintings are zillions of tiny brush strokes.

You crack the egg and separate the yolk from the white. Save the white for making transparent glazes. Put the yolk in a dish—carefully!—and prick its delicate skin with the point of a knife to get binder for pigment. Watch this guy make egg tempera: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GCK5Y1rFEw
Watch this guy paint skin tones in egg tempera. As I said, zillions of tiny brush strokes:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLWWp-PXHK8

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Thanks, Phoenicians!

By the 1400s movable type had made its way west along the Silk Road. Like the compass, movable type wasn’t a big deal in China. But when Johannes Gutenberg got ahold of it, movable type changed Western Civ. Why? The Phoenicians, that’s why.

Those Phoenicians left us a gift: a tight, efficient little alphabet of only 26 letters to represent every sound in any language. Our alphabet is ideal for movable type. You only need 26 upper-case and 26 lower-case (capitals and small) letters, numbers 0-9 and punctuation marks to print an entire book.

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The Chinese invent movable type

If you’re printing something with words, like a poster or an announcement or 95 Theses, every letter of every word needs to be carved out of your wood or linoleum block. Carving blocks for pages of an entire book is a king-sized headache.

Way over in China in the ad 1000s, printers got tired of having to carve every stinkin’ character on a block. One printer, Bi Sheng, thought: “Why not make individual characters ahead of time that you can mix and match to make paragraphs and pages?” That’s what he did. He made teeny little blocks with only one character. They were interchangeable. You arrange them together in a frame for printing. This idea is called movable type.

Bi Sheng’s characters were made out of fired clay so they were kind of fragile—they chipped easily. In the 1200s another Chinese printer, Wang Zhen, introduced characters carved out of wood which were less likely to chip. Around the same time Korean printers were using characters cast in bronze or iron.

Believe it or not, movable type didn’t make books in Asia any cheaper. It was actually less expensive to carve an entire page of characters from one block. The reason could be this: the Chinese written language has over 3,500 characters. It was maybe too time-consuming to organize thousands of characters into an efficient sorting & printing system. By the time you finally locate the characters you need from a supply of 3,500, the guy with the chisels has a page carved and ready to print. So movable type didn’t take off in Asia back in those days. There’s at least one Chinese printer today that still uses cold type, though (see the links below).*

* The type was stored on big lazy-Susan-style discs that rotated so they could get to all the characters (kind of funny: food used to be served in Chinese restaurants this way). Chinese printers used a rhyme to remember where all the characters were. I’m not a Chinese speaker so I don’t know what the rhyme is, but it’s the same kind of rhyme you use to remember which months have 30 days—a mnemonic.

http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/songdynasty-module/tech-printing.html
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LvhjgW9zh0
Dig the sneer quotes around the word ‘invented’—like they finally brought that wily rascal Gutenberg to justice:
https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/world/world-record.html
http://idsgn.org/posts/the-end-of-movable-type-in-china/
https://ich.unesco.org/en/USL/wooden-movable-type-printing-of-china-00322
http://www.silk-road.com/artl/movableprt.shtml

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That one afternoon hanging out at the winery really paid off

Johannes Gutenberg

Now we know what relief printing is. What really got the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation going was the printing press. Printing is for making multiple images, the printing press is for making many multiple images quickly.

What if you could save time by applying even pressure across an inked block with a giant screw instead of laboriously rubbing it down with a baren?

In 1436, in Germany, Johannes Gutenberg came up with the screw press idea, or at least he saw a wine press in use and adapted it for printing. A wine press has a straight-sided barrel with gaps between the staves. You load the grapes into the barrel, then lower a heavy metal disk on top of them to break the skins and crush the grapes. You put additional pressure on the disk by turning a big vertical screw. The grape juice runs out the gaps in the barrel and into a tray.

Gutenberg’s press

Gutenberg used the same technology to exert pressure on an inked wood block and paper. Watch these Youtube videos to see how it works:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yeikqw0kyqI
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLctAw4JZXE

http://www.bargaintraveleurope.com/12/Germany_Wine_Museum_Rudesheim.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_wine_press

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How block printing is done

The block or plate is a flat piece of wood or linoleum that you cut a design into with cutting tools.
You spread the ink onto the block with a brayer—a rubber roller. The ink goes on the parts that stick up.
You lay a sheet of paper on top of the inked block and apply pressure to it (make sure the ink is pressed to the paper) with a baren.
Carefully pull the sheet off the block and hang it to dry.

Here’s your one-stop shop for everything you need to know about block printing— https://www.boardingallrows.com/block-printing
https://www.dickblick.com/categories/printmaking/tools/

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Relief printing

Wait a minute—how did the Protestant Reformation become such a big deal so quickly? How did copies of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses spread across Germany and Europe? Copies? Who copied ‘em? Not the monks—copying 95 Theses was the kind of thing that got you fired from your church job.

One word: printing. Er—no, make that 2 words: printing press.

Let’s talk about printing first. Printing allows you to make many images that are all alike.



Printing is a graphic design process where you transfer an image onto a surface. Printing can be as simple as leaving muddy footprints—you transfer the image of your feet in mud onto the clean kitchen floor. That’s called ‘relief printing.’ ‘Relief’ refers to the raised treads on your sneakers. Relief is the part that sticks up. A rubber stamp is a relief printer. The raised parts transfer ink onto a piece of paper. Maybe when you were young you cut a potato in half, carved a drawing into the flat surface, dipped it in paint and pressed it onto a piece of paper. That’s relief printing.

Print artists carve an image into wood or linoleum, roll ink onto it and transfer the ink onto paper by applying pressure—
https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/special-topics-art-history/creating-conserving/printmaking/v/moma-relief-printmaking
https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/special-topics-art-history/creating-conserving/printmaking/v/moma-relief-process
https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/family-how-to-relief-printing

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Honey, I started the Reformation

Martin Luther famously wrote down all his beefs with the Church and nailed them to the front door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. They were the 95 Theses (plural of thesis)—ideas to be discussed. His goal was simply to reform the Church, get it back on track. He didn’t take into account that people were tired of overbearing institutions like the feudal system and the Church. Martin Luther had set off unintentionally the Protestant Reformation. Oops. Copies of his 95 Theses spread across Germany and Europe. People seized on these theses and seethed. The Pope was not happy with Martin Luther and put him on trial. Luther refused to take back what he said. The upshot was Luther was excommunicated—made an outlaw who couldn’t be part of the Church any more. He couldn’t even attend mass. So Martin Luther started up his own church. This branch of the Christian Church, which includes Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, &c, &c, is called ‘Protestant.’ To differentiate it, the old Church is called ‘Catholic,’ which means universal.

While he was in exile (and this is why I brought up the Reformation), Martin Luther translated the Bible from Latin into German so Germans could read it. What a guy! The only problem was, handwritten books are expensive. Getting a team of monks to write out a whole bible is no picnic. The Bible (KJV) has 783,137 words. Up until around the Year of our Lord 1450, owning a bible was a rich-guy luxury, whatever the language. If only there were some way to make more bibles, cheaper and faster.**

** Martin Luther left out 7 books from his translation of the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) because they’d been rejected by the Jewish Council of Jamnia in ad 90. Those books are still in the Catholic Bible tucked in between the Old & New Testaments. They’re known as the Apocrypha. 

ps—Luther, like the Church he reformed, was flawed. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that he was capable of the antisemitism that must have been common in Europe 500 years ago—he published a screed against Jews. As I said last post: we’re imperfect; we try to learn from our mistakes and trust G-d loves us anyway.

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https://www.history.com/topics/reformation/martin-luther-and-the-95-theses
https://lutheranreformation.org/theology/sola-gratia/
https://www.biography.com/religious-figure/martin-luther
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/luther/
https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/thesis
https://wordcounter.net/blog/2015/12/08/10975_how-many-words-bible.html
https://www.britannica.com/topic/apocrypha