Making Vine Black Oil Paint (and Drawing Charcoal)

— The Alchemical Journey Series —

by Damian Osborne

 

 

After my experiments with making graphite black oil paint, I’m continuing my Alchemical Journey Series, with vine black in my quest to make my own paint and drawing charcoal.

Black represents the first stage of the Alchemist’s journey, the Nigredo

 

What is vine black?

Vine black, an impure organic or mineral carbon, is one of the oldest pigments known to man.

Vine black is a pigment made from calcining (burning in the absence of air) the cane cuttings taken from grape vines after the pruning season.

Vines are the traditional source of this natural carbon black, but willow, birch, oak, fruit pips or any other woody twigs can be used.

Drawing on a cave wall with a burnt stick from a cooking fire is probably the first form of artistic expression for our species.

Vine black has the colour code Pigment Black 8 (PBk8).

The pigment used in oil paint is basically the powdered form of vine charcoal drawing sticks.

 

Charred vines, making vine black oil paint and drawing charcoal, Damian Osborne
Charred vines for making vine black oil paint and drawing charcoal.

 

Other names and methods of producing a charcoal black

Vine black may also be known as charcoal black, coke black, kernal black (from peach pips), vegetable black etc.

Another method of manufacture was to carbonise the wine lees or ‘marc’ after the wine-making process.

This was a popular German and French method of making carbon black during the 19th Century and was used in copper-plate printing.

Other names for this black are German black, Frankfort black, Paris black, marc black, grape black, wine less black, yeast black and drop black.

Cork black, or Spanish black, is another carbonised vegetable black made by burning cork. It may also be known as blue-black (due to its blueish hue).

Vine black may also be called carbon black because it is basically carbonised vegetative matter.

But this name is more commonly given to carbon black derived from the partial combustion of coal, tar or hydrocarbons in industrial furnaces. (Lamp black is sometimes also confused with carbon black.)

How does vine black oil paint compare with other black pigments?

Vine black is:

• A blueish cool black. It may be brownish depending on the presence of uncarbonized materials and calcining methods. Not as deep black as soot or carbon blacks due to larger particle size.

• Has excellent lightfastness, although may become grey over time if not calcined at a high enough temperature.

• Semi-transparent to transparent depending on particle size and amount of binder. Vine black is more transparent than lamp black or Mars black.

• Has a fairly moderate oil absorption, not as high as bone black, carbon black or lamp black.

• Is a slow drier, slower than Mars black, but not as slow as carbon black or lamp black.

• A coarser pigment than carbon or lamp blacks. Therefore it has a subtle texture. Great for glazing.

• Has a medium to high tinting strength, though not as powerful as lamp or carbon black.

 

I was expecting vine black to be fairly similar to bone black, but it really is rather different. It’s far less oil absorbent for one thing. And the particles seemed softer and finer.

It’s still a great vegan alternative if you are looking for a traditional oil pigment or drawing charcoal that you can easily make yourself.

If you are curious about bone black though, one of my favourite pigments, check out Making Bone Black Oil Paint.

 

How do you make homemade vine charcoal for drawing?

• Collect vine canes from a vineyard (or willow branches). If still fresh and green, store for a couple of weeks to ensure complete dryness.

• Strip the vine canes or twigs of fibrous outer bark and make sure they are free of sand and dirt.

• Cut to approximately 5 -10 cm lengths or whatever length you’re comfortable drawing with.

• Take an old metal paint tin that has been properly cleaned out of any old paint and make a small hole in the lid for the vapours to escape.

• Pack the sticks inside as tightly as possible to minimize air flow and close the lid tightly.

• Light a decent fire and place the tin within.

• Watch the smoke exit the small hole in the lid. Hardwood species will take longer to carbonise than soft. If the plume of smoke stops, or if fire ignites from the hole due to a very hot fire, remove the tin immediately. Otherwise, if your fire is not too hot, give it about 40 minutes to an hour. (My fire was really hot and only took 20 minutes.) A bit of luck and experimentation is needed. What you don’t want is the sticks to ignite and turn to white ash.

• Once you’ve removed the tin from the fire, allow it to cool down. Open the lid and make sure none of the twigs inside are burning. If they are, put the embers out.

• Now pour the contents of the tin into a large container where the charcoal can cool down properly and inspect your charcoal. See that it has carbonised completely and that there’s no unburnt wood, nor any white ash.

• You now have drawing charcoal you can use in the studio.

 

For an alternative method see: Pigments through the ages/carbon black.

Tip: use fine sandpaper to sharpen the drawing point of your natural charcoal for drawing finer details.

Also check out the post I wrote on creating a Charcoal Underdrawing for an Oil Painting.

 

Here is my drawing that I did with my own vine charcoal, based on a dream that I had. You can see the process and my techniques in the video above.

 

Field of Egrets, Vine Charcoal in Sketchbook, Damian Osborne, 21 x 29 cm, 2022, 800px
Field of Egrets, Vine Charcoal in Sketchbook, Damian Osborne, 21 x 29 cm, 2022.

 

 

What will you need to make vine black oil paint?

To make vine black oil paint, you’ll need:

• About 40g of vine black pigment for a 60ml tube of paint.

Hand-refined linseed oil (or cold-pressed linseed oil from the art store). 50ml should be enough for a tube of paint.

• A granite mortar and pestle.

• A glass paint muller.

• A glass, marble or granite slab to mull the paint on.

• Sieves and fine strainers for straining the finer pigment particles.

• Two or three containers to keep your pigment in and separate by grade and particle size.

• A container for washing the pigment, or for the process of levigation (using water to separate the fine from coarse pigment).

• A large flattish bowl or plastic container for drying the pigment in.

• A 1L jug or bucket of clean water.

• Empty aluminium paint tube. I used 60ml paint tubes, but you can use larger (100ml) or smaller (37ml) and adjust your ratios accordingly. (You can also use syringes if you don’t have paint tubes. Just find a way to close the tip to keep it airtight.)

• Tablespoon and 5ml dropper. And a kitchen scale if you feel you need one.

• Painting/palette knives for scraping the pigment together and for filling the paint tube.

• Rags or paper towel for wipe up. (And a bottle of mineral turps for cleaning the granite slab afterwards.)

• Dust mask.

 

How do you make vine black oil paint?

Once you have vine charcoal, you can easily make your own vine black oil paint.

• Crush the vine charcoal with a large mortar and pestle. Wear a dust mask as you’ll soon find pitch black dust going up your nose. The charcoal dust is very fine. And cover the side of the mortar with your hand to prevent flying pieces of charcoal escaping during the crushing process.

• Make the pigment powder fine enough to go through a tea strainer (which is about 300 – 400 microns/US mesh count 40). If you have 100 mesh gauze, that’s even better.

• If you wish to get a really fine pigment, wash the pigment in a large bowl. This is not strictly necessary, but does make life easier.

• Wait a few minutes for the coarser material to sink, and while the finer pigment is still in suspension, pour the water into a flat shallow container.

• Allow this pigment to dry. (You can also crush, grind and mull the pigment in water to prevent dust and get a finer pigment, then give it a few days to dry before mulling with oil.)

• Once completely dry, measure out approximately 6 heaped tablespoons of pigment for a 60ml paint tube.

• Place one tablespoon of pigment on a granite or glass paint-grinding slab at a time, and make a shallow well with the back of the spoon. Add 5 to 7.5 ml of cold-pressed linseed oil and mix the pigment and oil together thoroughly with a palette knife. (Depending the fineness of the pigment, you may need less oil.)

• Vine black is quite oil thirsty. But don’t add too much oil. As you mull with the glass muller, the oil will coat the pigment particles and the paint will become more free and oily.

• Mull small amounts at a time to ensure a fine paint. Otherwise, if you have too much paint to deal with at once, it won’t achieve the required thinness for there to be enough friction against the surface of the slab. And the particles of pigment won’t be sufficiently coated in the oil.

• Work in small circular movements in either a clockwise or anticlockwise direction, with occasional figure of eight gestures. This may take you a few hours.

• Once you’re done mulling, gather the paint together in a pile. Now you can inspect the viscosity of the paint. If you want it to be stiffer and more viscous, add a bit more pigment. If it needs to be looser, add a few drops of oil.

• Now that you’re satisfied with your freshly-made oil paint, gather it all together in a pile and start putting it into a metal paint tube with a palette knife. Make sure the lid of the paint tube is on. Tap the lid of the paint tube gently against the surface of the granite slab occasionally so that the paint drops down and that you don’t have any air gaps inside the tube. Repeat this process of adding paint with your palette knife and tapping until you’ve filled the tube with paint about 2 thirds of the way.

• Now it’s time to close the paint tube. Squeeze the open ends of the tube together gently with your fingers. Press down gently so that the paint is compressed towards the lid of the tube. You will probably need to wipe the bit of excess mess with your paper towelling.

• Use the edge of your palette knife to fold the open end of the tube over, around 2-3mm from the end. Clean with paper towelling. Then fold it over again. Make sure it’s neat and properly pressed together or sealed. If there’s enough room, do another fold, but be careful that you don’t break a hole in the paint tube by pinching a crease.

• Now you have a tube of handmade vine black oil paint.

 

Making vine black oil paint, Damian Osborne
A 60ml tube of vine black oil paint with my handwritten label.

 

What are some examples of vine black being used by the Old Masters?

As I mentioned in the article on bone black, charcoal blacks were used from the prehistoric period on cave walls.

One of the oldest charcoal drawings in the world is of a zebra in the Apollo cave in near Keetmanshoop, Namibia, from around 27,500 to 25,500 years ago. (My wife is Namibian 🙂 )

So it’s probably the earliest known pigment.

Thus there is a plethora of examples of charcoal black being used throughout history as a drawing medium, and in aqueous or oil-based paints.

Usually charcoal was used as an underdrawing or a preliminary drawing medium before oil painting commenced, as it’s easy to simple wipe off or remove the charcoal if a mistake was made.

Often, the charcoal was combined with other dry or wet media when drawing, such as chalks or inks.

 

Annibale Carracci, Crawling Male Figure (Study for Cacus), charcoal and black chalk,1593
Annibale Carracci, Crawling Male Figure (Study for Cacus), charcoal and black chalk, 1593. I like the cool lion’s head.

 

Anthony van Dyck, Portrait of a Woman and Child, oil on canvas, 1620 -1, Van Dyck used cool vine black mixed with red lake pigments in the black dress
Anthony van Dyck, Portrait of a Woman and Child, oil on canvas, 1620 -1. Van Dyck used cool vine black mixed with red lake pigments in the black dress.

 

Rembrandt, A Woman Bathing in a Stream, 1654, Rembrandt used vine black for the cool flesh tones on the woman's legs
Rembrandt, A Woman Bathing in a Stream, oil on canvas, 1654. Rembrandt used vine black for the cool flesh tones on the woman’s legs.

 

Jules Breton, Repose, charcoal and white chalk on blue paper, 1867
Jules Breton, Repose, charcoal and white chalk on blue paper, 1867.

 

Odilon Redon, Apparition, about 1880–1890
Odilon Redon, Apparition, charcoal and yellow pastel on brown paper, about 1880–1890. I love his weird drawings.

 

Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Faces, charcoal on paper, 1899
Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Faces, charcoal on paper, 1899. Scary.

 

Why I love vine charcoal black

Vine black may not have the powerful tinting strength of lamp black, or carbon black, but its subtlety and coolness of tone make it wonderful for creating cool flesh tones and shadows.

When mixed with white, cool greys can be achieved, which don’t overpower the mix.

It’s also great if you’re experimenting with a limited palette such as the Zorn Palette, as vine black makes a lovely cool black in mixes.

It has excellent lightfastness, is non-toxic and stable, and transparent enough for fine glazing.

Vine charcoal can be used as a dry media, or in watercolour, tempera, gouache and oil paint. This makes it a truly versatile pigment.

 

Thanks for reading. Check out the video above if you haven’t already. I show how I prepare the vine charcoal, create a sketch or study, make the vine black oil paint, and illustrate its quirks and properties.

If you have any questions or comments, or if you want to talk more about traditional pigments, please feel free to write below. 

 

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