Monday, January 10, 2011

Snow Day Scatterings

I haven’t seen this deep a snowfall since I was a kid. I think the Inner Child is throwing a fit. Meanwhile, the Responsible Adult keeps saying it’s too cold, and I’m too old, to go outside and ride a flattened cardboard box down the street. The result? I can’t concentrate, so this week’s post is going to be a litte, um, scattered.
Bag o’ botanicals: I ordered twenty botanical samples, pure essences of things like orris root butter and davana from a company that offers samples of them by the drop. Fabulous stuff, pure and strong. Some of the resins are thick as tar. I diluted the thickest and scantiest of the samples with perfumers’ alcohol. Each 1 ml sample vial is enclosed in its own little plastic bag, and an outer plastic bag holding all of them. Still, when I open the drawer they’re in, their combined scent rolls out and fills the space around me. Now, that is impressive.
My favorite so far is the Somalian myrrh essential oil. Its smell is like divine dust, certainly not sweet. Almost none of these are sweet, and I doubt that many of the perfumes of antiquity were, either.
Orris butter: dry, rough, silvery, incomparable; a waxy drop the color of and as precious as gold. I now understand the appeal of iris-based scents. They are for the initiated.
Jasmine Sambac. Green, fresh jasmine. Yum.
I’ve been asked what I plan to do with these. Nothing, maybe; just keep them around and smell them. Maybe experiment with making scented oils for hair and skin. (The catalog mentions the aromatherapy properties of each. I’m not sure how I feel about aromatherapy. You?)
Each of these -- well, most of these -- essences deserves its own post, really. Or at least a paragraph. Another time.
I’ve also been reading a book about the history of pigments. So many turn up in both places! Spikenard oil. Dissolved amber resin, which I’ve seen in art supply catalogs as a ridiculously expensive varnish, rumored to be the secret of the Old Masters. Mastic, as a varnish ingredient. Saffron, you name it -- what hasn’t saffron been used for? Pandanus leaves, still used as a mordant (dye fixative) in parts of Australia, to make paint for native art. Gum arabic and gum benjamin (benzoin), used by ancient lute-makers to bind wood, and oils of clove and aniseed to season it. (How wonderful their workshops must have smelled!) I’ve also read that the ancient Egyptians sometimes used linseed oil as the basis for perfumes. People ask me why I continue using oil paints instead of the more modern acrylics. I tell them I like the smell. 
One discussion that caught my eye was about madder root. I once bought a tube of the watercolor “Rose Madder Genuine,” from the British company Winsor-Newton. I remember being intrigued by its pleasant floral scent, so unlike the vague chemical smells of most modern watercolor paints. It’s not much used now, because it’s “fugitive” (artspeak for “impermanent”) and has been replaced by the take-no-prisoners synthetic quinacridones, with color names like “Permanent Rose.” But madder dyes were once used to make the best Persian carpets. 
A German chemist, Harald Boehmer, was dismayed by the carpets he saw being made in Turkey in the 70’s, with newer, synthetic colors. His subsequent research revealed that the old dye recipes were disappearing. “Synthetic dyes,” Dr. Boehmer explained, “contain just one color. But in madder there is red, of course, but blue and yellow are in there as well. It makes it softer, and at the same time more interesting.” 
Sound familiar?
Dr. Boehmer and his wife started a cooperative to encourage the weaving of carpets using the old dyes. It has been a success, so much so that madder plants are once again being grown in Turkey. 
One can always hope.
The book is “Color, A Natural History of the Palette” by Victoria Finlay, Random House © 2002, ISBN 0-8129-7142-6. Quote, p. 189.


waftbyCarol said...

hey Girlfriend !
We've been thinking about you guys and the snow...!
Great post about dyes and paints
( I used to teach natural dying clsses for wool )
Get out there and go sledding on a cardboard box...what fun . I'll make you some handspun handknit socks .

Olfacta said...

Hi Carol -- Yes...handspun socks! Actually, the snow is really covered by a crust of ice. We live at the bottom of the hill in in photo, although our house isn't visible in it. Anyway, it's dangerous just trying to get up the street. Who knows how long we'll be housebound? Cabin fever soon!

ScentScelf said...

Was just chatting with some other folks about color...among others things, the color white -- absence of color or presence of color, depending on your scheme.

I am thinking now of projecting a film, and the transparent frames are simply light, whereas once an image is there, the light of the projector shines through color, and you get white. Bluish white, ecru white, pinkish what...whatever was conjured for that shot. But presence of an idea of a color, and idea which is the sum of its parts.

I of course like this Dr. Boehmer, and the implications of his observations for dyes. As well as other things that color our world.

Lucy said...

What a pleasurable post! I love having the materials and essences around the house. Once you start messing about with them you never know where it will lead. I use them to concoct this body oil that revives me from all kinds of dire straits again and again. Add certain ones for cleaning and scenting the house. I find the real deal materials and essences do have therapeutic benefits.
I recall once doing a post about scented oils incorporated into a gigantic painting by Sigmar Polke.
It's true the linseed oil smell is such a trigger. I have not the patience for the drying time of oil paint but I love the depth of the color and glazing. This is what the winter is for, gathering all your riches about you and enjoying them thoroughly, and beautifying your personal environment. The cold and snow outside make me appreciate my nice warm place even more...

Olfacta said...

Hi Shelly -- Light's a different spectrum, of course -- magenta/yellow/cyan right? There are so many color theories, the most interesting of which involves the impurities in pigment which "cause" color.

Olfacta said...

Hi Lucy -- Yes, I guess we know a little more about snow and ice down hea-yeh now...going on five days housebound...I swear if I don't get out say the driveway's still iced up? Aaarrrgh! Anyway, I usually paint in oils in the winter, watercolors in summer and acrylics when someone forces me to use them. I did finish one and start two oil paintings this week so it hasn't been a total loss...

Barbara/Perfumaniac said...

The orris sounds wonderful! (And I've always wanted to smell spikenard.) I got some synthetic notes from Perfumer's Apprentice a while back — castoreum, civet, etc. — and it, too, was a revelation, but the natural stuff sounds wonderful. (Got natural myrrh and frankincense at Enfleurage in NYC and they were beautiful and strong.)

I can see how the uninitiated would wonder, "What do you do with this stuff?" Why, sniff it, of course!

Anonymous said...

You will not believe this, but your post brought back a flood of memories to me. When I was nineteen I developed a passion for oriental rugs devouring all the literature that I could on the subject. I was especially interested in 'The Dobag Project' set up Professor Boehmer near Cannakale in Turkey. I saved for months persuading my parents to let me go and I eventually made my way to Istanbul, after receiving an invite to see the project. However, making my way there I stopped in Bursa and met a Swiss girl, with whom I spent the rest of my three weeks with. A heady experience for a nineteen year old from Belfast who had never travelled outside of Ireland by himself before( remember this was the late seventies) in economically and politically depressed Ireland. I still have that passion for rugs.