Working with Murex in Modern Art
Inge Boesken Kanold - Chemin du Château 84480 LACOSTE France


Looking at Balinese paintings in the 1970s, there seemed to be more harmony and beauty in the early works of profane Balinese art decades before. What was the reason?
Acrylic paints had been brought along by tourists from Australia in these years and the Balinese artists had been keen to use them. But the blue, yellow and red, white and black of the old paintings in the Ubud Museum had other sources. Searching their origins, they naturally reminded one of the recipe book by Cennino Cennini, the 15th c. Italian craftsman on art.
This was the beginning of a fascinating return to colour’s history, driven by the idea of finding hidden treasures in art by using the material as subject matter.
Some countries have another relationship to colour due to the fact that nature provides them. Indonesia and India were historically involved in indigo production. Nowadays Lebanon is famous for the ancient purple dye-works.
How were these colours made, what was their origin? Would it be possible to reproduce them, perhaps even store them on a shelf ready for the artist’s use?
When circumstances were favourable, the author began to investigate. In Beirut she heard of scientists who had tried to dye with shellfish purple from the shores of Lebanon. It was in 1979 when her first attempt of making dry purple pigment for her own artistic use failed. Many years later, in Provence, France, the opportunity to continue the quest occurred when she discovered Murex snails on local markets.
Experiments following hints in the literature concerning Royal Purple and the Biblical Blue led her to rediscover these two colours for her art work. As they were basically dyestuffs, she used them as such, staining paper and century old, worn linen sheets. Even coffee filters were a good medium to ‘catch’ the colour and show what purple looks like. Further research into the subject motivated her to try out all possibilities of the snail’s secretion. What could a painter do with a colour that wouldn’t become a pigment?
In order to find out, it was necessary to look more closely at the ancient dyeing process. It helped to understand the practical use of Murex snails and inevitably led to more explorations.
How could dyers of the antiquity practice their art in remote places far away from any shores?
How was purple parchment made?
What process could be used to repeat the purple drawings or photos of Henri Lacaze-Duthiers?
Were there any other artists working with shellfish purple?
Finally, where are the limits for an artist using a colour of a unique history, a complicated chemistry and no “body” other than its own secretion?

In August 1923 the German born Walter Spies (1895 – 1942) went to Indonesia, a move which was ultimately to transform the course of Balinese art. (Rhodius 1964). He was a musician and a painter of a naïve style, who had trained himself during a long stay in the Ural region of Russia. He had fled Europe to find his proper paradise far away from what he considered a decadent civilisation. He arrived on Java first and got himself introduced to the court of the sultan of Jogjakarta. He soon worked with the local musicians and managed to use two pianos, which he had adapted for the Gamelan orchestra. A few years later he settled on the island of Bali. He seemed to have arrived where he wanted to be and felt extremely close to the local artists. They started working together under his auspices and being good copyists by nature, they soon took over his naïve style of painting landscapes. As the first tourists began to discover Bali, the young artists set up their paintings in the local hotel lounge to sell their weekly work.
Surely they must have had some imported material, but a good deal of the paints derived from close sources. The temple and palace art of Bali has always shown a range of colours locally available: black, white, red, yellow, and the ochre colours. Ships from other islands used to throw their ballast of ochre stones overboard. Once a year a painter’s procession brought all the necessary ochre from a nearby shore. Black was found in fire residues. White was made from pig jaws carbonised overnight in a coconut shell. The next day, all grey parts were scraped off, the remaining white layer was crushed and ground on a slab. This is recalled in the craftsman’s handbook of Cennino d’Andrea Cennini: “You must know what bone is good. Take bone from the second joints and wings of fowls, or of a capon; the older they are the better. Just as you find them under the dining-table, put them into the fire; and when you see that they have turned whiter than ashes, draw them out, and grind them well on the porphyry; and use it as I say above.” (Thompson 1960).
Although Indigo was produced on the nearby island of Java, paintings in the ‘Klungkung Palace’ built about 1650 A.D. did not employ it. The bright red seems to be cinnabar, which was imported from China until the 1970s. The yellow is orpiment called atal locally.
As the Klungkung paintings testify, these colours together with the ochre nuances create a harmonious composition and entity. During the time of ‘Flower Power’ many ‘hippies’ came as tourists to the ‘Island of the Gods’. They brought along their lifestyle and their materials, and foreign artists started to live and work on the island. It was the time when acrylic paint had been invented. The colour tubes were so much easier to transport, store and handle. It must have been a very thrilling and tempting moment for Balinese artists to try out modern materials and the colour range got somewhat out of hand. Everywhere paintings bordered the shops, houses and streets in the villages. They all looked brand-new, had lost their subtleness and harmony. This plentiful creation was overwhelmed with colours; many of the paintings became decorative and rather banal.
The museum in Ubud though owned a few rooms with early profane paintings of Bali. They seemed more concentrated, more harmonious, and very interestingly, had only a few colours. Just like the paintings of the Kerta Gosa in the town of Klunkung there were hardly more than five. From the 17th century on the open building has served as the court of justice. The ceiling is painted with episodes from the ‘place of devils’ and describes in detail the punishment of every sin possible.
In the past, religious representations respected traditional recipes and materials. Artists worked with locally available, often inexpensive paints and brushes, which were homemade if they had no access to the trade routes. In previous centuries this was true for the pictorial creations in most countries. Along the silk route in Central Asia artists employed local colours together with pigments imported from foreign markets. (Riederer 1977). Ochre is found almost everywhere, but royal purple -due to its complex nature- was not a traded pigment. Cinnabar and lapis lazuli made their way to the west, but remained cheaper and more accessible in the east. Every region had their recipe for producing greens, derived either from residues in copper mines or made from mixtures of two prime colours.
How much was colour linked to meaning and expression?
In an Indian handbook on the creation of images for holy purposes, a chapter on painting with colours evokes the relation between the material and its spirituality. The varieties of colours are named after the natural objects in which they are found and which are the ingredients used for preparing the paints. Colours are classified into four varieties, white, yellow, red and black. (Gopala Iyengar 1973).

“The whiteness of Muktā (pearl) that of Pāsāna or white arsenic stone, that of Sankha (conch-shell) and that of Sita sarkarā (white pebble or sand) are the four shades of white colour.
The hue of Haritāla (yellow orpiment) that of Kankusta (a medical earth of yellow colour) that of Drsatsāra (yellow ochre) and that of Vibhitaka (yellow myrobalan) are the four different shades of yellow colour.
The colour of Guggulu (red variety of Indian bdellium), of Agaru (red variety of Aloe wood) of Lāksā (extract of lac) and of Drsatsāra (red ochre) are the four different shades of red colour.
The colours of Syāma (a dark-blue stone), Pāsāna (Krsna pāsāna, a black compound of arsenic) Dhuma (smoke or soot) and powdered Rājāvarta ( a precious stone called Lapiz lazuli) are the four different shades of black colour.
These varieties of colours are found in nature and a large number of colours can be got by mixing them (in prescribed proportions).

Kāsyapa Silpa Sāstra gives different names for the several shades of each one of the four colours, with examples for each from objects of nature. The substance of the Slokas there is given below:

White colour is of four shades called Sveta, Sukla, Dhavala and Avadāta. The colour of pearl and that of the Moon are two different kinds of Sveta. The colour of conch is called Sukla. The colour of silver and that of cow’s milk are the two kinds of Dhavala. The colour of the stars is called Avadāta.
Yellow colour is of four shades, Suvarna, the colour of gold, Pisanga, the colour of lightning, Harita, the colour of turmeric and Pita, the colour of yellow orpiment.
The four shades of red colour are – Aruna, the colour of the blood of the hare, Rakta, the colour of the China Rose, Sona, the colour of the flower of Kimsuka (Butea frondosa) and Pātala, the colour of lac-dye.
Black colour is also of four shades. The colour of the cloud is called Nila, that of the wild crow is called Kāla, that of the neck of the peacock is called Syāma and that of the wing of the black bee is called Krsna.
Thus there are (4x4) sixteen varieties of colours found in nature.
The artist, who is an expert in the compounding of colours must produce by mixture such shades as are absolutely natural and life-like, by mixing several colours like those of white mortar prepared from conch-shells, yellow paint of yellow orpiment, black paint of antimony and red paints of vermillion or lac dye.
The objects, mostly in the form of soft mineral ores mentioned in the Slokas are not merely referred to as examples of the shades of colours but they are the very materials which are to be used as the ingredients of the required paint.”

Just like in the Indian manual the colours of purple are of several shades: red-violet, black-violet, violet-blue, blue-violet and indigo blue. They also stand beautiful comparison: purple is like the colour of the dark rose, the colour of dried blood, the colour of the flower violet, of a gem called amethyst, of the deep sea and the sky blue. If all these nuances are mixed together, there will be one single shade left, and this is violet called purple, the symbol of high value and, in religious context, for spirituality.

In antiquity the Phoenicians were famous for their purple production; traces of dye-works and trading-stations have been widely described and commented. The sites of the dye-factories seemed restricted to coastal areas all over the Mediterranean Sea and to the west coast of Africa. Just like other colours of complex origin, purple is reserved for high-ranking people or holy purposes. Early in history it gained a special status, but this declined over the course of the centuries as things began to change drastically. The loss of the practical knowledge of its production, which coincided with the fall of Byzantium in 1453, is one of the reasons why the general interest was lost. However, in the following centuries a number of scholars maintained an interest in this noble matter until, in the second half of the 20th century, the topic purple aroused attention again.
The author, who had worked with ancient Asian colours in art before, came across ‘the purple occasion’ during a long stay in Lebanon at the end of the 1970s. As she moved countries frequently, she was looking to acquire a dry purple pigment, easy to carry along and use when necessary. But here began the problem. Even being in Beirut, so close to the sought-after material, she could find no help. References to purple in the modern literature added to the confusion rather than helping to find such a difficult colour. There was only one possibility to obtain it: do it yourself!
A diver provided the sea-snails, they were mostly Murex trunculus, a few Murex brandaris and one Thaïs haemastoma. Two scientists from the American University of Beirut, who had dealt with the subject a few years ago, were willing to experiment. The shell was broken, the hypobranchial glands cut out with scissors and the secretion was extracted by dipping them into water. After a short while, a purple-coloured juice was obtained, but no method was found to turn this into a pigment. Therefore this juice served as a liquid watercolour applied to paper in a free movement. This was the first purple drawing, done in May 1979. The rest of the purple liquid was centrifuged in a test-tube and has still not changed its reddish colour after more than twenty-seven years.