My interest in raw materials started in art school. I felt as though I had reached the limitations of the oil paints that were commercially available, so I started to explore the world of dry pigments. A fascination that still makes my heart race, even 30 years later. There is nothing better than discovering a new pigment source, opening sample packs and then introducing the color to my customers at Sinopia.
I started Sinopia Pigments & Materials in 1995 with a focus on providing the finest raw materials to both craftspeople and artists. I found that shortcuts in the art materials world only led to a dependency on a manufactured product. Understanding ingredients allows artists to expand their creativity into the manufacturing process, something that many of my customers deeply appreciate.
Talking to my customers has been one of the most rewarding aspects of owning Sinopia. I have met so many artisans, none of whom I would have met through the school or gallery systems. They have offered unique insights into their working processes and also inspired searches for new materials. While I really enjoyed offering single material items, such as pigments and gesso making materials, I sought to embark on creating products from the materials that I offer. My initial forays into formulating a Milk Paint (aka casein) recipe, introduced me to an intuitive recipe development process.
This process emboldened me to explore a recipe for a traditional water gilding bole. While the gilding industry has tended towards offering easy solutions to creating a burnished gilded surface, I decided to take the traditional route and develop a product that performed well in the traditional parameters, while also offering an opportunity to explore ancient bole color palettes. I believe that in the new instant gild world, such fundamental crafts as burnishing, developing a personal glue to bole ratio recipe and exploring such extra embellishments as stamping or distressing, are lost.
I have always been the museum visitor who looks at works of art up close. After years of staring at paintings, I found my eyes wandering over to the frames and exploring the intricate crafts of gesso carving and burnishing. Additionally, I had always been interested in Quattrocento icons and now I became fascinated by the ornate gilded backgrounds.
After years of selling gold leaf, I noticed that customers complained about the declining quality of the commercially available bole products and how the palette of available colors kept shrinking. I decided to embark on finding a formula for a bole, which turned out to be one of the most ambitious raw materials explorations.
I have been fortunate enough to have master gilder Joel Hoyer act as both a collaborator and tester in the bole recipe development. Initially, I started with just some clay and pigment, but soon found the need for other ingredients, that would allow for a burnish. Bole recipes are few and far between. Obviously, the Armenian Clay has always been a benchmark in the bole formulation, but all the sources Joel and I had come across were “the consistency of ground up bricks” and unusable.
I did find one recipe that had a number of ingredients, but without any ratios and/or measurements. After countless variations on the same recipe, I finally came up with a formula that could be measured in grams and yielded a smooth, yet pliable, surface. While the formula seemed to be a success in the Sinopia Test Kitchen, only Joel’s test would prove the usefulness of the clay. Once again Joel stopped by and picked up the samples. Normally, Joel would follow up with an email a day or so later, describing the shortcomings of the latest batch. Not this time. A few hours after Joel’s departure from the shop, I received an excited phone call. “You got it!”, was all he said and hung up.
Since that day, I have developed a palette of 15 colors, based on both standard shades (red, yellow and black) and historical colors. This is where both my visits to museums all over Europe and Joel’s library of historical bole hues would prove valuable. Some of the shades were easy, others required a color instinct that I had honed over the last 25+ years of selling pigments.
I also found that the quality of ingredients plays a major role. Initially, I used Kaolin Clay that is readily available through my pigment suppliers. I was not happy with the fluffy and chalky nature of the powder. Luckily, I stumbled onto a source of a Hydrated Kaolin Clay from a mine just outside of Chattanooga TN. While the clay is unrefined and requires some preparation, the smooth dense powder proved to be the perfect base for the range of bole colors.
One of my shortcomings as a business person lies in the fact that I don’t necessarily think about the marketplace and demand for my new products. I figured that if I reached a few hundred loyal customers with the bole, that would sustain the product line. Much to my surprise, I was wrong with this estimation. In the past three years, I have put together a list of worldwide wholesale accounts and I have found that the small 4oz. sizes has attracted many newcomers to the field, who are intimidated by the minimum 1 Liter size of the commercially available boles.
Aside from selling pigments and manufacturing products, I also teach classes on raw materials and how an understanding of these ingredients can liberate an artist who is no longer dependent on what the manufacturers have to offer. I spend much of my time at Sinopia waiting for packages to arrive from my suppliers, which can often be a stressful part of running the business. In the past few years, there has been nothing more satisfying than remedying an “out of stock” product , not with a wholesale order, but simply by declaring “I’ll just make more”.
This article originally appeared in the 2019 Summer Gilder’s Tip Issue, which is published by the Society of Gilders