Artists and scientists combine to revive old ways

Jason Kerr
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A pair of University of Saskatchewan professors are helping renew interest in an old tradition.

University of Saskatchewan soil sciences professor and art enthusiast Ken Van Rees gives a demonstration at the Mann Art Gallery’s Create your own Paints Workshop. 

Two years ago soil sciences professor Ken Vas Rees and art professor Allyson Glenn began combining art and soil science classes to revive the practice of home-made paint.  They’ve had so much interest since then that they’ve taken their class out of the university and on the road.  On Saturday it was the Mann Art Gallery that hosted them for a tutorial and demonstration.

“I think there’s a real interest today in terms of going back to these old traditional techniques and making your own pigments, this kind of return back to the land kind of thing,” Van Rees says.

Using a variety of soils and minerals, like antlers and seashells, Van Rees and Glenn have helped reintroduce paint making to the current generation of artists.

“I think we take it for granted that we can buy paint and we’re not always familiar with what it’s made out of or what sort of materials or particles it’s made out of,” Glenn says.  “It’s really wonderful to be able to actually make it yourself and have that knowledge.”

Most of the ingredients are found within Saskatchewan, like soil samples taken from Meadow Lake that are used to create various shades of red.  Although the ingredients are readily available, the process of turning them into pigments useful for painting is a little more difficult.

“Everybody’s working really hard today,” Mann Art Gallery educator Twyla Exner says.  “I think the overwhelming response is, wow, it sure is a lot of work to make your own paints.”

Each ingredient needs to be prepared in different ways, although all are eventually ground down to a fine powder with a mortar and pestle.  The ingredients are ground down even further afterwards, and some of them even need to be burned beforehand.

Although the work is hard, Exner says those who attended found the class quite thought-provoking.

“I think they’re really interested to see how paints were made 500 years ago, grateful for the fact that they come in tubes today, but also really interested to find out the history of this medium and how to incorporate it into their own practices.”

Exner says the there are a lot of painters in the Prince Albert area, and considering Prince Albert’s location, felt there would be a lot of local interest.

“We thought that this would be an interesting project that people in our community might enjoy, that they might be able to go up north in the summertime, collect their own samples, make their own pigments and incorporate the techniques they’re learning today into their own practices.”

Glenn and Van Rees are planning on holding other classes in the area.  The next one will be held in June at Christopher Lake.

Organizations: Mann Art Gallery, Prince Albert

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Meadow Lake, Christopher Lake

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