JAIC 1991, Volume 30, Number 2, Article 2 (pp. 125 to 144)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1991, Volume 30, Number 2, Article 2 (pp. 125 to 144)

A STUDY OF THE MATERIALS USED BY MEDIEVAL PERSIAN PAINTERS

NANCY PURINTON, & MARK WATTERS



2 TREATISES ON PERSIAN PAINTING

ONLY TWO translations into English of technical treatises on Persian painting exist. One is Qanun us-Suvar (Canons of Painting) by Sadiqi Bek, a royal painter in the 16th-century Safavid Iran. Sadiqi Bek wrote the Qanun sometime between 1576 and 1602 (Dickson and Welch 1981). The second work, Gulistan-i Hunan (Rose Garden of Art), was an appendix to a text written by Qadi Ahmad circa 1608 (Minorsky 1959).

In his treatise, Sadiqi Bek discussed theoretical aspects of painting such as the basic categories of decorative art and its different idioms, including animal and decorative drawing. He also gave practical information on the techniques of manufacturing artists' supplies and the application of colors. In Sadiqi Bek's opinion, two types of drawing require different types of observation. For instance, for human figures only careful study from nature would do, while for animal figure studies one must study the past masters as models. A popular type of drawing featured animals locked in battle, and Sadiqi Bek advised that the animals be drawn with tense bodies in a clawed grip (Dickson and Welch 1981). A toned drawing of animals locked in battle included in this study (M.73.5.12, fig. 1) does follow these rules.

Fig. 1. A Lion Attacking a Dragon That Has Wrapped Itself a Ram, Iran Safavid period, Isfahan, 1691, Ink and color washes on paper, 12.75 20.25 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Nasli M. Heeramaneck Collection, Gift of Joan Palevsky. M. 73.5.12.

Sadiqi Bek stated that a painting would have a two-layer ground. The bottom layer would be a mixture of glue, plaster, and grape treacle; on top of that would be a layer of white lead and oil-varnish. The term for oil-varnish in Persian, rang-i rowghan, is difficult to translate, but Dickson and Welch (1981) determined it probably meant a cooked oil and resin varnish. This study is concerned only with paintings on paper, and we found no such ground on any of the paintings. This type of ground was probably intended for book bindings or paintings on stiff layered paper (like cardboard) surfaces (Dickson and Welch 1981).

Sadiqi Bek also described the manufacture of some of the colors used in a painting (Dickson and Welch 1981). The only white pigment he mentioned was white lead produced by melting lead in a closed vessel and then, after it had cooled, alternately washing it with a saline solution and pounding it with sal-am-moniac and vinegar. To make red lead, the white lead was roasted. The green pigment, verdigris, was made by burying copper plates, immersed in vinegar, in a pit two meters deep for one month. Sadiqi Bek also described a red lake that was made from boiling lac in a soda solution to which possibly lime was added. He instructed the artist to make vermilion by pounding mercury and sulfur in a mortar and then heating it for several hours.

The Gulistan-i Hunan was written around 1608 A.D., but probably not by Qadi Ahmad himself (Minorsky 1959). While less thorogh than Sadiqi Bek's treatise, this appendix, nonetheless, covers some different topics. For instance, it includes instructions for ruling framework, or drawing decorative margin lines around calligraphy. As far as one can discern, given that the original is written in medieval Persian and that there are inherent pitfalls in translating ancient languages, those margins would be (from the interior line to the outside line) black, ultramarine, black, gold, ultramarine, black, and pale green. Other margin suggestions are arrangements of black, gold, and ultramarine.

The author then explained how to grind and dilute the pigments made of lapis lazuli and gold. Gum arabic was the only medium mentioned, and artists were advised to add it to colors. The pigments included in this section of the treatise are cinnabar, lapis lazuli (ultramarine), orpiment, and white lead. All these colors would be washed as a final preparation step by adding water to the pigment in a vessel, allowing it to settle; and then decanting the liquid. Gum arabic was added to the colors before they were ground. The passage describing this process is difficult to understand. At one point the artisan is advised to add vinegar to lapis lazuli (a blue stone) and grind it until it turned green. In another the artisan is instructed to mix verdigris (a green) with white lead to make pink. Such instructions suggest that at least some information in this treatise is inaccurate. This appendix also described four methods of preparing a black ink: one from lampblack, another from baked wheat starch paste, another with gallnuts and lampblack, and the last with tin and mercury. A 17th-century version of contemporary liquid correction fluid is also given: mistakes could be covered with white lead and then the surface burnished to make writing disappear (Minorsky 1959).

Both treatises give directions for making pigments. Sadiqi Bek described the production of white lead, red lead, verdigris, vermilion, and a red lake (Dickson and Welch 1981). The appendix to Qadi Ahmad's text included instructions for preparing ultramarine, gold, cinnabar, and so-called red orpiment, but it is devoted mostly to the preparation of black inks (Minorsky 1959). Although the authors of these treatises use different names for a red pigment—vermilion and cinnabar—the pigment is the same chemically. Vermilion is manufactured by grinding mercury and sulfur together, while cinnabar is the naturally occurring form that is simply ground (Gettens and Stout 1966).

Much of the information on materials used in Persian paintings offered in 20th-century art historical literature has been based on speculation rather than factual evidence. One author incorrectly stated that peori (Indian yellow, an organic yellow pigment) is a yellow earth (Martin 1912, 108–9). Another refers to verdigris (a copper acetate) as an arsenical green (Gray 1961). Even those authors dealing specifically with the technical aspects of Persian painting disagree on such basic matters as the primary constituents of the vehicle (or binder) for the pigments. Laurie (1935), who seems to have been particularly interested in the materials used in Persian paintings and made many astute pigment notations, speculated on the possible use of several materials including gums, waxes, and oils. Behzad (1939) stated that albumin was the earliest medium, followed by glue and gum arabic, but he gave no documentation. Martin (1912, 109) suggested a variety of materials, including gum arabic water, glue water, and linseed water as well as sugar. It is hoped that this study and others like it, will help to determine what Persian artists actually used by examining the art works with scientific analytical equipment.


Copyright 1991 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works