Experiencing Historical Techniques through the Color Black at the ROOHTS Summer School

By Sharifa Lookman

As October draws to a close, we feature yet another exciting article from our ongoing series of cross-postings on the hands-on, collaborative research project into recipes for Burgundian Black, organized by Dr. Jenny Boulboullé. Today, Sharifa Lookman provides another fascinating peek into the inner workings of the project (Joshua Schlachet)

For the pre-modern artist, color was anything but random. As both concept and product, it wore many masks: the bearer of symbolic significance, an agent of trade, and a protagonist in histories of politics, economy, and geography. In material, it was the hard-earned product of natural ingredients and arcane, even alchemical processes. Researchers in the Faculty of Design Sciences and the working group ROOHTS (Research on the Origin of Historical Techniques) at the University of Antwerp have returned to historical recipes to investigate these aspects of color. From July 1-5, in collaboration with the ARTECHNE ERC research group at the University of Utrecht, researchers took up the following question: how did pre-modern colorists perceive, manufacture, and master the color black?

The intensive, five-day summer school, “Burgundian Blacks,” brought together artists, scholars, and scientists of diverse backgrounds to investigate black color technologies of multiple media, working from the production of black textile dyes (the focus of a January workshop, the Burgundian Black Collaboratory) and moving into adjacent practices used to produce black inks and paints in and around the historic region of Burgundy. Each day consisted of a theoretical component and a practical one: classes moved back and forth between the lecture hall, with studies on historical contexts, and the laboratory, where recipes were tested through experimental reconstructions, or (re)enactments.

The setting—a university conservation laboratory—was decidedly ahistorical and acknowledged the inherent limits of reconstruction: small sample sizes and anachronistic instruments, for starters. And yet, when all thirteen of the participants and a handful of instructors were in the lab together, we more or less simulated an active ‘workshop,’ complete with masters and apprentices, back-and-forth shop talk, and bustling bodies (Fig. 1). As a participant, I found that the summer school’s give-and-take between the written word and re-enactment emphasized two fundamental ideas in the study of color technologies: the mutability of language in interpreting recipes and the intellectual merit of touch and sensation in reconstructing them; in other words, the valuable cross-fertilization of both mind and body in materiality studies.[i]

Figure 1: Laboratory space in the University of Antwerp conservation labs.


In considering early modern writings on color, twenty-first century scholars must first be acquainted with an author’s vocabulary, biases, and technical ‘know-how.’ This was the case in our workshop reconstruction of “Noir de Flandres” (Black of Flanders), a seventeenth-century French recipe for a madder and woad-based dye. Here the compiler of the recipe added in his own hand, “And you will have a perfect and durable black” (Fig. 2).[ii] What, according to our writer, is a ‘perfect black,’ and how did it relate to other early modern colors? Over the course of our two-day dye session we produced a number of dyed textiles, many in various shades of black and others not black at all (Fig. 3). Were any of them ‘perfect?’ We often struggled with terms to describe this range, using words such as ‘fresh,’ ‘saturated,’ or ‘opaque.’ But are these the terms an early modern colorist would use? Our author does tell us that, in addition to being ‘perfect,’ the Noir de Flandres is also ‘durable,’ implying that, even in the moment of its making, it was important that the color last for posterity.

Figure 2: “Noir de Flandres” recipe manuscript with compilers annotation: “Vous aurés un noir parfaict & durable.” Image courtesy of the Royal Society Archives.
Figure 3: Dying linen using gallnuts; Left: Whole gallnuts; Center: Washing unbleached linen after first dye bath; Right: Cooking unbleached linen in second dye bath.

Knowledge of materials, processes, and techniques was also gleaned from sources that were not written down, namely ‘shop talk,’ a kind of knowledge circulated within and across artist workshops. Though the dye recipes we tested ranged in time period (1350-1670) and geography, they often shared ingredients. By analyzing the presence and absence of certain ingredients in black dye recipes, scholars, such as Natalia Ortega-Saez of the University of Antwerp, have classified these recipes into three main groups.[iii] Based on these, a twenty-first century reader can effectively ‘fill in the gaps’ when information in the original transcription of one particular recipe is missing or unclear. Likely, a contemporary would have done just that, having considered particular instructions to be common knowledge. We might think back to the Italian artist and writer Giorgio Vasari who, describing fourteenth-century artist Cennino Cennini’s treatise on painting, wrote, “[Cennini] was anxious to know the peculiarities of colors … and gave much advice which I need not expand upon, since all these matters, which he then considered very great secrets, are now universally known.”[iv] By the sixteenth century certain materials and their properties must have been widely known across Europe, and the disappearance of these procedures in writing suggests that this information was not forgotten, but instead circulated verbally, just as we shared and transmitted knowledge orally in the laboratory.


Where our dye reconstructions were much more ‘experimental,’ some recipes being deciphered and tested for the very first time, our pigment recipes had comparatively fewer unknowns. Instead, we were encouraged to consider the appearance, smell, and feel of our materials as we progressed through the recipes. Simply put, we shifted away from the written and spoken word and towards the sensory experience of color production. We began by roasting our raw ingredients—primarily animal bones and fruit pits—in crucibles in an open flame (Fig. 4). The goal here was to char the materials just until they turned black; too long on the flame risks turning the bones white, the base for another color, ‘bone-white.’

Figure 4: Roasting materials for pigments; Left: Peach and cherry pits pre-fire; Center: Crushed bovine bone in crucibile, pre-fire; Right: Crucible in flame.

The body took centerstage as we began grinding our pigments. Organic materials, like fruit stones and plant matter, broke down in mere minutes, but sheep and bovine bones were significantly denser and more difficult, some requiring twenty to thirty minutes of continuous grinding. To achieve the kind of fine powder necessary for high-quality pigments, one clearly needed strength and dexterity as well as a cultivated sensitivity to natural materials. Without time specifications in our recipes, we ground our pigments until they felt finely powdered, and mulled them with water until we could no longer feel or hear granules sliding between the glass (Fig. 5). Sensory indicators—touch, smell, and sight—developed into an acquired “skilled vision” and “expert touch” akin to shop talk, one that filled gaps in reasoning.[v]

Figure 5: Grinding pigments; Top left: Mortar and pestle to grind charred matter; Top right: Ground color; Bottom left: Mulling ground color with water to further break down particles; Bottom right: Final result for vine black.

We considered these ideas even further by applying the pigments to paper: how did the paint feel when applied? What was its texture? Translucency? Facture? Here the term ‘body’ can be dually defined. In addition to referring to the body of the maker, it also suggests the ‘body’ of a color, as Jenny Boulboullé of the University of Utrecht has observed.[vi] The coloristic effects, success, and ‘body’ of our black pigments were not only dependent on its raw material and how we processed it, but also the type of binding medium used; depending on this, a color’s transparency, density, and quality differed considerably (Fig. 6). Because we used only water and gum arabic as binders, I couldn’t help but wonder how, precisely, the choice of binder can modulate the color black. In other words, to quote Ann-Sophie Lehmann, in mixing and applying pigment, what is the “matter of the medium?”[vii]

Figure 6: Left: Page from sample book produced during the workshop; Upper right: Two samples of Vine black, one with a water binder (left) and the other a binding mixture of water and gum arabic (right); Center right: Cherry stone black. We did not grind the cherry stones into a sufficiently fine powder and, because of this, the resulting pigment had a grainy, irregular consistency; Lower right; Stick lac black. In this sample I bound the stick lac in gum arabic with very little water. The result was a tacky paint that congealed when applied to paper.

Re-enactments of historical techniques bring to the surface ideas that are often latent in strictly theoretical approaches to technique and materiality. By investigating recipes for pre-modern black, we engage with color as both technique and concept, as the cross-geographical product of nature and artistic experimentalism, and, above all, as an area of study that has increasingly come to move across disciplines and scholarly domains.


[i] See Sven Dupré’s blog post, “Re-enactment in Teaching Art History (Part 1),” https://artechne.wp.hum.uu.nl/re-enactment-in-teaching-art-history-part-1/

[ii] Original French: “un noir parfaict & durable.” Recipe transcribed and translated by Jenny Boulboullé.

[iii] Natalia Ortega Saez, Ina Vanden Berghe, Olivier Schalm, et al., “Material analysis versus historical dye recipes: ingredients found in black dyed wool from five Belgian archives (1650-1850),” Conservar Património 31 (2019): 1-18.

[iv] Giorgio Vasari, “Vita di Agnolo Gaddi,” in Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori, nelle redazioni del 1550 e 1568, Vol. 2 [1568], eds. Paola Barocchi and Rosanna Bettarini, 6 vols. (Florence: Sansoni Editore, 1966-87), 248-9; for translation see Angela Cerasuolo, Literature and Artistic Practice in Sixteenth-Century Italy, trans. Helen Glanville, ed. Walter S. Melion (Leiden: Brill Publishing, 2017), 173.

[v] Cristina Grasseni, Skilled Visions: Between Apprenticeship and Standards (New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2007).

[vi] Jenny Boulboullé and Maartie Stols-Witlox consider these themes in an essay entitled, “Working (with) the corps: bodies of colours, sands and varnishes in Ms Fr. 640 and MS 2052,” which will be published in the forthcoming Critical Edition of Bnf Ms Fr 640, edited by Pamela Smith & the Making and Knowing Project.

[vii] Ann-Sophie Lehmann, “The matter of the medium: some tools for an art-theoretical interpretation of materials,” in The Matter of Art: Materials, Practices, Cultural Logics, c. 1250-1750, eds. Christy Anderson, Anne Dunlop and Pamela H. Smith (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), 21-41.

Learning from a “Living Source” in Working with Historical Recipes: Reflections on the Burgundian Black Collaboratory

By Jessie Wei-Hsuan Chen

This week, we continue our series of cross-postings on a fascinating hands-on, collaborative research project into recipes for Burgundian Black, organized by Dr. Jenny Boulboullé. In today’s selection, we hear from Jessie Chen on her experiences of the project. This post is our second entry in the series, reproduced from Artechne, July 3rd, 2019. (Joshua Schlachet)

Burgundian Black Collaboratory

Between the 16th and 18th of January, I was invited to participate in the Burgundian Black Collaboratory.[1] For this workshop, experts from different fields joined forces to experiment with reconstructions of early modern black dyeing technologies based on a selection of historical recipes (Fig. 1).[2] The workshop is part of the research for a collaborative exhibition project that will be on view at Museum Hof van Busleyden in Mechelen later this year, and an edited-volume-in-planning on the subject of “Burgundian Black.” For now, I want to write about some thoughts on the method of learning from a “living source” using my own experience of the workshop.

Fig. 1. Experts from different fields experimenting with different recipes in our temporary lab, which was a greenhouse on the farm De Kreake in Húns in Friesland.

What is a “living source”?

In her article, Timea Tallian proposed three groups of living sources that can help fill the gaps in understanding historical recipes: experts, masters, and practitioners.[3] The definition of the three groups is more suggestive than hard-drawn. In general, “expert” refers to a person who conducts practical and/or scientific experimentation or reconstruction based on historical documentation. “Master” refers to a person who has acquired an art or craft through apprenticeship and continued to practice it for a long time. “Practitioner” refers to a person who has gained most knowledge from personal experience in making art/craft and self-motivated research into historical techniques.[4]

A simplified experience of working as an apprentice

During the Burgundian Black Collaboratory, I was in the same group as Jo Kirby-Atkinson, former Senior Scientific Officer at the National Gallery in London and co-author of the seminal book Natural Colorants for Dyeing and Lake Pigments.[5] Jo is, in every aspect of the term, an expert on natural colorants and materials, whereas I am a novice with no prior experience in working with natural dye and textile. While not strictly, the dynamic of my group resembles a historical workshop, with an expert/master showing the ropes to an apprentice. Our group was given three seventeenth-century recipes to decode, with two originally written in Dutch, but translated into English, and one in French.[6] All three recipes yielded rich black dyes (Fig. 2), even though we had to compress the multiple-day dyeing-processes into only a few hours.

Fig. 2. Top left: our equipment for the experiments; Top right: the different textiles we gathered before dyeing them black; Bottom left: in the middle of dyeing following the instructions of one of the Dutch recipes; Bottom right: final results of our experiments.

For three days, I followed Jo around, gathered and prepared the needed materials as she had instructed, and attentively listened to her explaining the reasons behind the decisions she made to follow or modify the recipes when dyeing our textile. Unlike many historians that start working with recipes by reading and interpreting the texts right away, I started by listening to and absorbing the knowledge of the expert/master.

In fact, this has always been how I learned historical techniques, or any artistic techniques. When I was in art school, manuals and how-to guides were always part of the assigned readings for classes, but I seldom consulted them. Instead, I observed what the professors did during demonstrations and tried to replicate the processes and results. For my first lesson in historical remaking, I learned an eighteenth-century metal-casting technique (Fig. 3) through the step-by-step explanations from an Amsterdam-based silversmith and conservator.[7] Similarly, I gained my knowledge in early modern printing (Fig. 4) by working alongside a master printer who learned the trade in a workshop. While historical recipes and instructions still play an important part in my research of these techniques, I do not usually read them until after I have some hands-on experiences.

Fig. 3. Left: removing the lion head ornament from the casting flask; Right: the cast and the original lion head ornament.


 Fig. 4. Two process photos of printing with a hand press.

Limitation or liberation?

How does learning from these experts affect my reading of historical recipes then? Does knowing the practical aspects of a technique help me understand the recipes better? Or does it prevent me from finding other possible interpretations of a recipe because I am conditioned by what the experts have shown me?

Upon reflection of the workshop, I noticed that my take on the original source is, indeed, shaped by Jo. When going through the recipes afterwards, my mind replayed the steps we took to dye our textile black. Interestingly, the recipes became so straight forward. In the imagined laboratory, my mind automatically filled in the gaps in the recipes with the decisions and measurements Jo made during the workshop. She has taken all the guess work out of interpreting the recipes, and what I have is a very cleaned-up, and perhaps all-too-easy, version of the processes.

However, I also noticed that I started to question some other things that are not necessarily directly related to the texts in the recipes we were testing, but to the broader historical contexts. For example, for one of the recipes we put linen and woolen materials in the same dye bath for the experiment. The linen came out more of a gray than black. Jo explained that in order for linen to get to the same level of blackness as wool, it would require a much longer time to mordant the fabric with alum. Historically and practically speaking, linen would not have been dyed with this particular recipe anyway because the cost of the overdyeing process (dyeing with multiple dye baths) would have been too expensive for the fabric. Such a recipe, thus, would have only been used for high quality material like wools and silks. These comments got me curious about the alum trade and the regulations of dyeing certain fabrics in the early modern period to which I have never paid attention before.

From novice to expert, eventually…

To answer my own questions, I think that gaining the hands-on skills from an expert/master is beneficial to prevent me from getting caught up with words and sentences as a novice; instead, I can focus on connecting the technique of investigation to its larger historical and social context. Learning from these experts also makes me become more aware of the oral knowledge transfer in a workshop in addition to written recipes. As I am only at the beginning of working with historical recipes, there will be more opportunities to interpret and experiment with recipes for different materials and techniques without the aid of an expert. Much like an apprentice who would become a master, I think that I will eventually find my own perspective on working with recipes.


[1] The workshop was organized by Jenny Boulboullé (ERC Artechne Project, Utrecht University & University of Amsterdam) and Claudy Jongstra (textile artist), and prepared in collaboration with Natalie Ortega Saez (University of Antwerp) and Art Proaño Gaibor (Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands). It was hosted by Claudy and her team in Húns in Friesland, The Netherlands, and received funding from the Museum Hof van Busleyden, the ERC Artechne Project, and Studio Claudy Jongstra.

[2] For more academic blogging on historical recipes and how historians have been studying them, see The Recipes Project, https://recipes.hypotheses.org/about

[3] Timea Tallian, “Living sources: experts, masters, and practitioners,” in The Artist’s Process: Technology and Interpretation: Proceedings of the Fourth Symposium of the Art Technological Source Research Working Group, eds. Sigrid Eyb-Green, Joyce H. Townsend, Mark Clarke, Jilleen Nadolny, and Stefanos Kroustallis (London: Archetype Publications, 2012), 10.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jo Kirby-Atkinson, Martin van Bommel, and André Verhecken, eds., Natural Colorants for Dyeing and Lake Pigments: Practical Recipes and Their Historical Sources (London: Archetype Publications, 2014).

Jenny was also part of our group; but due to her role as the organizer, she was much needed by other participants and thus I mostly worked with Jo on the hands-on aspect of the experiments during the workshop.

[6] The two Dutch recipes, translated by Hofenk de Graaff, are from the so called Haarlem Manuscript (Recepten-boek om allerlei kleuren te verwen […], Frans Hals Museum, fol. 313-l-l and 95/r/3l) from the second half of the seventeenth century (after 1669). The unpublished French recipe, transcribed by Jenny, is from the first half of the seventeenth century. She found it in the Archives of the Royal Society in London (Classified Papers III(1)).

[7] This technique is one of the investigations for the PhD project of Thijs Hagendijk. To learn more, see Thijs Hagendijk, “Learning a Craft from Books: Historical Re-enactment of Functional Reading in Gold- and Silversmithing,” Nuncius 33 (2018): 198–235. Alternatively, Thijs has also written a few blog posts on the subject, see, for example, “How to Read Early Modern Instructions for Gold- and Silversmiths,” https://artechne.wp.hum.uu.nl/how-to-read-early-modern-instructions-for-gold-and-silversmiths/.

Exploring Historical Blacks: The Burgundian Black Collaboratory

By Paula Hohti

Here at The Recipes Project, we are proud to have the opportunity to, from time to time, amplify the incredible collaborative projects of our contributors by cross-posting their work in their own words. This is the first entry in a series of posts on collaborative research into recipes for Burgundian Black, organized by Dr. Jenny Boulboullé. We look forward to sharing more from their project throughout the month to come. This post is reproduced from their entry at Refashioning the Renaissance on February 21st, 2019. (Joshua Schlachet)

Last month, I participated in a workshop on historical black dyes in the Netherlands, titled “Burgundian Black Collaboratory.” co-organised by Jenny Boulboullè from the ERC ARTECHNE Research group and Claudy Jongstra—a talented and creative textile artist working on historical wool fibres and natural dyes—in collaboration with Natalia Ortega-Saez, and the Museum Hof van Busleyden.  Led by Jenny and hosted by Claudy on her farm in Hùns, I and the rest of the group spent three days in a green house in the Dutch countryside, trying out recipes and testing how ‘a perfect Burgundian black,’ once seen as the utmost civic and professional colour, could be created by using historical dye recipes. The aim of the workshop was to provide material for the planned exhibition at the Museum Hof van Busleyden, and an e-book project, edited by Jenny Boulboullé and Sven Dupré.

Black is the most difficult colour to dye, because it washes out easily and degrades faster than other colours. Given the complexity and expense related to dyeing black, historical recipe books are full of black dye recipes, from simple and cheap procedures that could be applied by men and women at home to complex and expensive recipes that required professional skill and economic capital.

In the ‘Burgundian Black Collaboratory,’ we worked in groups to test these recipes, using Flemish and Italian sources, including the Venetian Plichto by Rosetti (1548), which is the first known book of dye recipes intended for professional dyers. This allowed us both to explore the process and methodology of reconstructing historical recipes (the recipes are vague and rarely include accurate measures!) as well as to evaluate how well the original recipe might have worked in terms of creating black.

Black was traditionally produced from barks and roots that contain tannins (such as alder, walnut and chestnut). To provide a colour that stayed longer, dyers started combining tannins with iron salts that acted as a mordant. This produced a more beautiful black, but the result was corrosive to the fabric.

A better -but much more expensive and complicated – way to achieve black colour was to use a madder and woad base overdyed with tannins such as gall nuts. By the late sixteenth century, the best-known method to get a beautiful, deep black was to dip the silk or wool first in either a woad or indigo bath that gave the cloth a beautiful blue undertone, and then, when the fabric was dry, to overdye the fabric with madder (red dye) on an alum mordant.

The challenges of reconstruction, and the great differences between recipes of black, became well visualized and materialised in the results.  Some did not turn black at all, others were initially black but turned brown overnight when they were dry, while others were just beautifully deep black. These differences were due to the fact that some recipes did not provide as precise instructions as others, they were misleading, or they simply did not work.

The fascination and interest of dyers over black reflects the fact that black was an ultimate colour of power, status and fashion in early modern Europe. By the end of sixteenth century, it was essential for young men of wealthy families to have their portraits painted in black.  

Although deep, sumptuous blacks with blue, purple or red undertones are usually associated only with the elites and merchant classes, black was, in fact, the most important colour also in clothing of our ordinary artisans and shopkeepers.  Our initial data shows that, for example in Siena between 1550–1650, whenever colour was mentioned, 25% of all male and female clothing consisted of garments dyed with different types of blacks, including jackets, breeches, over-gowns among others.

Recipes for dyeing black, intended for domestic use by ordinary people, were available also for our artisan groups through cheap printed pamphlets and booklets that were sold at a cheap price by, for example, street peddlers. One of the recurring recipes for home-based black dyeing, described ‘for women after they have spun their yarn,’ was prepared by boiling oak gall with a small amount of copper sulphate and Arabic gum -the latter which was added to give the black a degree of lustre. While this might have produced a reasonably beautiful black colour, the copper made the woollen yarn weak. For this reason, professional wool dyers, at least in Venice, were forbidden by their guild to use this method.

We will be experimenting with the Refashioning the Renaissance team with domestic dyeing and colour, and investigating what kinds of blacks among other colours our artisans wore, what these looked like and how durable these were.

Please keep an eye on Michele’s talk and article on how to use printed sources as evidence for the history of lower-class dress, on Sophie’s dye experiment during our trip to Columbia University’s Making and Knowing Project, and my forthcoming articles on Colour, on red dyes, and the social and culture meanings of black in sixteenth and seventeenth century European fashions.


Susan Kay-Williams, The Story of Colour in Textiles: Imperial Purple to Denim Blue (Bloomsbury, 2013).

Natalia Ortega Saez, Black dyed wool in North Western Europe 1680- 1850: The relationship between Historical Recipes and the Current state of preservation (unpublished PhD. dissertation submitted for University of Antwerpen, 2018).

Dominique Cardon, Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science (Archetype Publications, 2003).

Elizabeth Currie, Fashion and Masculinity in Renaissance Florence (Bloomsbury, 2016).

Riikka Räisänenm Anja Primetta, Kirsi Niinimäki, Luonnonväriaineet (Maahenki 2015).