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Transcript of Sigrid Holmwood 'Butchering a Pig' podcast

Sigrid Holmwood: I’m Sigrid and here I am in front of my painting, which is all made from handmade paints. So I’ve got some of the materials with me that I used to make the painting.

First of all I primed it with a gesso that I made. First of all I made the glue for the gesso and if any of you are painters, which I’m sure quite a few of you are you’ll probably be familiar with rabbit skin glue. I actually use parchment clipping glue. So parchment clippings, parchment is actually sheep skin or goat or calf, then it’s called vellum.

Of course in this period, the 16th century, people used parchment to write on or whatever and they wanted nice square sheets and skin comes in kind of wiggly shapes, so obviously there were a lot of parchment clippings around. And you just boil this down, it’s basically making a gelatine so it’s a bit like when you have a stew and then its cold the next day and you’ve got that kind of gelatine layer, that is an animal glue. And so that’s what I use.

Because this painting is done on canvas, I actually emulsified the gesso, so I sort of made a gesso of chalk and the glue and I emulsified it with some linseed oil. That just makes it a bit more flexible for going on canvas and also you have to have quite a thin layer.

I then ground actually with white and this fluorescent pigment – obviously not authentic, this isn’t authentic, well its 20th century authentic. I research all these historical techniques but then it’s not with the aim of making some kind of historically accurate painting.

As you may have noticed I am wearing these 16th century clothes and I am a member of a historical interpretation group, as they like to be called rather than re-enactment, and we do stuff for museums and we do show how artists worked in that period. That’s one of the things and we also show how laundry was done and cooking and lots of other everyday things. And when I’m in that group and we’re doing stuff for museums then it is all very authentic. However, my painting is sort of outside that in the contemporary world and this painting practice is something I use to comment on the kind of anthropological phenomenon of re-enactors and the way we represent history in contemporary society. Because after all I think when you look at something about history, really what it’s telling you is about the society itself or about nowadays. What any social group chooses to represent and how they choose to represent it says way more about themselves than it does about the past. So although it looks like I’m sort of dealing with history I’m actually very much dealing with the present as well.

Anyway digressing, back to my fluorescent pigment, I bound that in egg, so egg tempera. The reason why I used egg is because actually fluorescent pigment doesn’t like being in oils. Oils have a kind of refractive index that makes them a bit dark. This is the thing, when you get into making your own paints you discover there are pigments for certain binders and pigments for other binders and that actually affects how you might construct a painting. Because obviously you can paint bottom layers with egg tempera and then finish up with oils but you can’t paint egg tempera on top of oils. So when you look at historical paintings you realise that a lot of the way they are constructed have reasons to do with the materials.

So fluorescent pigment doesn’t like being in oils, so I bound it in egg, however, I bound it in an egg tempera which was an egg oil emulsion. Again because it’s on canvas just to give it a bit of flexibility because oil is flexible but egg is very brittle. So if you’re just going to use pure egg yolk I would work on board because it’s rigid.

So the primer was like an off white and I sort of modelled with a white and egg tempera and with the fluorescent egg tempera on top.

Other paints in the painting include some sort of normal ones that are kind of used nowadays as much as they ever were, which is like raw sienna and burnt sienna, so I’m sure we’re all kind of familiar with those, they are just earth pigments.

Some of the more unusual ones are a cobalt turquoise, which is a very zingy pigment that was invented in the 19th century so that’s a relatively modern pigment. But then we’re getting onto some really sort of historic stuff here: verdigris is a really interesting pigment which I love. It’s basically copper acetate. It was made by suspending copper strips over little dishes of vinegar and the vinegar fumes would come and rust the copper and we’re more familiar with that kind of turquoise greenish residue on copper, that was just scraped off and this is your pigment.

This is it here, I glazed it, it makes a kind of transparent pigment and I glazed it on top of modelling I’ve done in yellow and also with sort of brown underneath.

If you go to the National Gallery or indeed here and I say the National Gallery because I live in London but actually I think you’ll have some fine examples here of older paintings and especially Renaissance. After the 17th century this colour wasn’t used so much because it’s actually very tricky to use and they wanted more naturalistic effects, but in the Renaissance they used this colour to make trees.

So if you think like a Titian painting or something you’ll have these juicy green trees. But sometimes with time it fades to brown but people don’t notice it because it just looks like the artist painted sort of autumn trees instead but if you know what you’re looking for you start to notice it. There’s another colour which I didn’t use in this painting, which is called smolt, which is a blue colour made from cobalt glass and that has a tendency to go grey with time.

One of my favourite examples of this is in the National Gallery in London, there is a Veronese ‘Allegory of Love’ and at the moment they have grey skies and brown trees but when they were originally painted they actually had bright blue skies and juicy green trees and I think its really appropriate for an Allegory of Love that it sort of started off with a sunshine summer’s day and then its kind of like faded to autumn with time.

So this may well turn brown in the future but I don’t mind, so I’m often using pigments fully aware that they will change with time but that’s part of it.

So my kind of like blood effects here that I’ve got going on I’ve used a combination of vermilion, which is mercury sulphide, quite poisonous. When it occurs naturally it’s called cinnabar but actually already in the medieval times the alchemists already knew how to synthesise this.

Because its mercury sulphide, so you can imagine it’s made by heating up mercury and sulphur together and I read a really nutty recipe that I thought was just crazy and couldn’t possibly be true. Because to do my research I read a lot of these old period texts and they will have just crazy stuff in it like how to make a candle that doesn’t go out under water, how to catch a male elephant. Well what you do is you dig a big pit and you stick four female elephants in it and then he’ll come along and be so attracted he’ll fall into the pit. It doesn’t say anything about how you get the female elephants of course. So there are some quite weird recipes.

And there was a recipe for making a red, which involved putting mercury in an egg and burying it for a long period of time. And when I read that I thought that sounds like one of those weird silly ones. Then I thought about it and actually eggs have got sulphur in so actually maybe it works. I must try it some day but it’s getting your hands on mercury, it isn’t so easy.

I forgot to mention, after the fluorescent pigment the rest of the paints are bound in oil and to bind pigments in oil you use one of these which is a Muller. These are some really lovely ones that actually have been handmade by a fellow re-enactor. The re-enacting world is full of people with different crafts and skills like people who make lovely bags and things, people who will dye your wool, this is dyed with weld. So an acquaintance has made these, but I’ve got also some modern ones which are massive in my studio.

But you just get some sand blasted glass and you make a pile of the pigment and just work them up with a spatula first so its like in a rough paste but then its really important you start spreading this around all over the sheet and what this is doing is its kind of pushing all the pigment particles into a nice even suspension in the oil. So ideally each individual particle of pigment will be coated in oil and that will make for the brightest, shiniest, glossiest paint.

Obviously nowadays the modern paints that you buy in tubes, they’ve been kind of like done in big industrial mills. So that’s slightly the whole point of making it by hand is you wont be as good as that and so there will be a little bit of grittiness and there will be a slightly uneven texture to it. Also you’re probably going to use pigments that can’t be ground very fine as well so that’s the difference and that’s one of my main tools.

So in combination with the vermilion to make all this blood I’ve got madder in this paint, which I made myself from the madder roots. So I’ve got a little jar of madder roots. Later on you can all come closer and have a look. I would pass it around only some of these things are really poisonous so if the jar accidentally opened it wouldn’t be such a good idea.

So madder roots, what I do with these, my kind of recipe is, which is sort of based on a combination of reading different ones and then coming up with what works for me, is I actually let them ferment in water for a few days, I really soak them in water because they don’t give up their colour very easily and then I add potash. I actually add potash all along and keep monitoring it because as they ferment they kind of go acid. And then I will gently heat it up but not too much, in fact sometimes I’ll even just do it cold because the warmer that you heat up madder the browner it gets, so to preserve a kind of pink colour actually keep it as cold as possible.

And when I’ve got enough dye out of my madder roots I pour off all the roots so I’ve just got the dye liquid and to that I add alum, which is potassium aluminium sulphate or people in the past knew it as rock alum or Roche alum and its something that comes out of the rocks, you mine it. In fact its in deodorant, it’s a slightly astringent mineral and you get these kind of hippy deodorants where you can just buy a bit of rock crystal and you put it under your arms, that’s just a lump of alum, it just makes your skin go like that, that’s how it works.

So in combination with this very alkali dye bath you get this big fizzing reaction and many a time I’ve forgotten how much it fizzes and I’ve done it in too small a pot and its split everywhere and been a disaster. Then that sort of calms down and you’ve got this sludge at the bottom. So I’ll just let that settle for a few days and then I pour it into a linen bag and just let all the liquid drip out. And then I turn out the wet sludgy paste onto a piece of newspaper or something and just let it dry for a few days and then you can grind that up and that’s your lake pigment.

Basically this kind of pigment is called a lake pigment; if you are painters you are probably aware that you can buy madder lake in tubes. Obviously it’s not actually made from roots these days but any lake pigment is a transparent pigment. Traditionally it was made with natural dyes so the dress I’m wearing has been dyed with weld, which is a kind of plant and I’ve also made a yellow pigment from this plant as well.

I didn’t use this in this painting but I just thought I’d bring it in for fun because everyone likes to see this. This is cochineal beetles, so I’ve also made pigments from cochineal and that makes a very bright purple. You’ve probably eaten these without realising because they are also used a lot in food colouring, especially where it says ‘natural’ because it is natural. So yeah blackcurrant flavoured sweets that’s kind of what you’re eating there.

The yellow I’ve got on this painting, actually in this case it was lead Antimonate, which is actually Naples yellow but genuine Naples yellow, i.e. it’s got lead in it, that’s really important.

Here I’ve brought with me actually a jar of lead-tin yellow. This is the really historic form of this lead yellow. It’s basically the same colour except its got tin in it and it behaves very much the same, it’s just that I’ve managed to source this company that will make really historic pigments for restoration. Its really hard to get hold of as well, they make you like photocopy your passport and all sorts of stuff because there’s a lot of restrictions around lead these days, which is really annoying because lead paints are great and if any of you are painters I would recommend that you switch instantly to lead white if you’re not already using it.

Basically the ban on lead-based paints is because people painted all over their houses with it and then people would come and sand it and then breath it in and obviously that’s not good and painting toys that children are going to suck isn’t a good idea. But in the world of fine art, no one’s going to suck your painting well apart from a few mice which has happened to me once but that’s another story.

The thing about lead paints is they dry really quickly, they have like a catalyst effect on the oil paints so if you think about Titian or a lot of the painters you’ll see in this museum from the Renaissance and where they glaze with something like madder or carmine from cochineal and create these really glowing colours. That comes from the light passing through that layer and kind of bouncing off this white core and going through this transparent layer of colour, kind of like a stained glass window against the sun. To do that you have to have a nice lean quick-drying paint, so titanium white really doesn’t work, it takes forever to dry and it’s really greasy. So yes I’m a big fan of lead.

In fact I also have treated some oil with lead according to a recipe by Pacheco who was Velázquez’s teacher, where I just basically had some linseed oil and put lead oxide in the bottom and let that stand for several weeks slightly ajar and then what I’ve got is an oil that when I grind it with colours I’ve made from cochineal and madder helps them dry because they take forever to dry, they are really annoying. So I use a lead oil for that.

So the white here is also lead white, I just didn’t bother bringing it in because it just looks like a white powder.

And this is ultramarine ashes, which I’ve also used here and these are genuine, so yes it does come from lapis lazuli. Lapis lazuli, there is a recipe for processing it that Cennino Cennini talks about where you take the ground up lapis and then you put it in a ball with waxes and resins and then you knead that in lye and then the first washing that comes out is very bright blue and then you get subsequent washings that are greyer and greyer.

Also if you just grind up lapis, I mean I’ve done that and lapis comes with bits of calcite and pyrites in it and so actually when you grind it up you can sort of pick out the worst lumps of calcite with your tweezers but depending on how pure your lump of lapis is you might end up with something that’s quite sort of greyish and not as bright blue as you were kind of hoping and certainly not as bright blue as your French ultramarine, your synthetically made ultramarine blue, which is chemically the same.

So anyway these are the ashes and so these are the sort of low grade quality and although they are kind of greyish they still have that kind of violet zing that you get with ultramarine, you know it just has that strange little glow to it, slightly fluoresces. So I love it actually as a colour and it’s not too ridiculously expensive actually as one would think. Also especially nowadays they’ve found lapis in Chilli so it’s not as expensive as when it just all came from Afghanistan. But yes I find that a lovely colour.

Okay so I’ve talked a lot about the materials so I guess maybe I should talk a bit about the image, what it’s of and things like that.

Basically these are friends of mine from the re-enactment group and they are butchering a pig, so they are butchering a Tamworth pig. Actually there aren’t any Tudor or 16th century pigs anymore; they are extinct so this is the closest you’re going to get.

We re-enact in some open air museums like the Weald and Downland, where they’ve collected rural buildings and what I find interesting is this movement in contemporary culture like the Slow Food movement, which is all about maybe sourcing local ingredients, people are thinking about their food miles.

People are also thinking about okay wait a second, we spend all our time worshipping French cuisine but maybe ours isn’t so bad, you know lets revisit the pork pie, lets look at traditional recipes and see if we can rediscover what they taste like when they’re done really well with good quality ingredients.

There are also people who have allotments increasingly, allotments are incredibly popular. In fact, another artist here, Neil Jones who I met because of this event and we’ve met up in London subsequently, his studio is in his allotment in London so there is a nice link between our work and we definitely feel we’ve got something in common in that way.

So in a way my making my own paints, I think of it like a Slow Paint movement like there is the Slow Food movement, where actually when you get back in contact with the materials different things can happen. Painting has a funny status as well in the contemporary art world, I mean when I was at Art School there was all this thing of you know the end of painting and all painting can do nowadays is just rehash old styles in a kind of post modern way and oh I paint, its irrelevant in this world of mass produced digital images and things like that.

Well that kind of got me thinking that maybe that's exactly why one should paint or why one can paint because it is something handmade in a world of digital images and maybe that says something in itself that something as bonkers as sticking on some rocks in oil with a hairy stick has managed to survive that long and I think its because there is an enjoyment in seeing something handmade. There is also an enjoyment in making something by hand.

So that’s partly why I decided to go the whole hog and actually make all my paints by hand as a kind of statement I suppose in a way of well I’m not trying to be digital imagery or I’m not trying to compete with car paint and industrial surfaces, this kind of painting is a handmade kind of craft and maybe there’s something actually quite political about that, maybe there’s something interesting about doing that nowadays.

And actually joining the re-enactors, what you discover is that people, my friends they are whatever, they are IT consultants or they are accountants or they are teachers or whatever during the week and yet they have this other life where they are also an expert in leatherwork or ironmongery or sewing.

And it obviously gives people a lot of enjoyment and a lot of meaning and a lot of fulfilment, which maybe they don’t get so much in their jobs. So I think it’s more like their real life in a way than during the week, what they are doing for cash. So I think that’s an interesting aspect to why people do this kind of thing and why someone might paint even.

Also I think the subject of painting peasants is quite interesting because it sort of started in the 16th century in fact, it started with Bruegel and it kind of started with the beginning of genre painting like still life, landscape. And it all started in that particular period because up until then all the collectors of art had been the church or the aristocrats and suddenly what you start having is the beginnings of capitalism and the merchant class and you’ve got the stock market starting in the Low Countries. And so you have people with money who want to buy paintings for their small town houses.

And just like you get with markets you started to get people specialising in different themes. So you get people specialising in landscapes, still life, peasants, so I think there’s a big irony on the one hand, the history of peasants. Painting peasants is obviously something about romanticising them as opposed to a kind of city life and I’m quite aware of the fact that what I’m doing is kind of romanticising them in a way, although I think I’m kind of commenting on that in itself.

But that it also as a genre of art and in fact the kind of art world we have now, you know it’s completely linked with the opposite, with city culture, with capitalism, you wouldn’t have paintings of peasants without that.

So for me that’s a very relevant thing and also the fact that Bruegel himself was supposed to have dressed like a peasant and hung out with them to go under cover and to sketch them for his work.

I’ve noticed there’s also a history of artists dressing like their subjects, so I’m kind of taking that to this extreme now where I dress like the subjects I’m painting and the subjects I’m painting on the one hand seems to be the 16th century but on the other hand I’m actually painting my re-enactor friends. So I’m kind of dressing up twice, I’m performing twice, I’m performing as a 16th century artist or person, I often show making paints within the group, but I’m also kind of performing as a re-enactor, I’m joining in with them and doing what they do to find out more about these people who live with us now, part of society now.

Any questions?

Host: Wow that was fantastic. I think I’d just like to thank Sigrid very much for her talk today. I’d also like to invite you to ask Sigrid any questions that you would like to ask about her work or her re-enactment or her paintings in fact. Does anybody have any questions?

Sigrid Holmwood: I think I feel more in control of getting the effect I’m after, in fact that’s almost how I started making my own paint because I couldn’t get the effect I was after with the tube bought stuff. The thing you get in tubes have got fillers in and quite often they’ll have dryers in, although not always depending on the brand, and so they’re designed for each of those paints to behave in a similar way so have a similar feel to it.

But actually one of my main reasons why I started making paints as well or ‘ah I can’t do this unless I make it myself’ was actually this thing about lead white and glazing over lead over white. I was trying to do it with tube bought titanium white and it just didn’t work. And then I realised well that’s because that’s not what they were using.

And so it was actually trying to get certain effects that made me make it myself and it gives me ideas for different things to do as well. If I didn’t know how to make paint then I wouldn’t come up with certain ideas, like I wouldn’t have come up with mixing fluorescent pigment in egg tempera and it wouldn’t be sitting where it is in the painting if it wasn’t for the fact that its been made in that way if you see what I mean, sort of like at the bottom shining through. So yeah, I find the opposite in fact. Thanks.

Question: Why that subject and how did you come to choose it?

Sigrid Holmwood: Well for me it’s like getting all the different aspects working together at the same time. So I like to paint people who seem to be at work doing something because of this idea of me as a painter kind of attending to the craft and being at work in that way and maybe being more like an artisan or something.

So it’s a way of just painting something that is metaphorically appropriate to the methods used, getting all those things sort of working together. So yeah I like to paint people at work and the fact that they’re butchering a historic breed of pig is kind of appropriate for the fact that I’m using historic pigments in the painting.

Audience comment: It’s slightly gruesome.

Sigrid Holmwood: Oh well yes.

Host: I would like to ask you a question. When we’ve done tours before of the John Moores, this is definitely one of the paintings that people have lots of questions about. And one of the questions that I’m asked the most actually is that some people have looked at her expression on her face and people wonder whether the lady in the red is actually almost coaxing the lady in the blue shawl through it because she kind of seems as if she’s turning her head away like she doesn’t want to do it. And people have asked questions about the interaction between the two women, whether they’re just gossiping or whether she’s finding it difficult to actually do this really gruesome act.

Sigrid Holmwood: Yeah my feeling of it is coloured because I know the people but I especially know the lady in red and she is quite in charge as a person so she gets stuck in and in a good way she’s very sort of open. And actually the other girl I don’t know as well and so yeah I suppose she is more of an accompaniment in my head.

It is a gruesome image, I suppose what I find interesting is that I mean I do eat meat, although I had my sort of vegetarian phase when I was 12, but then I realised for me it was more an issue about how animals are treated. So now I will always pick free range meat or something like lamb which is free range anyway.

But I also think its really problematic the way a lot of kids nowadays, they just think meat comes wrapped in cellophane in the supermarket and people don’t have that relationship to what it is and its origins. And I do think that if you’re going to eat meat you should be prepared to confront that otherwise you kind of don’t deserve it.

Actually someone else I know, who isn’t in this group, but she’s got a website called Rent a Peasant and she does peasants from different eras. I was talking to her and she goes very often into schools and will do things like pluck a chicken in front of the kids and she says often she gets parents absolutely horrified that they’re doing this in front of their children and ‘if we’d known we’d have never allowed it’, because somehow its something too shocking or disgusting for children to see. But I mean even 50 years ago I think kids or anyone living in the countryside would have seen a few chickens plucked and not had that relationship. So it’s very strange and she met lots of kids who didn’t know where milk came from and things like that so it is quite an issue.

Audience comment: I think people need to go to a French market.

Sigrid Holmwood: Well exactly or our markets need to become more like that again.

Host: Or we need to go away to France. Do you have anymore questions?

Question: Do you mainly paint 16th century subjects?

Sigrid Holmwood: Well I have done work which was more maybe sort of 18th/19th century. I did a body of work that was based on a museum in Stockholm called Scanson and a lot of the buildings there are more 18th or 19th century.

Actually also I’ve done a body of work based on hippies because I actually think hippies are kind of relevant to this, the whole back-to-the-land movement. I went and visited the site of a very famous commune called Morning Star in San Francisco and I kind of camped out on the land and kind of dug holes and poohed in them like the hippies did and sort of re-enacted being a hippy. And I met the ones that still survived.

And so yeah I did some work on that although it was mostly of the landscape that was there. And the thing that was interesting about those hippies is that they called themselves the San Francisco Diggers, so they’d named themselves after the English Diggers who of course were this kind of radical proto-communist kind of group in the 17th century during the Civil War.

Thank you.