The Alchemy of Paint by Spike Bucklow


Now, how can you resist the incongruity of the name of this book and the name of the author? I couldn’t. The subtitle is “Art, Science and Secrets from the Middle Ages.” It was recommended by a curator at the art museum for further reading.

Spike’s delightful bio:

Spike Bucklow trained as a chemist. He synthesized sex pheromones for cockroaches, then developed materials for use in special effects [Indiana Jones, Greystoke, Little Shop of Horrors, Princess Bride]. He then studied Artificial Intelligence and briefly worked in technical management consultancy where he discovered art conservation. He re-trained as a conservator, gained a PhD in art history…and now teaches conservation science.

The Medieval relationship to color and materials such as gold was different from our modern one. Sourcing them, preparing them and painting with them was believed to instill works of art with the power to affect the people who encountered them. (Hope I have this right. It’s fascinating and complicated.) This adds a layer of understanding to some of the oldest paintings and polychrome sculpture in the art museum’s collection.

We look at black in a religious painting, we see a vine clinging to a rock, and then I read this in the book:

“Burnt capon bone and burnt ivory are indistinguishable to the naked eye, so whatever distinguished them was invisible. It must have been a spiritual property. One of the spiritual properties of burnt ivory is mentioned in a French bestiary. It said that burning ivory, or ‘elephant’s bones’, will drive away all serpents which may be near and have poison in them…There was nothing special about burning bones from the dinner table. But burning fragments of ivory not only drives away venomous snakes, it also repels evil. Evil might also be repelled from any painting or manuscript that contained the burned bones of elephants as a pigment or ink.

Craftsmen had a reverence of matter. For example, in addition to bone and ivory black, they also made black fro oak galls, the processing of which was accompanied by chanted prayers. And they made black from charcoal, sourced, according to manuals, from beech and willow. But charcoal’s common name is ‘vine black.’ It is very unlikely that much black was actually made from burnt vines. Could it be that artists called it ‘vine black’ to reinforce a connection with the Word made flesh–Christ, ‘the vine’?”

I read John 15:1-17 in the Douay-Rheims Bible in which there is this: “I am the vine: you the branches; he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit; for without me you can do nothing.”

I am not part of an institutional religion, but this sort of investigation is my way into religious works of art.

10 comments on “The Alchemy of Paint by Spike Bucklow”

  1. Teri, wow. You have opened up an entire new dimension for me in reference to color, something I am already slightly obsessed with. The production of color from various natural objects and the properties associated with them is compelling. Going straight to my library website to see if I can come up with this book.

    And I gotta love Spike’s bio.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m guessing not, JNaz. I got it from the SMU School of the Arts library. I’m afraid to look around in there because I will want to read just about everything! And thanks to my new handy-dandy special State of Texas library card, I can check items out from all the college libraries.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You were right. My library did not have it. I may suggest purchase or see about an inter library loan. Ooooooh, special library card! Oooooh, SMU School of the Arts library. Lucky…


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