Some Thoughts on Medlej’s “Inks and Paints”
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Categories: Medieval

Some Thoughts on Medlej’s “Inks and Paints”

Joumala Medlej, Inks & Paints of the Middle East : A Handbook of Abbasid Art Technology. Revised edition (Majnoura: London, 2021) GBP 20

Inks and Paints of the Middle East is a practical summary of six Arabic treatises on making ink and paint dating from roughly 900 to 1400 CE (300 to 800 AH). Rather than translations, it provides illustrated descriptions of the different processes from making brushes and reed pens to gathering and grinding pigments to mixing them with each other and with binders. Endnotes discuss the scholarly details such as the sources for specific recipes (and some practical questions whether lead white pigment is safe to use, p. 115 n. 129). Most of these texts have never been printed or translated into a European language, or the existing translations and editions are inaccurate (few scholars are skilled in both medieval Arabic paleography and in the kitchen chemistry of making paint and ink).

I especially enjoyed that Medlej provides key Arabic words in both Arabic script and the Latin script. This gives hours of philological pleasure. For example, the plant dye turnsole (chrozophora tinctoria) is ṭaranšul in Arabic and tornesol in Old French. Because the word is rare in books on painting, and because the French word has a plausible etymology from Latin tornare “to turn” and sol “sun”(Franzözisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch p. 75b) it seems like the Arabic word is borrowed from the Franks, but who would have guessed that Franks and Saracens chatted about the names of flowers or the best way to make violet ink? Reed pens are qalam in Arabic which seems closer to Greek κάλαμος than Akkadian qanu. Both the House of Islam and Latin Christendom grew out of the later Roman empire, where the language of knowledge was Greek.

Medlej also talks about problems translating from Arabic to English or between early and contemporary Arabic (p. 13). In early Arabic colour theory, browns were a species of red (aḥmar). In early Arabic as in Ancient Egyptian, the same word akhḍar can mean “green” (a color) or “fresh, unripe.” Early Arabs distinguished between tannin inks and carbon inks, but this distinction is also no longer part of most people’s everyday Arabic. Names for chemicals pose further challenges to the translator.

The entries for pigments remind me of the Tacuinum Sanitatis with a short table of properties for each item. Some readers will want this book because it has magical inks for the seven planets and 36 decans of the Zodiac. Medlej also included recipes for sparkling ink and paint to imitate gold and silver leaf, and for substances to remove ink from parchment or paper.

If you are familiar with the writings of the Franks, many teachings in Medlej’s book will be familiar. European painters used materials from the Islamic world and India such as sticklack pigment (produced by the insect kerria lacca) and gum arabic binder. The Arabs had already switched from calcium based whites to lead white when painting on skins, papyrus, or the new paper. She cannot find much evidence of lakes (pigments made by precipitating an organic pigment with a mordant: pp. 11, 12 15, 100 n. 2) although alum was often used in recipes. Because green is a powerful symbol in later Islam, I was surprised that the only green pigments in Medlej’s sources were verdigris and combinations of toxic yellow orpiment with blue indigo. Could the mineral which she translates as azurite also have included green malachite? Readers of Theophilius or Cennini will have issues with her statement that western painters did not like to mix pigments (p. 78); Cennini’s verdaccio, his basic green-brown colour for sketching and providing a base coat behind flesh, is a mix of four pigments! I think I have an idea of the 20th century authority who lead her astray (Edit 2023-03-09: perhaps p. 77 of Thompson’s Practice of Tempera Painting?)

But even if you are familiar with similar teachings from Europe, the physical format of this book is something new. The wire spiral binding lets you lay it flat in your studio or kitchen, while the glossy paper and full-colour printing lets Medlej show the colour and texture which each recipe produces. Medlej focuses her practical advice on seventeen pigments which are common in both her source texts and surviving manuscripts, but notes other pigments which appear rarely. Every process is illustrated with colour sketches. Inks and Paints of the Middle East is an excellent scholarly and practical resource which carries on the project of early scholars of art technology without sticking to the physical format which made sense in the 19th century.

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1 thought on “Some Thoughts on Medlej’s “Inks and Paints”

  1. Books Read in 2022 – Book and Sword says:

    […] Medlej, Inks & Paints of the Middle-East: A Handbook of Abbasid Art Technology (2021) Review scheduled for February 2023 […]

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