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The Quest for Colour:
An Island Journal

by Carin Perron

Imagine yourself, if you will, on the proverbial "desert island" with its typical array of every resource necessary for life and even the amenities of civilization. This island has many features, and is more tropical than desert. If you are as successful as Robinson Crusoe, you may want at some time to relax and paint. Where will you get your materials -- most particularly, your colours?

September 17: Harvested the last of the garden, except the potatoes, which I will keep in the ground and dig up as I need them. Everything has been dried, salted, or cellared away for the winter, and there is still some time before the rainy season.

Now that I have solved the problems of shelter, water, and food, I need to solve the problem of boredom. I don't want to go through the endless tedium of the last rainy season. I want to paint. It occurs to me that, since I built my hut to take advantage of the best views on the island, it would be nice to spend time painting the scenes.

It should be simple enough: the island is full of colour. I'm sure I can press a few things into service. Tomorrow, I'll go out and scout the island for materials. I think I'll start on the south side: I remember a clay bank that might have good yellows and reds...maybe even greens, if I'm lucky.

September 18: This morning, I set out on foot to pick up as many samples of promising materials as possible for making paint. I'm only going to worry about the colours: I will use cooking grease to make oil paints when I have the pigments I need.

I did dig up as many different clay deposits as I could find. It was heavy, so I had to make several trips. I was disappointed to see most were various grays, which I think is the clay itself. I could not find any reds, and there were no greens to be found. I did, however, find a very nice, mild yellow that will probably do me well. It will need to have the grass and twigs taken out of it, and will need washing and drying. I have decided to leave off processing my things until I have gathered all I want. The rains will come soon enough, and I can do these things indoors.

September 20: I have spent the last few days gathering up anything that might be useful. There seems to be very little coloured clay on the island, so I am concentrating on plants. Any plant that seems likely, I have been removing from the ground, root and all. This will give me the chance to test all parts of it for pigment. I will be spending today and probably tomorrow, organizing and sorting my finds in some sort of system.

A green rock with dark marbling

The deep, marbled green rock

A rock with deep blue and some green encrustations

A rock with dark blue and green


September 22: I have been scouting the island looking for likely-coloured rocks. I found an outcropping of a deep, marbled green rock, which I managed to break a piece off of, after a great deal of effort. Near it, and part of the same vein, is a deep blue rock that seems to be related. Very few rocks seem to have any very deep colour. Maybe rocks will not be a likely source of colour.

September 23: A trunk washed ashore from the ship. It must have been tossed into the water some time ago, since I've taken everything I can find on the ship, on several trips. I managed to break the lock (after some time and effort), and could not believe what I had found. Many luxury items that are of little use, such as fine linen sheets, some glass goblets, only one of them broken from their ordeal, a fur coat and hat--though these might help during the coldest months of the rainy season--but there was something else -- a medium-sized box with many different kinds of jewellery. What caught my eye were the rings: two large rubies, a sizable sapphire, an emerald, an amethyst, a yellow stone that I think is a topaz. The first thing I thought about was my paints. How outrageous to paint with precious and semi-precious stones! I thought the medieval monks did something like that, though, didn't they? I am tempted. I have set them aside, pending a decision.

September 30: I have gathered everything I can think of that might make a decent paint. I am wondering if I shouldn't think more about my other materials. Is oil the best thing to use with these materials? Maybe I can find a sap or something that might work for watercolours. Which brings me to paper. Luckily, there are a number of maps in one of the trunks that I should be able to paint on the back of. If I use oil, I will need to find some suitable material to paint on--of course, I could use some of the sail I've salvaged from the ship!--what better canvas?

I have to organize everything according to the processing it needs: stone needs pulverizing and grinding, which means I need some tools to do this. There is a brass mortar and pestle I rescued from the ship: all I need now is something to pound the rock small enough to grind. Clay needs to be cleaned of debris, washed, dried, and probably ground. Plant material needs to be boiled, and the extract processed in some way: dried, maybe, or just stored in jars? I don't know. I still haven't the courage to attack the precious stones...I'll see how the rest shapes up.

It occurs to me that this is not just for this year: I need to know what has worked and what has failed for next year. How am I going to organize this? I need to record whatever I can: where I got each thing--I wish I'd done this all along, but I can probably remember most things--and, I should draw what each item looks like, except the clay, of course. I will use pen and ink on the back of one of the maps for this. The most challenging will be the plants: if I can't recognize a plant next year, I may not be able to repeat my success. This is going to be more work than I thought.

October 20: I am amazed that the rains have not yet come. I have drawn and catalogued every item, and numbered each one. The numbers I have put on a map I have drawn of the island. While it has taken some time, I feel I am ahead of myself: drawing the plants, particularly, was such a pleasure I can hardly wait to get painting. I must be patient, and above all, systematic. I looked over the notes about one of the plants with a brown root, and was glad I had recorded its origin: I had already forgotten where on the island I had found it.

I went out for a long walk today, just to get out of the hut, and stretch, and relax. I took a map, pen, and ink, just in case, and before I knew it, I was looking for material I had missed. I found an outcropping of green stone, but could not break it off, even with rocks nearby. I marked it on the map, and may return with some heavier tools from the ship. I had two amazing finds today -- three colours, but two finds -- and I still can't believe my luck! In a sandy inlet, I found what at first appeared to be red pebbles, but the material is quite crumbly. Most of it is very liver-coloured, but some of it is almost scarlet. At the sight of it, I let out a whoop so loud I saw birds almost out of sight fly up into the sky in panic. I had forgotten to bring a satchel with me, so had to return to the hut to fetch one, but I barely noticed the trip: the whole time, my mind was racing, thinking of what I could do with this find.

The yellowish rock with red veining

Then, when I had gathered all the red, crumbly pebbles I could, and on a whim, gathered up some weathered white shells lying on the beach, and recorded the location on my map, thinking I had done enough for the day. I continued my walk for relaxation only, but I found some rock that had outcroppings of some the brightest yellow I have yet seen, a deep golden yellow. The stone broke into shiny flakes like micah: between the flakes there are encrustations and veining of quite a rich red. I chipped off as much as I could, and wrapped each separately, so it would not mix with the red pebbles. What a lucky day!

October 21: I know I should be processing the materials I have, but I can't resist scouring the island again. This time, I am looking for possible painting media. I was cooking my supper yesterday, when I noticed the fatty deposits around my fireplace. They were still wet. It occurred to me that cooking fat may not work as a paint, as it may not dry. I remember my friend Chris talking to me about "drying oils," and it seems any old fat will not do. I know some kind of resin or balsam or something is used for watercolour, what do they call it? Gum arabic: yes, so a gum...whether anything here will serve, I don't know. I know varnishes come from some resins. Painters have even used egg, though the supply of eggs on this island is sporadic. I will raid a few nests from time to time, but I always leave more than I take. It may be necessary to dry the egg to keep it over the winter.

A small pile of soot
Lamp soot

Another thing occurred to me last night. The soot in my fireplace, and even in the chimney of my oil lamp, would probably make a good black, which I will call Lamp Black. Some of the stones in my fireplace are more brownish than black, so maybe I could get a brown out of it, perhaps "Firepit Brown?" I left the bones of a fowl I had eaten in the fire, covered, and found it crumbled into white ash, which I saved, and will call Bone White. I have seen the same bones turn black when not covered, so this will be Bone Black: I will definitely save the bones of the next fowl I cook. I think I have some black and white here. I hadn't given much thought to black or white, let alone browns, but they will be necessary. I must go out once more, not just to look for painting media, but also for blacks, whites, and browns.

October 28: I have found a number of brown earths, though I am not certain the colour will survive washing. I have carried home some chunks of chalk from one shallow cliff face, which I think will come in handy. I have an assortment of sticky substances from every bush or tree I could find. Most are cloudy and yellowish, though a few are clearer, and two are distinctly red . I have also used my machete to hack off various interesting-looking growths on trees, some red, some black, some nondescript. I even picked some mosses and lichens on my way back--you never know. This afternoon, I was caught in a downpour. It won't be much longer, now, that the weather is clear.

October 30: Went back for the greenish stone, and even with a stone mason's mallet and chisel was unable to break off even a small piece. Grinding it would be impossible. I spent the better part of the morning going back to the place, attacking it, then returning -- I was so angry, at one point, I just threw the mallet. It hit a small dead tree trunk, and out came some bees! My first reaction was to flee, but at the thought of honey, I investigated. The bees flew around me, but none stung me. Pulling open part of the trunk, I found the inside was lined with wax and honey, but not in a honeycomb. I scraped out as much as I could with the chisel, and saved it in a jar. Upon looking at one of the bees, I found it had no stinger. Must be a strange variety. I retrieved the mallet, then on the way home, found a nest: there were seven eggs: I was greedy, and took three.

When I arrived back home, I was very pleased with myself. I boiled one of the eggs, and I toasted some of the bread I'd baked yesterday (I'd fallen so behind on other chores I had to take a day off of my paint-hunt), and put some of the honey on it, then I poured some of the wine from the ship into one of the goblets from the chest. Looking at the red wine through the deep purplish-blue glass, it seemed almost black. The meal was among the most luxurious I have had since being on the island. I could barely finish my toast, though, at the thought that I might be eating something too precious: egg and wax I know are each painting media, though I'm not sure how the wax is used, I think heat or solvents, maybe both. I also think honey might work for watercolour--it seems gummy in the same sort of way. After I finished the egg and the toast and licked my fingers, I looked sadly at the rest of the honey. It, and the other two eggs, will go towards my winter painting project. I even washed and saved the eggshells. They may make a serviceable white. In everything, I am determined my appetite for beauty must prevail over my stomach!

October 31: The rains came in force today. I know I should begin my work with my colours, but I gave myself the day off. I spent the day in front of my hearth: it seems I cooked and ate all day. The only event of note was finding a small bird who did not seem to have any shelter. I let it in, and fed it various bits of small seeds and grains. I must think of a name for it. I will go to bed soon, when the light fails, and not use my lamp. Tomorrow I start early.

November 1: 7 am: I have divided up the tasks as follows: I will process the plant material first, making detailed notes as I go, and trying not to overlook any part of the plant. I will see if the material can be used as is, say, with a yellow pollen, if I had any (probably not, in this season), or almost as is (say, a coloured juice that can be used as is). Failing this, I will chop up the part, then attempt to extract the colour in cold water, or failing that, by boiling it. Now, what am I going to do with the colour once it is in the pot? Boil it down? This may take forever. Nothing comes to me right now. If I find no answer comes to me immediately, I will stop and focus on solving the problem, but I'm not going to let it hold me back.

1 pm: I am breaking for lunch, now. Most of the plant material so far has not yielded any colouring material by any method, except a greenish material from some berries: it seems gummy, and doesn't appear to need medium. I painted a sample using water only. I'm calling it Berry Green.

For the rest, I have stored and labelled the crushed matter, as I may try alcohol (I have gin from the ship), or vinegar to see if they will dissolve out some colour. This seems unlikely, so for now, I am continuing on. The plants that have given some colour all seem to give yellows and oranges, not even nice reds. Nothing so far gives any cool colours. I hope this doesn't keep up. I am getting a lot of jars of plant extract. I need to come up with a better way to store my results. Meanwhile, I still have endless jars and bottles from the ship: I just don't have anywhere to put them. If storage is the problem, I may need to build another structure. What will I tell them when they rescue me, "That's my colour hut"? I can see the newspapers now, "Castaway Turns Colourman." Oh well, worse fates could befall me! By the way, I have called the bird "Emma," after a fictional heroine.

November 2: Today I had the good luck to find two plants that yielded a reddish colour. On one plant having a triple-seed arrangement, the seeds yielded a slightly violetish red (Three-Seed Red); one of the lichens gave quite a red colour (Lichen Red). In another plant, the root, which was brownish on the outside, and quite promisingly orange on the inside, yielded a sort of dull yellow-brown, a disappointing colour (Root Brown), but may be useful in some landscapes. Other than that, I have spent my day making notes of my disappointments, and packing up the used materials, in case I come up with a better method of processing that yields some secrets.

November 3: Processed plant material all day. No luck. Glad something useful came of yesterday, or I would wonder.

November 4: Same as yesterday. My hands are getting stained with I don't know what, since there doesn't seem to be any usable colours in any of today's material. There was a break in the rain today, and I took Emma out, and let her fly. I thought she might leave, but she came back to me.

November 5: These plants are wearying me! I have worked on them all day with no results. Maybe plants are really a wrong idea. I have carefully separated the processed plants from the unprocessed, and finalized my notes, so I can take up where I left off later. I need a break. The rain was unceasing today, so I spent time with Emma, having her feed from my hand, and trying to have her come to me to be fed. She responded half-well, but better than the plants.

November 6: 11 am: Started work on the clays today. Much muckier than the plants, but I already seem to have a serviceable yellow! The colour is dull, as earth colours tend to be, but this seems a more likely area.

Clumps of yellowish earth
Yellow Earth

A clump of reddish earth

Red Earth

3 pm: What a day! I have two yellows, a dull red, a very very dull violet, a slightly reddish brown, an olive brown, and I appear to have a black! I am amazed and thrilled. I do despair, even now, though, of finding any blue colour. I am calling these colours Deep Yellow Earth, Transparent Yellow Earth, Red Earth, Violet Earth, Olive Earth, Brown Earth and Earth Black (why I switched the name around for the last, I do not know, nor do I care).

Emma came to me today, asking for food. She lit right on my shoulder.

November 7: I deliberately did not work on my colours today. I decided to give myself a regular day off. I couldn't do this when every day meant survival, but now that I am working only for my own pleasure, it seems a good way to have a balance in the week. I began to read an unlikely looking old book from the ship, "The Decameron," a collection of ribald tales that was no doubt well hidden before the wreck. It was somewhat childish but lively reading, and makes me miss the company of others. I am a solitary sort by nature, so this came as a surprise. Comforted myself playing with Emma. I found a small mirror for her, and she is very pleased with herself now.

November 8: I have decided to take a break from colour-making, and actually do some painting. I found a small panel from a kitchen cupboard on the ship, and smoothed it for painting on. I'm not sure what painting medium to use, but I have a fair bit of wax from the honey tree, so I think that will be it. I took a flat rock and ground up my clay pigments, one by one, on a marble table top. I used the faintest bit of water to get a paste. I rigged up my lamp so a piece of iron sits on it like a small table. On this, I melt my wax and mix it with the coloured paste. I was using a reed that I shredded at the end, but it made a poor brush, though the paint worked well. I looked over the fur coat, and found a good bit of pelt, and wound string around a tip, then used it for a brush. It works very well. I will need to find some soft metal to use as a ferrule, and a smooth stick for a handle. No matter, it works for now! I am so happy to be painting again. There was not much out my window, as the rains obscure most detail, so I began with a still life of my table and equipment. When I finished this, I began a self-portrait, but became tired. I don't know how I'm going to do the blue of my eyes. I'll worry about that tomorrow.

November 9: Worked on the self-portrait all day, with a few breaks to relax my face. The yellows and browns make an amazingly good skin tone when mixed with white. The bone white is too weak, though: must find a white with more covering power. I tried grinding up the eggshells and even the seashells I had saved, and they seemed on a par with the bone white, neither better nor worse. I didn't know what to do with the eyes, so just mixed a light gray. I stood back from the picture, and they looked blue as can be! It was like magic! It must be the redness of the face that turns the eyes towards blue. I am much more content now, thinking that even with limited colours, I may be able to paint what I like just by placing things next to each other carefully to get the right effect!

November 10: All is chaos today! I was so full of myself from my successes with my painting, that when I got back to it, I was not calm enough: I let myself become overexcited. To begin with, I did something not typical when working on this project: I poured myself a glass of wine in my favorite deep-blue goblet from the trunk. One glass became two, and then more, and my method became confused. I had various materials out on my table, I was eating various tidbits, drinking the wine, and suddenly noticed the mess. Instead of clearing things off, I began to wipe the drops of mainly red material off the table, using my first batch of soap. I used too much lye in it, and it is too harsh for bathing or washing dishes or clothes, but it does for rough cleaning. One swipe of the rag, and boom! the red spots became blue. I got so excited, I became careless, and with one sweep of my hand, down went the goblet, wine and all, and various minerals.

Emma panicked, flew up in the air and all around, as I was exclaiming, since I had found a way to obtain blue! I saw her pecking at the rock with the sulfur-yellow encrustation I hadn't yet gotten around to testing, and almost immediately, she fell to the floor and became rigid. I was sure she was dead. Her breathing was very shallow when I picked her up, but I was determined to save her. Something emetic first: I thought of mustard, but the poison was yellow, so I didn't want to mask that, I wanted to see when she had brought it all up, so I tried a very heavy salt solution, and gentle massage of her stomach. She brought up a fair mess, laced with stringy bits of bright yellow. I tried again and again, until there was only a clear fluid. I remembered things about poisoning...milk and eggs and bread and charcoal...I had no idea what this case needed, so I put some bread in the fire to burn, scraped it, and mixed the burnt with water, to help absorb the poison. I had no milk, but separated my two remaining eggs, and fed her small amounts of the yolk as she could handle it. I saved the egg white in a bowl and covered it. I kept her wrapped up and warm, and though she shivered for quite some time, she made it through the evening. She is still quite listless, but I am too weary to stay up. I hope the worst is over. I isolated the rock she was pecking at. I will treat it with grave respect in the future; I must think of general precautions for all these materials. Tomorrow. I swept up the bits of the goblet: it fair shattered, some of the very small pieces glinting like jewels in the firelight. I couldn't bear to throw them away, so I just swept them into a small bag. I will deal with it all tomorrow. Oh, Emma, I am so sorry!

Part Two