Art Adventure • 08.23.2023 • The Mohs Scale

I’ve been swamped since my last post, mostly with the “back office” work that makes painting possible. Substack seemed a better way to get my posts out to you than MailChimp, but it took some time to set up. I still have a lot to learn about to use it most effectively, but if you are reading this, the first steps must have worked.

Then I decided to submit an application for a MacDowell Fellowship. MacDowell was founded in “1907 around a belief in the inherent value of providing artists with uninterrupted time and supportive spaces in which to work.” The artist retreat is located in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and over the course of more than a century, MacDowell has offered support to 8,900 artists. Today, MacDowell offers residencies of two to six weeks, during which one is given a room, a studio, and three squares a day, in addition to the opportunity to meet and learn from other artists, all at no charge.

For me, it would an excellent chance to complete the first stage of research on the pigment project and to put what I have written about my work into some sort of publishable format illustrated with photos and sketches. (MacDowell also has a Land Acknowledgement on its home page, which makes me happy.) And I really like Peterborough. When my grandchildren were little, we took day trips to eat at the Peterborough Diner, visit the hands-on museum of musical instruments, and buy chocolate everything at an old-fashioned candy store.

From Peterborough to Provincetown, where I did venture on August 7 to look at galleries. It was great to see Marc Gurton at 13Forest Gallery’s annual pop-up show on Commercial Street. As I mentioned in my last post, I had meant to look for blue clay on some Cape Cod beaches, but by the time I was ready to leave downtown it was raining.

So my search for elusive blue continues. Another trip to Cape Cod, just to explore the beaches, is in the works. And I have learned from Gleba that malachite can be found in western Massachusetts. Blue quartz and blue corundum are also present, but they have values of 7 and 9 respectively on the Mohs Hardness Scale, where 10 is diamond. Malachite, which is green tending toward blue, is 3.5 to 4.

The hardness of the mineral is of utmost importance for my purposes. I have discovered that ochre is found as a substance that is very much like loose dirt. Or in rock formations, which is what I have collected for the most part.

I have tried crushing the rock with a hammer, which is pretty good for getting from medium-size rocks to small pebbles. But getting from small pebbles to powder is a challenge. The porcelain mortar and pestle I bought may need to be exchanged for one made of steel.

Of the many, many videos I have watched on YouTube (YouTube knows pretty much everything!), one shows a pigment hunter who uses his corn mill to crush smaller pebbles. I do not have a corn mill, so I am researching what grain mill might work (coffee beans, unless they are green, are much softer than any small pebbles, so my coffee grinder is out of the running). There’s the question of electric vs. manual. The electric ones have blades, which clearly won’t last, so I think I need the manual version, which crushes the grain using a steel conical piece across which one forces the grain by means of an augur. It also needs to have a long handle for leverage to turn the augur. I’ve looked on Amazon (which knows very little, or isn’t telling) but have found only plastic or iron innards. Iron it turns out is a lot softer than steel—who knew? (Actually, I think I did once, but I obviously forgot that bit of information several decades ago.) I’ve started checking out Goodwill and other such treasure troves of old stuff that no one could possibly want, as I remember the kind of grinder I need from childhood. No luck yet. So if anyone knows where I might find such a thing, I would appreciate a heads-up.

Tomorrow, however, is a painting day. Abby Heim and I are going out to the marshes on Plum Island. When I went to stay on Plum Island a couple of years ago, I thought I was going to paint the beaches. Until, that is, I looked carefully at the subtle colors of the marshes and meandering channels of water that cut through them. I’ve painted a lot of marshes since then, and the yellow and red ochres in those paintings are part of what inspired the pigment project.

Marshes are, I have read, good sources of pigment materials. So maybe I’ll get lucky and find some blue something-or-other.

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