Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 295: Dry Pigment and Hide Glue

Part 295: Dry Pigment and Hide Glue

Yesterday I mentioned the difference between the artistic medium used by panorama artists and theatre artists. It is now time to clarify how Thomas G. Moses painted scenery his whole career. The 1924 Fort Scott scenery collection was also created in this same way. He used an artistic medium that was known to nineteenth century scenic artists as distemper painting. Scenic artists combined dry pigment paste and diluted hide glue called “size” to paint theatre backdrops.

Ground hide glue (center) and dry pigment. This picture was taken when preparing images to illustrate my chapter in the upcoming book “The Santa Fe Scottish Rite Temple: Freemasonry, Architecture and Theatre” (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2018).

The Chicago Sunday Tribune article “Paint Mimic Scenes, Men Who Have Found Fame in the Wing and Drop Curtains” described distemper painting (Dec, 18, 1892, page 41). The article reported, “the color work is all done in distemper and dries rapidly…The artist must not only be active but certain in the performance of his task. In using distemper the artist must paint solidly, otherwise his work will take the dirty complexion of thin oil and be ruined.” The articles reference to “paint solidly” meant making sure there was enough color, or pigment in the paint and that it was thick enough to completely cover the fabric. The paint application needed to appear opaque and not look like a colored water stain.

Dry pigment up close.

Dry pigment is pure color. It can be transformed into a variety of products, like colored chalks (pastels) or paint. The pure pigment colors are created from a variety of sources that can include plants, minerals, insects, and chemical processes.

The dry pigment is ground into a fine powder and mixed with water, prior to adding any binder. The pigment paste could also be stored in a container for quite a while. The worst that would happen is that it would dry out and harden. It the pigment paste did dry out, it only needed to be crushed up again and reconstituted with water.

Dry and wet forms of dry pigment and hide glue.

In 1916, Frank Atkinson wrote a book called “Scene Painting and Bulletin Art.” Some scholars believe that he described many of the practices commonly used at the Sosman & Landis Studios. In his book, Atkinson explained, “the medium for binding distemper is known as “size,” or sizing (page 154). He goes on to describe the purchase and preparation of the binder for scenic art. Any binder can be mixed with the pigment paste, but scenic artists commonly used diluted hide glue called “size.”

Granules of hide glue.

Hide glue is the gelatinous substance obtained from rendering animal hides and hooves. Think of the old threat about sending a horse to the glue factory. The hides are boiled to create a jelly that is dried. There are a variety of qualities and the strength of the final product can vary from batch to batch. This factor, as well as the actual preparation, directly contributes to the overall life expectancy of the backdrop. Once the hide glue is dried and solid, it is sold as a block, granules or fine powder. In this form it also has an extended shelf life and is easily stored for indefinite periods of time. Both dry pigment and dry hide glue could be easily stored and shipped to various locations.

Dry hide glue must be returned to a liquid state prior to mixing with pigment paste. There are various ways to prepare hide glue and much depends on personal preference. I like to soak the glue in water, ideally overnight, before slowly heating it up to thick syrup. It will eventually have the consistency of honey or molasses. You can purchase an expensive electric glue pots, use a double boiler on a stove top, or even a crockpot on the “low” or “warm” setting. Some people are very particular about this, but I am not. The big thing is to make sure that the glue doesn’t boil. Think of preparing hide glue like green tea, find the perfect temperature below boiling.

The quality and type of the glue will either make the syrup appear murky or clear. Reconstituted hide glue is further diluted with water – one part syrup to one part water to make “strong size.” Some artists used strong size alone to seal the fabric’s surface when painting with dye. Others mixed whiting into the strong size and create a primer for the fabric prior to painting a backdrop with dry pigment.

Strong size is further diluted with water to make working size, or size water. Due to the natural properties of the binder, once transformed into a liquid state, there is a very limited shelf life. It rots fairly quickly and smells of death. A way to prevent the quick failure of size water is to store it in a glass container and refrigerate it. You also never put size water in a plastic container, especially one that had been previously used to store another substance. Foreign properties will leach out of the plastic. You also never place the glue in an airtight container, otherwise you create your own little smelly science experiment. I plan accordingly and make fresh size each day as the age will also affect the efficacy of this binder.

My glue supplier is Bjorn Industries out of North Carolina.  I have discussed my need for animal glue during restoration projects with their chemist and he recommended the product HC351. It is fairly clear, strong, and remains slightly flexible when properly prepared. Rabbit skin glue is my second favorite to work with as an alternative, but it is extremely strong and can set up too quickly.

If binder were not mixed with the dry pigment paste, the color would could not stick to the fabric surface. It would simply dust off over time. Poor preparation, high humidity and other factors can cause the binder to fail, allowing the pigment to eventually release from the fabric. This is a common problem with historical scenery collections. It is also a health hazard. Many dry colors are quite toxic if they become airborne and or inhaled. However, this is not solely an issue with historic dry pigment. ALL paints are toxic if allowed to become airborne and are inhaled. Think of spray paint. Many people often don’t understand the health hazards related to our seemingly “safe” and current pre-mixed products, especially the water-based versions. You have to know what you’re doing, be aware of your surroundings, and stay safe.

Wet and dry version of paint made with dry pigment and diluted hide glue.

To be continued…

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