Paint it green

In the process of researching or conserving old pinned insects, it’s common to find a green deposit clustered around the pin. This is known as verdigris and is a natural patina created when the metal oxidizes over time. Katherine Child is Image Technician in the Museum’s Life collections and takes photos of insects for researchers, students, artists and publications. She is also an artist in her own right, so when she witnessed verdigris being removed during a conservation project, she came up with an inspired idea.

A clearwing moth before conservation, showing verdigris spreading where the metal and the insect fats, or lipids, react.

A few years ago I read a book called Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox, by Victoria Finlay, and was interested to learn that verdigris was once used as a pigment. Verdigris, which I now know translates from French as ‘Green of Greece’, is a word that’s been in my vocabulary since I was small.  I loved its rich bright blue-green colour, which is often seen on old copper piping or copper statues.

Verdigris forms when copper or a copper alloy reacts with water, oxygen, carbon dioxide or sulphur.

L: Three years’ worth of verdigris, ground and ready to make into paint.
R: A second attempt at mixing the paint, this time using linseed oil.

As early as 5thcentury AD, it was used in paint-making, and until the late 19th century it was the most vibrant green pigment available. But it was unstable – Leonardo da Vinci warned that it ‘vanishes into thin air if not varnished quickly.’ These days synthetic pigments provide a more constant alternative.

Despite its past uses, verdigris is a big problem in pinned insect collections. Nowadays stainless steel pins are used, but pins containing copper still remain in old collections and these react with air and insect fats. The more fatty the insect, the more verdigris tends to form and, if left, it can damage a specimen irreparably.

Comprising around five million or so insects, the Hope Entomological Collections here in the Museum take quite a bit of looking after. A few years ago a project to catalogue and conserve many of its butterfly and moth specimens was undertaken and the removal of verdigris and repining of insects was part of this.

With paint-making in mind, I asked that the beautiful, but problematic, substance be saved.  About three years on I finally got around to using the pigment, which I had also been adding to while photographing the collections.

I chose a variety of differently shaped moths to paint (most of the verdigris came from moths, so moths seemed the most apt subject). To narrow my options further I went for green moths. Some of the specimens I chose had verdigris on their pin, so I was able to take pigment and use it to paint the very specimens from which it came!

Katherine tested out the newly made verdigris paint in her sketchbook.

After a first failed attempt to make watercolour paint (during which pigment and water remained stubbornly separate due to the greasy insect fats still present), I tried again, this time using linseed oil to make oil paint – and it worked! Traditionally a flat bottomed tool called a muller was used to press pigment into the water or oil. Not having one of these, I used the flat end of a pestle and a mortar which did the trick.

A Miscellany of Moths, the finished verdigris painting.

The paint went surprisingly far and, following on from the 14 green moths, I plan to use up the remainder to paint beetles.

Katherine’s Miscellany of Moths painting can be seen on display in the Museum’s Community Case until 18th October.

Stories from Stone, Body and Bone

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Each year the Museum works with members of the community on a wide variety of projects using our collections to enthuse and engage people in natural history. These projects often result in some amazing outcomes but until now we have been unable to find the right space to celebrate this work in the Museum. So this month we are very happy to unveil our new Community Case, dedicated to doing just that.

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Stories from Stone, Body and Bone in the new community case

Our opening display focuses on the Children in Need-funded Story Makers programme. In partnership with Fusion Arts, this initiative helps Oxford primary school pupils to develop their communication skills by taking inspiration from museum collections. And this year they teamed up with us to create Stories from Stone, Body and Bone.

Pupils from New Marston, Wood Farm, and Rose Hill Primary schools worked with Story Makers founder and arts psychotherapist Helen Edwards in two visits to the Museum, stimulating and developing imaginative ideas, stories and artwork.

During these visits the Story Makers met with our education officer Chris Jarvis and together they looked at rocks and minerals, tectonic plate formation, and the evolution of skeletons and animal posture. They explored the collections creatively through sensory observation, using the hands, body and senses to develop self-awareness and self-confidence.

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Getting creative with chalks and textiles

We work with the children as artists and we carefully designed a series of sessions that enabled them to have direct sensory engagement with objects in the museum. We then used art processes to portray their experiences and feelings about their interactions.
Helen Edwards, Integrative Arts Psychotherapist

Back at school, the pupils used visual art, drama, movement and modelling to communicate feelings and ideas that emerged from these museum encounters, sharing thoughts with the group in a playful and trusting atmosphere.

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Group sessions back at school involving movement, drama and art

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Detail from one of the Stone Age caves

Each Story Maker then created a Stone Age character – someone who might dream up and pass on stories full of meaning and myth. They imagined places in which their Stone Age characters might live, thinking about what they might see looking out from these spaces, through the cracks, crevices and windows in their caves.

From these ideas emerged beautiful, bright, and colourful models of these fictional abodes, as well as stories and poetry about their characters.

Story Makers built the children’s capacity to think reflectively, enriching their speech and language, and helped them to develop their writing skills as the stories were compiled into Story Makers books.

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Stone Age houses and landscapes as part of the Stories from Stone, Body and Bone project

Everyone should get to do this, it is like a dream come true
Story Maker, from the Stories from Stone, Body and Bone project

Stories from Stone, Body and Bone is on display until Sunday 21 May in our new Community Case. The next display, installed on 22 May, will feature artwork by our community of artists who use the collections as inspiration for their work.