Lapis Lazuli pigment (Lazurite, Natural Ultramarine, Azzurro Oltramarino, Fra Angelico blue pigment, Lapis Lazuli genuine, Ultramarine ash)
Natural pigment suitable for icon painting (egg tempera), oil painting and watercolor painting without additional grinding.
Cennino Cennini "Il Libro dell' Arte" - "Ultramarine blue is a color illustrious, beautiful, and most perfect, beyond all other colors; one could not say anything about it, or do anything with it, that its quality would not still surpass."
Lapis Lazuli is a blue semiprecious stone mined in the Badakhshan province of Afghanistan for centuries. It can be found in other locations in Asia and America but only a couple of Afgan mines produce the highest grade (a very deep purplish blue) of this unique stone. It is a complex mineral composed of lazurite, calcite, sodalite and pyrite. It has many varieties of color in ranges from a light blue denim to a deep dark purplish blue tone depending on the value of lazurite in the composition. The highest values have dark blue rocks with a solid blue area (blue meat) with tiny veins of pyrite. This type is called gem grade or AAA grade. Other grades are not that high in value and are easy to obtain. These are mainly used for carvings. Some dealers alter natural rocks by dyeing to improve the color. Because there is no standard on how to grade these rocks they can all call their grade gem grade or AAA. The high grade of the mineral is difficult to obtain and often requires traveling and personal selection.
Master Pigments Lapis Lazuli pigments are prepared from gem grade rocks. It took years of looking and learning about grades of rocks and people around them. The preparation of the pigment starts with cutting raw rocks to a smaller size and eliminating as much calcite and pyrite as possible. Then the size of rocks is reduced by a jaw crusher into coarse sand. Lapis Lazuli rocks are very hard, with it being the hardest material I have ever experienced. The distinct smell of burned matches accommodates the crushing process. Marble or glass collapse in the crusher like butter compared to crushing Lapis Lazuli rocks. After crushing, the sand is washed in the water. The cleaned Lapis Lazuli sand is further wet milled in a metal free environment to prevent contamination. The milling time is extended due to the hardness of the sand. First the sand is milled with big media then is milled again with smaller media to reduce particles to a size under 50 microns. Because of this long milling time, non-contaminating milling is very important. I can't imagine how hard this process must be and how crushed powder looked in the 14th century. Makes me wonder about the studies of paint recipes from the masters and their additives to paint and how many “additives” were intentional and how much contamination was actually from pigment and paint preparation. Cennini wrote to crush the rocks in bronze mortar and then to do the powder on glass with water. By the time they were done with size reduction, there must have been quite a lot of contaminant in the prepared powder. The size reduction is the key because all blue crystals have to be separated from colorless contaminants and produce smooth pigments instead of a sandy, gritty, powder. But again not too small, because the final color of extracted pigment needs to have a purpulish toned 'glow' significant to this special pigment. This is also the step where all nice blue particles temporarily disappear in the sediments and the color of the mixture is more gray than blue. There is no resemblance to the rich blue color of Lapis rocks at all. The solution is left to settle. Multiple washes of the powder follow, until the wash water becomes neutral in pH. Then the solution is left to settle and air dried. This is the Lapis Lazuli powder – fine 303030. Then the pigment extraction follows.
Now the real alchemy takes place. The process is based on the recipe from the book The “Craftsman's Handbook” by Cennino d'Andrea Cennini which is translated by Daniel V. Thompson, Jr. The original Italian text was a great help. Many thanks to the great guidance of 'maestro'. Due to extensive research and multiple try-n-fail experiences, Master Pigments can extract this unique pigment. After years of looking for the right ingredients and steps in the preparation routine, the procedure was developed. Different grades of the pigment are extracted. A plastic dough formed of resin and powder is intact during the whole extraction process. There is no disintegration of dough or wrapping in the cloth. Just oiled hands, dough and water. The preparation begins by melting raw beeswax, gum mastic and pine rosin. The previously prepared pigment is mixed in. Then the mixture is kneaded in hands until an evenly textured of dark grayish-blue dough forms. While still hot and elastic, the mass is divided into three parts and these are formed into sticks. That way they are easier to knead. Each stick is kneaded by hands in hot water in a specific routine, repeated number of times. The dough keep impurities locked in while pigment particles fall out and descend down to the bottom of the container. This is literally a 'hand made' pigment. The first routine produces the best grade. Vivid, deep blue, but not dark, hypnotizing. Every-time an uplifting and purifying feeling arises almost like there is more to see but our vision is limited to go so far in blue range. This is the Fra Angelico blue pigment (303001). The second and third routine sticks release a very high grade of blue – this is my Lapis Lazuli – Pure grade 1st pigment (303005). Fra Angelico blue and Lapis Lazuli pure 1st grade are grades of pigment which require huge patience with the preparation of the dough and extraction itself. From the fourth to the seventh part of the routine the dough releases nice blue particles of pigment which are the Lapis Lazuli - Ultramarine ash (303010). This is a nice blue, not grayish but not as vivid as higher grades, valued by the painter for its transparent properties. It is free of impurities and much more vibrant than the raw powder.