woodblock print from The Exploitation of the Works of Nature (Tiangong Kaiwu, 天工開物) by Song Yingxing (宋應星), published in 1637
reproduction from Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 7, Paper and Printing (Cambridge University Press, 1985), pg. 241
I like to collect and process my own pigments for making ink. The vast majority of black that you see in my paintings is composed of amorphous carbon. This material generally comes from burning organic matter under reduction atmospheres and collecting the small particles of carbon from the smoke. Carbon black pigments have a wonderful array of names reflecting their source. To name a few, vine black comes from burning grape vines, lamp black comes from burning various oils, and beech black comes from burning beech wood.
Perhaps the most celebrated carbon black in China is known as pine black (songyan 松煙) and comes from burning pine. This image from the Ming dynasty encyclopedia Tiangong Kaiwu shows a four-part carbon trap in use. These traps were generally long tubes made of a fine lattice of bamboo. A fire was started at one end of the tube and as the smoke filled the tube, small particles of carbon would collect on the bamboo lattice. After a large quantity of carbon had collected on the trap, the trap would be disassembled and the carbon would be collected. A delightful detail in the collection process is that the finest carbon was dusted from the screen using feathers.
This last spring, I decided to build my own carbon trap. Over the next few days, you can watch me build a trap, collect carbon, make it into ink and create a painting.