Joumana Medlej is a British-Lebanese artist best known for reviving the archaic Kufic styles of Arabic calligraphy and the medieval art materials that accompany them. She uses this unreadable writing, or symbols and objects that similarly defy recognition, to create art pieces that hold the viewer in a space of wonder. The outer form of the work varies from mandala-like wall pieces to interactive "treasure box" assemblages.
You’re invited to join me in my studio for an arty day to end the year.
Come see the work up close, have a chat, try natural materials — and if you want to pick up some gifts there will be artworks, books and supplies with a discount on everything purchased in-studio.
When: Sunday, December 4, from 10:00 to 17:00.
Where: 115 Wallis Road, E9 5LN, directly behind Hackney Wick station using the new footpath (map below). There’ll be a sign on the door with my number so you can be let in.
Transport: The Overground to Hackney Wick is the easiest means, but bus routes 276, 339, 236 and 488 alight quite close. Bikes can be brought into the building and secured inside. Parking can be tricky as the area is popular on the weekends.
Accessibility: I’m afraid it’s not great, as the studio is on the first floor without a lift. It will also be a little chilly if the day is overcast.
Since the two days of Big Heat that I sat out at home in studied motionlessness, I’ve been at the studio daily. It’s still hot but I have Bestie, and I’m extra motivated by the boxes in progress and one abstract piece that came during my trip – the one I prepared more indigo paper for. Today I’m putting the final piece on it, and unusually, I remembered to document its making so I’ll be able to make my first offering of a Reel to this most capricious of deities, Instagram.
I have also all but finished the Box of Virgo. Taking the photos is taking a few days, for reasons that will only be visible once I’m at liberty to show it to the world, but I’m absolutely enchanted by what I came up with. Also in progress right now is Gemini, with four more in the queue, so I can’t slack. I can only fully engage with one box at a time because I need to hold the different strands of its story in my mind where they mingle and give rise to ideas I can implement in the physical world. This can’t happen if I try to think of several boxes at a time, though there’s a good deal of “mechanical” preparation work I can do on others while the main box is fermenting (such as giving them a good clean).
I’m nevertheless making a very late start today because my day started with a trip to iTV studios to shoot a segment about the exhibit at the Woolf Institute last month. We were only very briefly on air but we had a lot of laughs while waiting, and it turned out a friend of mine was at the same moment shooting his own segment in the garden, so that we ended up in the same episode. I mean what were the odds??
This hot dry weather is a gilder’s nightmare. Mordants dry faster than you can work with them, and reactivating is mission impossible as you can’t lay the gold fast enough after breathing on the stuff. I only need one large dot in raised gesso and boy is this going to be tricky. Particularly as I have to switch off the fan for the entire duration of having the gold leaf out. For anyone who hasn’t worked with real gold leaf: it’s so thin that you can’t even breathe in its direction. A heavy sigh will quite literally send a leaf flying, after which the only thing it’s good for is grinding into shell gold. The very idea of forgetting to switch the fan off before taking out a gold book simultaneously entertains and terrifies me.
But it turns out my undoing was simply the ambient temperature. It was nearly 30ºC with the fan off, and the result was that the only thing the gold was interested in doing was adhering to the gilder’s knife and absolutely anything else that would have it. I managed in the end, but not with any dignity.
And I managed to put together the dang reel too. I am officially reeling.
(This entry starts in June and ends in July, as I didn’t finish it at the time and picked it up where I left)
The virtual extension of my part of The Written Word exhibit closed a couple of days ago. I have orders for illuminated prints that I was really hoping to print, gild and ship before I vanish for a few days in early July. My giclée printer, who’s local to me, rose up to the task in under 24 hours so I could bring them to the studio today and get to work.
I’m still making boxes and have collected some more lovely objects to include. One great thing about living here is the number of mudlarks who comb the banks of the Thames and sell their finds. Look at these Victorian ink and perfume bottles, they make me squee!
For an experiment, I prepared a very saturated salt solution and left it to dry in a cup. I wanted to see what crystals form but instead I got this…
I think I can see what happened: the shape of the cup led the water to ascend the sides as it evaporated, dropping salt along the way. I need to try this again in a different shape container to see if it makes a difference!
When it rains, the studio’s tin roof magnifies a drizzle into a downpour, and a serious rainstorm with thunderclaps sounds like the apocalypse – I love it! It’s one of my greatest pleasures to create quietly indoors while it’s pouring outside, but British rains are as mild-mannered as the culture and there’s rarely the over-the-top slightly terrifying drama I remember from home. Less enjoyable is that the damn tin roof leaks, and I have to make sure never to leave anything unprotected in the 3 or 4 drip zones.
I’ve been home with a head cold for two days and I’d have been climbing the walls if I wasn’t too exhausted to move. On the plus side, I nearly finished a long-suffering knitting project.
I had launched an AMA (“ask me anything”) on instagram when I got sick so I had plenty of space to answer. It brought about some lively drama from very strange “dude bros”, of which these are only two examples:
Putting them in their place not only resulted in solidarity from many women artists who have to put up with the same kind of aggressive inferiority complex, and quite good discussions, it also brought me an offer so exciting I’m screaming in a pillow, but can only share in due time. It would make the would-be bullies quite green, except they’re blocked so they won’t find out from my feed.
The rain above is but a distant memory as we brace for 2-3 days of dangerous heat. I’m putting in as much time as I can at the studio to catch up while I can. I even buckled and bought a fan, one that can also emit heat in winter. I named it Bestie and so far it’s doing a sterling job keeping me from sticking to the paper I’m working on.
I had another indigo-dyeing session at home, not very satisfactory as I had less dye left than I thought, but it produced just what I needed for an idea that came during my trip. I am trying to document this as I make it to make a reel (they’re all the rage right now but I’m still considering whather that’s a bandwagon I want to jump on). We shall see.
I’ve been chomping at the bit to walk back along the canal and harvest nettle seeds, as they’re now in full season, but that’s very dependent on my not lugging anything with me – and I’m always lugging things to and from the studio. Finally I made it, and on my way home had a nice walk catching up with the state of the vegetation. It’s thirsty but incredibly lush right now…
These dried thistle tops stopped me in my tracks because they were positively glinting in the sun as if they were metal. I gathered them up, potentially for a box…
I could have filled a bucket with nettle seeds, but I’ll just harvest a few jars’ worth, so that once dried and separated they make one good jar. I add a teaspoon to my breakfast and it lasts me a long time.
When I got off the bus and took my usual route home, I was stopped in my tracks once again by the sight of all this goldenrod! OH REALLY. It was so much trouble to find goldenrod last year and all the while there it was growing up the street. I may just sneakily cut a few stalks and dry them. They do make a lovely yellow…
I’m not sure why I like being in the studio on weekends so much. Hackney Wick always feels like a Sunday as there are no offices around (for the moment), so it’s not a question of atmosphere. I suspect it has something to do with the absence of peak times. On work days I always feel a subliminal pressure to beat the rush or head home when everyone else does. On days off, my time is truly freeform and the only rhythm I need to worry about is my own energy level.
I received an order for historical inks (that I had forgotten were active in the shop) so I brewed up some gold and emerald. I have a lot of leftover now for the gold, and a little for the emerald. They’re both mineral so they’re fine sitting there indefinitely. I’m pretty terrible at marketing inks but it’s just not where my attention is or what I want to be focusing on.
I had a day out in Hastings this week, where it was much cooler than London, and came back with a loot of box elements scrounged up from the small shops or picked up on the beach. I could have spent ALL DAY combing the beach for strange and interesting pebbles, thoroughly resculpted white seashells and hidden sparkles, but my friend already thought I was pretty weird. Just as well.
I went overboard with boxes when a flurry of orders came in, and now half the studio is covered in boxes pretending to be clams as I air them out – I want the smell of wood and varnish to fade so I can infuse them with the “scent bombs” I prepare for each sign.
The process of creating a Treasure Box is very organic. I sit with the theme and any research I may have done on it, jotting down concepts and components that come to mind. Often I have the box I’m going to use at hand so I can visualise how things may fit in at the same time. There’s always a point where one idea goes “click” and becomes the spine around which everything else can articulate. Then I can start making the tray and put things together for real, and the details work themselves out as the thing takes shape.
I shipped out two boxes this morning and need to wait for the recipients to have finished exploring them before I can show them. By then I might have finished preparing the photos… I swear it takes less time to finish an art piece than to clean up the photos and get through the whole writing up and admin process that goes with every single one. I used to have a checklist of things to do when a piece is complete, it’s way outdated but I really need to make a new one, except I have so much bloody admin to get through first!! In an ideal world I would have a PA and a butler, preferably one who can also cook, and they would both be occupied full-time.
The entrance to our block of studios is a depository for whatever artists want to get rid of. We’re not supposed to leave anything there, fire exit and all that, but we do. Everything vanishes really quickly anyway. Half my studio furniture comes from that space and will one day return to it. But today! As I was leaving (beating the rush…) I saw a brand new muller sitting there for the taking. I’ve never snatched anything so quickly. Feels like I won the lottery!
This blog has been so neglected, starting a studio diary came to mind as a way to give it some attention and “invite people into the studio”. The diaries are candid, but not complete: in-depth processes, spoilers and thoughts I don’t want floating around the open internet are still reserved for the privacy of my Patreon circle.
Purple mallow flowers are blooming all along the canal, yarrow is everywhere and the nettle seeds are nearly ready to harvest. It’s peak season to be in the studio, with such long hours of light and warm temperatures, so I spend extra-long days there.
Except we’re going through a heatwave; anything above 20ºC is called a heatwave in this funny little island, but the tin roof does turn the space into a casserole when that happens.
Zodiac Boxes are in full flow with 8 orders at various stages of making. What’s the collective word for boxes? I suggest “a panic of”. Boxes may not be the best project to start this diary with because I can’t show or say anything specific about them, but it’s what I’m busy with right now – that and the prolonged (in a good way) aftermath of the Cambridge event. Though I will say that one of the most fun aspects of the boxes is preparing the (astrological) scent packages with which each is infused.
Also, today I finished my first Extravagant box, Taurus, and only need bits to dry before I can ship it. I can’t wait for the owner to see it! So many surprises and clues to decipher, or to just interact with.
The box-making is here to stay, so it’s time for me to revisit my artist identity and rewrite a statement again. I’ve been very uneasy about the way I presenting myself for a long time now, but couldn’t work out a better way (Kufi etc is my area of expertise but it’s one means of artistic expression, not actually the heart of what I do as an artist). Now at last I’m seeing the thread running through it all.
I was deep in thoughtfulness when I went yesterday to catch this, just before its run at the Tate ended. I couldn’t tear myself away and sat watching for an hour and a half, until the dancers closed.
Our Labyrinth, by Lee Wingmei, “captures the simple act of sweeping into a performance that brings ritual and sacredness into the museum…. This performance is a gift from the dancers to the visitors. It provides a clear space, both physically and spiritually, as they explore the sacred space created by the project.” I’ll probably need a whole, private post to unpack everything that is wonderful about the performance. But even the wording of the commentary and open mention of sacredness was like a hint and a nudge.
(They’re sweeping rice, by the way. Can you hear the tinkling of their anklets?)
Drawing on historical techniques for illumination and calligraphy from East and West, this handbook introduces you to the wonder of transforming natural matter into fully developed art supplies. Learn the basic chemistry behind colours and prepare inks, lakes, paints, pastes, binders, media and drawing tools from plants and materials foraged as the seasons turn, or already present in your kitchen cupboard.
The 134 pages are abundantly illustrated and tightly packed with recipes, techniques, and tips based on my personal testing of every one of them. The format is A5 and wire-bound to be totally practical to use in the studio or kitchen.
In my previous volume, I examined the art technology of a specific culture, which sought out the best materials and most precious pigments to the ends of the known world. This volume examines the other side of the spectrum: art technology relying almost entirely on what is locally available, requiring a renewed knowledge of our local area and its seasonality. Whether you’re an artist wanting to have a hand in the materials you use along traditional lines, or a hobbyist looking for to reconnect your creativity with nature (and involve your kids), you’ll find both inspiration and all the information you need.
PART 1: BASICS — Definitions, Binders (gum, egg, starch, milk), Assists & Modifiers (alkalis & acids including recipes to prepare your own, metal salts)
PART 2: PLANT COLOURS — Foraging ethics, Finding & storing, Plant colour chemistry, Dye extraction, Preservation (including making lakes and clothlets), The Colour year (50 plants, where to find them, what colours they yield and how best to work with them)
PART 3: PIGMENTS — Carbon blacks, Earth Colours, Calcite whites.
PART 4: MEDIA & TOOLS — Watercolour, Gouache, Impasto, Pastel and more; Curing and cutting Bamboo/reed pens and Quills
PART 5: PAPER — Priming, Dyeing, Sizing (various recipes), Ageing, and more.
The folios can all be seen in one place in this digital musḥaf (more info here). The close-ups below are taken from the BnF and Bodleian folios.
The markers for 1 and 5 verses are consistent throughout, but there is no system for the rest, each of which is unique or very nearly. I like to think someone had a lot of fun making them (although of course they could be the work of several people, each with their own style). From 10 on, the number is spelled out inside the rosette—hover over the images to see the captions, click for full-size images. Note also the beautiful prostration marker, placed conspicuously well outside the text box.
(With my eternal gratitude to institutions that digitise their manuscripts and make them available in high-res!)
Published in 2020, Inks & Paints is a concise and approachable, but thoroughly practical manual examining the main materials used in manuscripts during the Abbasid period, also known as the Golden Age of the Islamic world. It is based on Arabic inkmaking treatises of the time, most of them never translated nor even properly transcribed, backed by my own experience as a working artist focused on historical materials.
The book’s 126 pages are abundantly illustrated and tightly packed with practical information on materials ranging from colours to binders and solvents use, preparation and preservation methods, and much more, plus a large number of historical recipes. I personally prepared and tested all but a small handful of the recipes before including them. The format is designed for practicality: A5-sized and wirebound, it can open flat on any page and be propped up so you can follow instructions without hassle.
Whether you have a general interest in art history or want to prepare and use these materials, this book has you covered.
Like malachite, azurite has been in use since at least the third millenium BC. It reigned supreme as the most beautiful, celestial blue for a long time before lapis lazuli became widespread in Europe in the 14th century. It then remained an indispensable pigment, either in its own right, or to build up layers of blue to be finished with a glaze of lapis, the latter being both transparent and incredibly expensive.
Other names for the pigment: Copper blue, blue malachite, chessylite, mineral blue, mountain blue, blue bice, citramarine, azure of Almayne (“German azure”); Germany: bergblau (“mountain blue”); France: Bleu de la Magne, bleu d’Allemagne, azur d’Allemagne, bleu allemand (all meaning “German blue”), ocre bleue (“blue ochre”), cendre bleue (“blue ashes”); classically: lapis armenia; China: k’sing (“kingfisher blue”).
What it is: A basic copper carbonate, chemical formula Cu3(CO3)2(OH)2. Found in copper deposits.
Granulation: Yes. The pigment can be further mulled for a smoother paint film but the colour will get paler.
Compatible with: Egg tempera, egg glair, gum arabic, casein. Oil is too yellow and will make it greenish. Hygroscopic binders such as rabbit skin glue can be used but will offer no protection against humidity (see notes).
How to use it:
Place the needed amount in a cup and add a few drops of water, just enough to wet the pigment into a stiff paste.
Add equal amount of gum arabic solution, or egg tempera, or glair, or casein, and mix well. (Note that gum arabic can be left to dry and then re-wet later. The other mediums are no longer usable once dry.)
If using it coarse, ensure the binder is strong so that the relatively large particles adhere strongly to the support.
Azurite has the peculiarity of turning back into malachite when exposed to humidity, meaning that in a damp environment, it will turn green over time. This happens because weathering replaces some of its CO2 units with water. This will take some decades in open air, but this is one pigment best not stored wet.
To the trained eye, azurite always tends to green and lapis lazuli has no such shade. In this way they can be told apart in old manuscripts, even when the scribe didn’t differentiate them. This was the norm in pre-modern Arabic, which only had one word for both minerals (Persian لازورد), thus giving the misleading impression that lapis lazuli was always used.
An azurite-painted surface will glitter with the mineral’s natural crystals, as shown in this video:
Several grades of my hand-ground azurite are available in the shop, while stocks last. See the sampler below for exact hues and granulation.
First the rock is ground into fine sand.
It is then transferred to a ceramic mortar for washing.
The first couple of washes yield large amounts of dirt.
The pourings then get increasingly blue.
The finest grade of all emerges at the very end.
I’m very fastidious when washing azurite, which results in a number of different grades. Some of the lower grades (such as Ashes in my sampler) still contain dirt as well as some malachite, making for incredibly interesting, moody, layered pigments in olive greens and desaturated teals.
Malachite is our oldest mineral green pigment, lightfast and reliable, used at least since the third millenium BC. Its name derive from Greek molochitis lithos, “mallow-green stone”. Its coppery nature associates it with the planet Venus.
Other names for the pigment: Mountain green, mineral green.
What it is: A basic copper carbonate hydroxide, chemical formula Cu₂CO₃(OH)₂. Found in copper deposits.
Granulation: Yes. The pigment can be further mulled for a smoother paint film but the colour will get paler.
Place a small amount in a palette well or eggcup and add a few drops of water, just enough to wet the pigment into a stiff paste.
Add equal amount of gum arabic solution, or egg tempera, or glair, or casein, and mix well. (Note that gum arabic can be left to dry and then re-wet later. The other mediums are no longer usable once dry.)
Notes: Malachite is remarkably lightfast, but less stable in the presence of some other pigments, so it is good practice to not admix it. To modify the hue, use thin layers of colour instead.
My hand-ground malachite is available in the shop, while stocks last!
The stone, which can be quite hard, is first broken up in a brass mortar, into sand as fine as possible.
Once it’s fine enough, it’s transferred to a ceramic mortar.
The rest of the process consists in washing the powdered malachite to separate it from any impurities in the stone. I add water and grind the powder about, pouring out the pigment as I go and repeating until it’s all been processed.
The containers are left to dry completely.
Finally the dry pigment is collected and ready for use.
My hand-ground malachite is available in the shop, while stocks last.
August saw the return of a natural source of colour for which I waited an entire year, having narrowly missed them last year: berries! I spent several days over the past few weeks, following my foraging routes in the hopes of finding ripe elderberry (خمان) within my reach. I just managed to scrounge enough together to make a decent amount of ink – until, for a change, I took the bus to the studio last week.
I walked off the bus and right into the arms of an elder bent under the weight of more inky-black umbels I could possibly carry. Well played, cosmos. I got more than enough to make a large supply of ink and still freeze several cups of berries to make a flu-preventing syrup.
Elderberries are toxic when raw (so don’t try to eat them off the tree!) and I notice that their ink is more durable than any edible berry: I suspect there is a correlation that would be best explained by someone knowledgeable in chemistry. The first ink sample I made was very pale as I had a small amount of berries and added too much water. I added iron mordant to make it darker, and at first was underwhelmed by the result (left): it seemed to make no difference at all with the ink remaining a stubborn pale pink. But 10 minutes later, when it was fully dry (right), it was a whole other story!
A more concentrated ink doesn’t even require mordant, and darkens nicely to a purple-black. My samples are up on a sunlit wall and it will take a few months of such exposure before I can be sure that this ink is reasonably lightfast. I do notice that it changes in the inkpot, however, darkening on its own, so that you can never really predict what you’re going to get – and that to me is one of the attractions of working with nature, all is constant change and surprise.
Blackberries (توت برّي) are also in season, so I made blackberry ink as well. I already know their colour fades quickly, so I used iron mordant to make it more lasting. This turned it a nice royal blue colour that threw me back to high school days, when it was regulation to use fountain pens with this exact shade of blue. The photo below is from my art foraging course, where we made and tested blackberry ink in the field (literally). The fresh juice at the top of the paper is quite pink, while the addition of iron mordant resulted in this lovely blue below. As the hue faded over a few days, the grey remained, so that this sample is today a desaturated version of itself – still dark, but without that hint of purple.
I got quite excited about these two inks and have been writing various compositions with them, using various natural tools. In this work in progress, the elderberry ink is pink when still wet:
I then used blackberry ink for the reverse motifs, which looks greyer and plays off the two hues nicely. Here’s a close-up, and the inks will naturally keep changing with time.
And here’s the finished piece, a pattern study.
As I finish this post, I just chanced upon another berry…
Mahonia or Oregon-grape is not native at all but it pops up in ornamental borders and it yields a wonderful red-purple colour that dries purple. The ink is barely dry so I can’t tell you yet what it looks like after some time. But I did spot a few more bushes that are going to get a visit from me while they’re still fruiting 😉
This is a in-depth look at the design process and reasoning behind a recent project involving Square Kufic, that I hope will be interesting and even helpful to some.
This was a collaboration with Thibaut Degenne, a talented furniture designer and maker based in London, who also learned traditional mosaics in Jordan. Thibaut was bringing the two traditions together into a design concept, starting with a prototype side table. He asked me to have a look at his Square Kufic inscription before he rendered it as a mosaic.
The text is an Arab proverb: ربّ صدفة خير من الف ميعاد (“A chance encounter may benefit more than a thousand trysts.”) This was the original composition:
I should specify that this was composed by his Jordanian partner, a native Arabic speaker but with no background in Kufic. It is a classic example of thinking in round script and imposing a square style over it, rather than thinking in the style of Square Kufic proper. (To be fair, this is what any Arabic speaker not schooled in the script would do.)
As a result, the composition was unsuitable in nearly every respect, as shown below. The crosses show faulty spacing (in this style, spacing and line must be absolutely even), the dashes distortions, and the yellow pattern used as filler must be discounted, so that all of that space above and below is also problematic.
The use of a third colour, in addition to black and white, is not in itself unacceptable, but it would be an additional layer: it cannot be a filler to make up for bad spacing. The black and white must be able to stand alone without it, which is not the case here. Moreover, there is no rationale behind this pattern: in places it is pseudo script, in others it mirrors the text, and in others it’s just filling blank spaces, and even that not systematically.
We agreed I had better redesign the script, taking into account the following restrictions:
The third colour needed to be integrated. In this case, this meant it would have to be a border.
I had to stick as close as possible to the existing measurements of the table. Because the composition corresponds to the elevation, and is a square, any increase or decrease in the length of the line would affect not only the width of the table but also its height, which is a serious alteration.
The size of the mosaic tiles was also set. I had the option of using smaller tiles, but that might be more of a complication than a help.
The depth of the script needed to be as small as possible (including a blank row above and below), because it would determine the thickness of the wood, and the danger here was to make it too bulky and heavy.
With length, depth and unit size relatively set, the grid I had to work with was pretty much defined, with only a little wiggle room. Such restrictions, however, are an intrinsic part of the art of Square Kufic, which was never designed with the freedom of a blank canvas but had to fill a certain area of wall, with tiles or bricks of a certain size. It was therefore an enjoyable challenge to see what could be done in these conditions.
Several possibilities came up, depending on what to prioritize: legibility, narrowness, or good design?
1a. Prioritizing legibility
This is usually completely irrelevant, as SK is not about conveying information, and most of the best historical examples are patently impossible to read, with the text laid out in a spiral so that absurd contortions would be required in order to decipher it. However, people who commission this style today always request a certain degree of legibility, so I try for that as well. This first option, then, was a better rendering of the original design:
Legibility: high, thanks to preserving the pointing and not forcing the letters into a band.
Depth: 9 units (narrower than original)
Design: poor. This is low-grade Kufic, and the border is still a barely disguised filler .
1b. Same, with concessions to design
Legibility: medium, as the letters are still unconstrained, but pointing is eliminated.
Depth: 9 units
Design: slightly better, as the removal of pointing allows ascenders and descenders to create a more pleasing rhythm with the border.
2a. Prioritizing design
Legibility: low, as the letters are constrained to form a perfect band, and pointing is eliminated.
Depth: 11 units (equal to original)
Design: Very good, proper Kufic practice.
2b. Same, with concessions to legibility
Legibility: medium, as pointing is restored to the constrained letters. The dotted border was an idea to integrate the pointing seamlessly.
Design: Good, only a slight compromise to traditional practice.
3. Prioritizing narrowness
Legibility: very poor, as letters are seriously constrained and there’s no pointing.
Depth: 9 units but could be as narrow as 5 if the border was removed.
Design: Correct but not much visual interest; the only real point of this option would be how narrow it is.
We discussed it and the end result was a variation of 2b, with a continuous rather than dotted border. This made it less distracting, and having the occasional dot break the line, in a regular pattern around the frame, adds life to the rigidity of pure Kufic. The dots also make it reasonably legible to most Arabic speakers.
I assembled the text in a composition that preserved the original arrangement (with blank corners) but interlacing the border:
Thibaut modified it to create a continuous band. This required a small modification at the corners, so he came back to me to double-check that detail.
His modification looked great but it amputated the final dâl of the sentence in order to place the dot, which wasn’t acceptable. Happily, it required very little to be corrected: leave the dâl alone and instead move the dot, either to the corner of the inner border or under the bâ, as shown in my redlined sketch below. I recommended the former solution, to preserve our system of keeping all the dots outside the text band.
This finalized the design. A few months later, I had the pleasure to watch Thibaut putting the mosaic in place, and not long after to “meet” the fully finished table! I hope it gets the attention it deserves and that we can work on more such projects in the future.
The small patch of woodland where I usually gather oak galls is known as Hollow Pond, and as the name indicates, there be a pond with a large population of water birds including large geese and swans. In the springtime the banks are strewn with molted feathers, including large remiges, used to make quill pens. I started picking up the biggest and cleanest that I would come upon, without any particular plan, as I didn’t think they could have anything to do with Arabic calligraphy.
But it so happens my friend Allison, a fellow artist, is primarily a Hebrew scribe, and we periodically meet up to exchange on art and nature. I found out that even though Hebrew requires strokes very similar to Kufic (and other Arabic styles), she uses quill pens. While in the Middle-East, the Jewish scribal tradition uses reed pens just like Islamic calligraphy (indeed Islamic scribes adopted the reed from the earlier scribes), the European tradition requires quills for the simple reason that the right reeds don’t grow here. This interesting fact got my attention. Quills can’t achieve the same breadth as reed pens, but they are much sharper, much better for delicate work, and of course they are local and completely eco-friendly.
Long story short, we had a work session where she showed me how to cut quills, after soaking the feathers overnight to soften them.
It took a couple of feathers for me to get the hang of it (happily there’s plenty of room for multiple attempts on any given quill), and mine don’t have the beautiful curves that a practiced hand can cut, but they write just fine!
Here’s my practice sheet (the first Ayin, top left, is Allison’s, the rest are my attempts to emulate it). The ink is actually black but very shiny, so this photo is not showing it well. I am pleased though, and now have a purpose for picking up feathers. It really tickles me to be able to make both ink and writing implement from “waste” picked up in the same place, a short walk from home.
The proper name is “oak galls ” or “gall nuts”, but tree pearls describes very well what they are: a tiny (harmless) wasp lays its eggs inside the bark of oak trees, and the tree in reaction generates a ball of solid, tannin-rich wood around the intruder. These start showing up in summer and for thousands of years have been one of the best-known sources of making ink. This was still the case up to WW2, so it’s remarkable that they’ve been so completely forgotten.
All of the galls above came from a single, unhappy oak no taller than I am (unhappy because it grew beside a busy road and was never going to be healthy, which probably made it more vulnerable. Also, it was too small to put out acorns, and I think that’s a factor because a large oak busy growing acorns has little energy to spare to make gall nuts). I spotted them while they were still green, and returned to harvest them weeks later, when they would have browned and a hole appeared, signaling that the wasp had hatched safely! In case I pick up an unhatched one, I leave the lot in a bowl by the window for a few weeks, so any hatchlings can escape. They are very cute and well-mannered, so their brief presence in my kitchen doesn’t bother me at all.
When I was ready to make some ink, I pounded all my galls roughly, just to break them up a bit, and then placed them in water to soak for at least a week. A faster way of working is to grind them to dust and then boil them, but why consume energy if there’s no rush? This is an exercise in sustainability. After only two hours the water already looked like this:
A week or so of daily stirring later, I strained out the solids and ended up with a pure tannin solution. This has uses of its own, so I set some aside, and prepared to turn the rest into calligraphy ink.
One might ask, since this is about the tannin, can’t the same result be attained with acorns? Apparently, acorns can achieve a good result, but the tannin is more concentrated in the galls. Also and more importantly, acorns are the oak’s progeny as well as food for a multitude of forest creatures. It’s not right to seize that for our own purposes when the galls are sitting there useless to beast or tree once the wasp has hatched. If left alone, they don’t fall off but slowly decompose on the branch. Even a handful of galls will yield enough ink to last any calligrapher until the next season.
The next step in making the ink is adding an iron mordant, which instantly turns the solution a deep black. Then, for it to be a usable ink, I added gum arabic (pounded from the crystals below and dissolved in warm water).
Now I’m experimenting with different amounts of it, and also with adding a little honey to make it even thicker. Too much gum arabic can make the ink flaky when it dries, but this hasn’t happened so far, probably because I’m working on paper, which absorbs the ink. The real test would be vellum, which was the original surface for this ink, and I have a scrap somewhere so now’s a good time to unearth it.
I don’t usually bring up my nature-oriented lifestyle on this website (plastic-free etc) but my hiking and foraging for wild foods are now converging with my art practice: I have started drifting towards foraging for colours. Just as I was formulating this intention for myself, I made a serendipitous first find: chunks of red rock disturbed by a construction site, on the way to my favourite woodland walk.
I brought them home, ground them into sand, and proceeded to wash and extract the pigment… So much pigment I am still working at it, the earth hasn’t released it all!
This lovely earthy orange, below, is the hue I can expect from painting with this pigment (I named it Theydon Red). I can use it with any painting medium I like, which will be natural mediums: watercolour, gouache, egg tempera… Oil too of course, but it’s not one I use.
There is such a strong sense of place in making art with the very soil of a place you love, processed with care, it makes store-bought pigment rather boring and impersonal…
Before and after the process: rocks vs. pure pigment.
Earth colors such as these, which are iron-based, are easy to extract, and they are reliable and permanent. More tricky and much less predictable are plant colours, which I am now busy with. More soon…
You are invited to join us at an interesting time of the year. The Winter Solstice marks the darkest point of the year, but it is also the moment when Day is reborn and Night begins to recede again. For this exhibition timed to end on the Solstice itself, three artists have come together to explore the relationship of Light and Darkness in their respective practices.
Dates: The show will run from 8 to 21 December, open daily from 12 to 7 pm. Private View: Tuesday 8th December, 6 – 9pm Solstice Event: Monday 21st December, 6 – 9pm Location: The Crypt Gallery, St Pancras Parish Church, Euston Road, London NW1 2BA (across Euston Station, entrance on Duke’s Road) Entrance is free to all, no booking required! About the artists:
Joumana Medlej left her native Beirut in 2013 to settle in London. She works with the nearly forgotten Kufic script, acquired through many years of working with a master. Leaving old forms behind, she pushes the geometry of the script and makes novel use of materials to reinvent Arabic calligraphy in every piece. Joumana’s work is in private and public collections in the UK and Middle-East. www.majnouna.com
Alan Craxford has lived in London since 1967. He is best known for his signature hand-engraved jewelry which is widely exhibited in the UK and internationally. Four years ago, during the long recovery following an operation, he began to experiment with scalpel and paper. This enabled a whole new direction where light and shadow, colour and pattern can be worked together in a unique way, both meaningful and beautiful.
Lynette Howells-Moore is originally from Melbourne, Australia, and now lives near Chester. Her training in Fine Art Painting is wide ranging, and her paintings encompass a wide variety of mediums: the ancient technique of egg tempera painting and gilding, oil painting as practiced by the Renaissance Masters, and the more modern mediums of watercolour, pastel and pencil. She has works in private collections worldwide.
I have had a very exciting month. Life has given me a large and luminous new space to work in, the largest I’ve ever had at my disposal, and as a result my work has exploded. I have 3-4 large pieces in the making at any given time, and small studies all over the place. Up on the wall, above, are planning sketches for pieces in progress… Lots in the works!
I also look forward to hosting some courses and open studio events here. There is no internet access, which is a highly recommended state of affairs. On the other hand, Borough Market is nearby (heaven on earth for a foodie), which is a whole other level of distraction.
To go with this new era, I made some changes to my website. I had been puzzling over what to do for some time, wanting to give the calligraphy its own space without removing everything else, and also wanting to make the contents directly accessible, as opposed to having to click through a splash page first. In the end, I resuscitated Cedarseed.com to host all my more personal or past endeavours, while Majnouna.com is now solely devoted to khatt. A simple click from the main menu flips you from one to the other, so they are still connected, literally two sides of one coin, but it makes it much easier to direct press and clients to the calligraphy.
We are 4 women creatives, 4 winds blowing between the Levant and London, 4 directions of Arabic calligraphy which we invite you to discover in:
The Secret Garden of Alif
An open house and open heart event offering affordable art*, mutual encounters, scarves, live creation, pillows, homemade Mideastern treats – all amidst the whispers of Alif.
*For this event only, we are all discounting our work.
Sunday 27 July, 11:00-19:00
Joumana Medlej was trained in graphic design but always craved more meaningful expressions of creativity. She learned the essence of Kufi, the first Arabic script to be consciously made beautiful, through years of close collaboration with master calligrapher Samir Sayegh. He impressed upon her how to breathe new life into a traditional art, not merely copying or reviving its old forms but finding a contemporary language for it. Joumana is specially interested in the unique relationship between Kufi and geometry, both sacred arts. Her work seeks to uncover hidden order, how the words choose to reveal themselves, and evoke the magic that comes through when form and meaning are one.
Greta Khoury developed a fascination for Islamic calligraphy and the poetry of forms while designing graphic identities and typefaces.
She embarked on a journey to discover the history of the art and explore ways to bring its spirit into contemporary design practice. She encountered along the way many inspiring masters who each in their own way have taught her that forms are carriers of very ancient messages where sounds become words, words become forms and forms become constant reminders of the wonders of life.
Dia Batal‘s art/design work is a result of her interest in creating pieces that respond to her identity in content and aesthetics. It is the outcome of an admiration of Arabic calligraphy, language and the traditional art of working with text. She borrows from that, and finds ways of creating limited edition pieces in a contemporary language. The work she does is often context specific and enables audience and user to physically engage with it. Dia uses a free style Arabic ‘type’ that she’s developed to create an object, and tell its story, while looking at the possible transformations of the text, in relation to its meaning, the space it occupies, and function of that object itself. …
Noor Saab was fascinated by abstract orderly geometric patterns from a young age, and found herself naturally drawn into the world of Kufic script and arabesque patterns. Growing up in Beirut and then moving to London, her work is an expression of a strong oriental identity engaging with a plethora of western influences, constantly embracing the coexistence of opposites… the old and the new, the conservative and the rebel, the traditional and the modern. Come discover her debut collection of scarves – Salam, in a bold and vibrant tribute to peace.
Please pass the word on. We look forward to welcoming you!
I have had the most transformative week, a true revelation, learning to make colors from natural raw materials under the guidance of David Cranswick. Here’s a flying tour of the genesis of true artist pigments.
The alchemist’s lab
This cozy space was home for 5 full days to 1 teacher, 4 students, 1 gecko and a bunch of large snakes (really).
The three copper stones we’re starting with: malachite, chrysocolla
and azurite, alongside lapis lazuli (lower right).
Grinding the stone to a powder.
Wash and repeat.
Much later, the dried powder is ground with a medium to make watercolor, egg tempera or oil paint.
Homemade malachite watercolor
The product of sulphur meeting mercury, exploding with such strength it generates these rocks. What’s not to love?
Grinding this is going to be a little more difficult…
Adding lye to extract the color…
Time to strain the dye.
This is ready to dye cloth with. But to use it in paint we have to turn this into a solid…
Here comes the alum!
12 hours later… Time to strain again, butthis time we want to keep the solid.
So we proceed as if making strained cheese..
Many more hours later, this is what it will look like.
Much grinding later, we finally have paint.
The legendary red of carpets, now ready to be painted with.
This one will surprise you.
Now clearly violet…
Almost black tomorrow (left).
A whole other process, this is an ink and always in solution.
Testing with different proportions of gum arabic. This ink is nearly clear when brushed, then darkens dramatically on the paper.
The resin is ready, and so is… the sugar.
Add hot water to make the oldest binding agent in the world.
Ochre yellow, an earth color.
Add gum arabic…
… and start grinding.
Repeating with burnt sienna…
Passing the yolk from hand to hand till it’s ready.
The delicate part…
Testing with egg tempera.
Grinding yellow ochre again, this time with linseed oil, produces this beautiful consistency, like soft butter.
Now to tube it.
Lead white is quite a bit tougher to grind…
This spectacular color, minium, is obtained by heating lead white. That’s all. Just magical.
Final result of 5 days of intense work: This beautiful natural palette and so much inspiration.
I’ve been talking about it for ages, and it’s finally happening. Please share this link far and wide, the exhibit is up for a month and a half in a really lovely venue (with a bar!) and that’s plenty of time to catch it. I’d also like to add that during the month of July, we’re coinciding with a spectacular exhibit by my calligraphy mentor Samir Sayegh, just next door in the Beiteddine palace. Arabic calligraphy is the theme for this summer, don’t miss it!
Yesterday my fellow calligraphy artists, Ziad Talhouk, Everitte Barbee, and myself drove up to Beiteddine to take a look at the venue where we are holding our exhibit this summer. The invitation and all details will be posted as soon as I have them, but I can already say the opening will be on the 14th of July, so book yourselves! The exhibit will go on till the end of August, plenty of time to enjoy it and this truly unique location: the Beiteddine branch of the Art Lounge is a late 19th-century silk plant.You can see it from a mile away while approaching form the other side of the valley, and recognize it at once from the chimney and tall windows that characterize structures dedicated to raising silkworms and harvesting the silk.
I could give you an entire course on silk production right here, given we made a book on the subject, but I won’t digress – let me just say that one floor would be filled with white mulberry branches being devoured by silkworms, the chimney is for the furnace used to boil the cocoons, and the other floor would be busy with women unraveling the silk threads.
The inside, cleaned and whitewashed afresh by the Art Lounge. A bit messy for the moment, but soon to be rearranged for a purely calligraphic exhibit.
A bar puts the “lounge” in Art Lounge, and makes exhibits an opportunity to hang around and chill, not just look and leave. Plus the inside is cool no matter the temperature outside!
We won’t be using the second floor, but I had to take photos – look at that roof!
Not only is the space gorgeous, we’re incredibly happy that this beautiful remnant of Lebanon’s once famous silk production has been saved and revived by art. Many like it still dot the landscape, but they weren’t so lucky, most are dilapidated or doomed to be demolished.