Interview with Lucy Mayes, artist behind London Pigment, Part One

Lucy collecting raw materials for making inks and pigments, November 2017.

For the very first blog post I thought it would be a good idea to introduce myself by answering some questions that I often get asked when I give workshops. So here we go!

What first got you into the specifics of what art materials are made of?

I learnt about traditional painting mediums and the component parts of paint when I was studying at art school. When I was at Camberwell College of Art doing my art foundation (2012) I did a lot of oil painting and used lots and lots of different traditional and modern mediums like Canada Balsalm and alkyd based impasto mediums. Later on at The Ruskin, Oxford University (2013-2014) I was taught by many amazing artists, including Sigrid Holmwood who has a very special practice grounded in the ritual of pigment making. I have always felt strongly that the end message of a work of art is created by what materials are used and what nuances they diffuse through the work. 

What previous jobs have you had and what has each one brought to your practice now?

From the age of 17, I have been; in Brighton, a waitress, chip shop worker, ice and cream dispenser. In Seaford I was an art therapist. In Ibiza I was an artist assistant and classic sailing boat restorer. In London I was a DIY store worker, Sourdough baker, art shop retail assistant, product developer, pigment researcher & pigment consultant. I have always worked whilst studying to pay for my tuition and living expenses, all of these odd jobs have impacted me for good and for worse. I think the general impact of these jobs has been to instill in me a sense of humility and self awareness of myself in the world. This extends to the connections that my art materials and therefore also my paintings have.  

The chalk cliffs at Seaford, Sussex.

What got you into making pigments?

I started collecting the odd object from the Thames foreshore, for no other reason than for curiosity and that the shapes looked interesting. I’ve always been a magpie, I was trying to find priceless coins or intact Victorian clay pipes whilst walking along the Thames. I began collecting little nodules of worn brick and putting them in my pockets as I was surprised by their bright colour. After a while my pockets were full of coloured dusts and my hands would be covered in red, orange and yellow pigment. This was really annoying but then one day I put one of these pieces of soft worn brick in a pestle and mortar and was so surprised at how easily it ground up to a fine and soft powder. After adding gum Arabic I had made a basic watercolour paint, the directness was exhilarating: I was hooked. 

Marks made by soft bricks and other construction materials I found on the Thames foreshore.

What are your earliest memories that relate to reacting to the materials in your environment? 

When I was 4 or 5 my brother and I used to make mud pies and collect hollyhock seed pods, and push the individual seeds out of them into a bucket. We enjoyed processing these satisfying tasks for no reason at all other than for play, and touching what was around us in a suburban garden. When I was about 19 and living on the south coast in a small town called Seaford I collected lots of chalk from the coastal cliffs and ground it up to make powder. For some reason I was impelled to do this and kept sacks of chalk in my family’s garage for years afterwards. We always used to pick blackberries, wild garlic, elderflowers when they were in season and this collecting and processing of local materials is something I still do now. There is a deep, human impulse to touch and examine the world around us to see if things can be useful in some way.


The Thames foreshore in Rotherhithe, South London.

What are the strangest processes you do to make your colours?

Following on from early childhood memories, when I was around 7 years old I had been naughty and told to go to my room. I thought I wasn’t allowed to leave the room for any reason. After some time, I needed to go to the toilet and after looking for a relevant receptacle, I realised I could wee in an ornamental glass jar that had some water in it with some coloured glass fish in. I quickly did the top of the jar up and pushed it to the back of the large wardrobe.

Three years later when we were moving house, I was clearing out the wardrobe and found a black jar I had no recollection of. Shaking it I could hear a tinkling noise inside and faintly remembered the glass fish. I took it to the bathroom and tried and tried to unscrew it. I then managed to open it! But in doing so, I split the contents all over me. When urea and water are left alone for a long time it creates a very potent mix. I fell into the bath, burning my skin and I passing out from the fumes. The urine, if left for a long time, will become strongly alkaline due to bacteria.

Image of the verdigris pigment, before grinding made from ammonia.

I have recently been processing some verdigris using my own urine. I don’t usually do weird stuff like this, I’m not into art that uses bodily excretions but I knew that ammonia produces a wonderful blue verdigris and wanted to see if the ammonia from urine could do the same. It turned out a very deep grassy green instead. And don’t worry this colour is a personal experiment and not available to purchase..

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