Flying Colours – stencilling with historic pigments

For my repro playing cards Mark I and II, I had used four colours – yellow, red, blue and black/grey for the courts, and of course red and black for the pips.  I’d used gouache colours that I reasoned were around in the 17th century, namely gamboge for yellow, scarlet for red, indigo for blue and lamp black. The wobbly bit about this reasoning was that it would have been uneconomic to use these paints back then…and to be honest, it was uneconomic for me to use them too, without any extender. So I extended them with some starch cooked up, and the result was satisfactory. However, with mark III I’m searching for techniques and materials truer to the time.


Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau, author of “L’Art du Cartier”(Picture from Musee National de la Marine, France)

A big help was finding a volume called “L’Art du Cartier”.  Written by a chap called Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau in 1762, this book describes the whole art of manufacturing playing cards in France in the eighteenth century. Right, so that’s not England, and it’s not the seventeenth century. But it’s still pre-industrial Europe and gives some great insights into how to mix and use colours for this precise purpose. Instead of using ready made paints, I’d be using pigments – pure colour – and adding my own binder  according to the descriptions in the book.

So for the red, I used Venetian red which is an  earth colour. Now straight away this is a compromise. The pigment specified by Duhamel du Monceau is vermilion, which contains mercury and therefore is fairly toxic.  Venetian red is slightly browner than vermilion.


Historic pigments of red, blue and black.


Blue and black pigments were easy to obtain : indigo and lamp black respectively.

Avignon berries

Avignon Berries dried

These pigments were obtained in powder form from Cornelissen’s, but the yellow was a different matter. The yellow colour is from berries variously known as Turkey berries, Persian berries, Avignon berries or buckthorn. Using these berries as yellow dye was once big business, but nowadays they seem to be used mainly in the field of natural fabric dye. I got hold of some, and fermented them in water as per the book. I then did a test swatch and got…green. It seems that if you want yellow, you have to use unripe berries and what I had were ripe berries which produce another particular pigment namely Sap Green. I could not get unripe berries so I had to settle for extract of buckthorn, which only needed to be mixed with water and some alum to produce a nice yellow hue.  Importantly, it is transparent so that the printed lines show through.

Indigo is also mixed with water, but Duhamel du Monceau states that the red and black should be mixed with the same “colle” wheat paste that is used to stick the layers of pasteboard together. Furthermore, it’s stated that the black, after being mixed with the glue, should be fermented for five months! Well I am sure I did it wrong, but I made a little test and after five months what I had was a scraping of black colour under a green coat of mould.

When using the stencils, I tried various kinds of brushes –  specialist short-haired, short-handled stencil brushes, flat paintbrushes and household paintbrushes.

Stencil Brush

Using a special stencil brush to transfer red pigment onto court cards.

16th century stencilling

Colouring in the 16th Century

A Jost Amman picture of a colourist shows a big brush without a handle which also seems to suggest a quick action.  I found that using the special stencilling brushes  made my hands ache after a while. This  video shows me using an ordinary household paintbrush to stencil black pips. However for blue and yellow that are only mixed with water, a lighter approach is required and I used a  flat artist’s brush for those, not all that big. If there’s too much moisture and the pigment gets underneath the stencil, if the pigment bleeds, it looks pretty bad on the courts and of course the pips are ruined, because it’s important in play that the suit sign should be instantly clear.

For the same reason, when the stencilling is done, the stencil should be lifted up vertically to avoid any accidental drag. Here’s another mini video to show the action…go to video

One thing that strikes me when I look at some (not all) old woodcut cards, is that the woodcarving is usually detailed and fine, but frequently the colouring is quite crude. Sometimes the black is too opaque and obscures part of the carving. The stencils can be off quite frequently. This tells me that the carving was done by skilled workmen, and the colouring by unskilled, perhaps women and children.

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