Verdigris Dive

Bubbles II by Nancy Farmer

Painting “Bubbles II” – and some step-by-step photos

(yes, it could have a better title, but I already had a ‘Bubbles I’ and this kind of stuck…)

Diver in watercolour, gold leaf, and coper corrosion, by Nancy Farmer

I’ve been a long time getting round to showing you this picture properly. I finished it just before I broke my wrist in February, and at that point all playing with vinegar and copper leaf ceased – one day I’ll get back to more of this, I think it has some potential.

The main reason I never showed anyone was that it was difficult to photograph clearly so you can see what it really looks like, and I could never get round to organizing this series of pictures, but if you’ve bought anything from me recently you will have seen this painting on my ‘thank you’ postcards, and one or two people have asked about what it is, and whether I have prints – so yes, you can also buy prints in my Etsy shop here.

I love a chemistry demonstration…

If you hang copper over vinegar fumes you get a green corrosion product which forms on the copper – it’s called Verdigris. It’s been used as an artist’s pigment for centuries, though it’s fallen out of use as it’s not very stable and it’s a bit poisonous. Nothing on the scale of proper poisonous artists’ pigments – nothing like cinnabar, vermilion, orpiment, realgar and so on (lovely reds and yellows but oxides of mercury and arsenic respectively). You could still try this at home… but be sensible, don’t eat your resulting artwork!

The green patina on weathered bronze statues is often referred to as ‘verdigris’. It isn’t: unless it rains vinegar locally, it’s a mix of other oxides, sulphates and sulphites (it’s been a long time since that degree in metals conservation, so don’t ask me exactly what!), but it’s the same kind of chemical reaction. Verdigris is copper acetate – the product of copper and acetic acid (vinegar).

Gold leaf won’t react with (almost) anything, but imitation gold leaf is mostly copper. Brand new and freshly applied, gold leaf and imitation gold leaf look very similar indeed, but hang them (or put the picture face-down) over vinegar and something lovely happens. For the sake of accuracy – I am pretty sure not all the colours that you see in the corroded copper are verdigris – there’s a dark brown first, which looks like copper oxide, a bright blue at the end that looks very much like copper sulphate. The chemistry is probably quite messy and complicated… but the only added ingredient is vinegar, and a bit of warmth (the photo of the picture upside down was one I did last summer, in the greenhouse when it was warm – this painting actually perched on the warm Rayburn for two days and stank the kitchen out instead, but I don’t have a photo of that).

And the results – you can see for yourself. Experience has shown that you also have to use a spray-on varnish – the delicate surface is highly water-soluble and also reacts with the air to form different copper salts, and can loose some of its fabulous colours.  Varnishing seems to stabilize it, at least, a test run I did a couple of years ago seems to be pretty stable.

The figure of the swimmer was painted in watercolour, after the vinegar and before the varnish.
The finished painting is hard to photograph because the gold is still shiny and so it looks different from every angle. Putting the picture on a scanner picks up the details of the painting, but omits to show the glory of the shiny gold leaf, so I’ve shown both scan, and photograph from a couple of angles (above and penultimate image), which hopefully gives you a good idea of the painting, in changeable lighting.

And that’s it, I hope you enjoy my little album of step-by-step photos:


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this Nancy. I received one of your cards as a thankyou with my hat, and have popped it on my notice board.
    I love an explanation , and particularly enjoyed yours as I post similar things relating to my work. I am a jeweller and also an artist.
    Beautiful piece . Well done!


    1. Thank you Alison, very happy you appreciated it – coincidentally I used to make jewellery – I did my degree in jewellery and silversmithing… about 3 decades ago! Still like playing with metals 🙂


  2. I enjoyed the article but did we lose a bit at the end “ Putting the picture on a scanner picks up the details of the painting, but omits to show the glory of the shiny gold leaf, so I’ve shown…” felt like there was more to the story


  3. I have one of those cards and so appreciate the explanation of how it all came about…thanks Nancy…wish I could paint!


  4. All the years I have known you and you can still amaze with your skills, your knowledge your originality and the way you explain art. Proud to know you. Marti.


    1. gosh, careful Marti, I’ll have to wear one of my super-large swimming hats if you carry on that way, but thank you I am very happy you appreciate the post, I know you love a good enthusiastic nerdy tale 🙂


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