The Devil’s Paint Box


Dear Artist,

Somewhere among the warrens of the Fes medina you enter a dark, unmarked doorway, bump your head climbing narrow stairs and then pass through corridors hung closely with leather products. Salesmen, who you will meet later, lurk in the shadows. Clasping mint leaves to your nose in an attempt to neutralize the increasingly foul odour, you step out onto a sunlit patio. Spread below, covering about an acre, is what looks like a giant’s paint box. It’s the tanner’s souk.

Short-panted, hairless men and boys stamp and splash in and out of colourful vats filled with toxic brews and the wet skins of goat, sheep, camel and cow. It’s an ancient craft, to me both fascinating and disturbing — sweating workers endlessly repeating the same movements — an animated Hieronymus Bosch. The palette: saffron yellow, indigo blue, almond green, poppy red, cedar brown — these days supplemented with synthetics. The feeling of death and the zombie-like activity add to the alchemy.

How it works: The process can take a couple of weeks. Overburdened donkeys deliver a constant supply of skins. Hair, flesh and fat are removed in lime baths. The skins are then delimed and pickled with sulphuric acid and sea-salt. After being immersed for several days in vats of oil and water-based liquors they are stoned and scraped (skiving). Then the skins are steeped in vats of various dyes mixed with mordants to fix the colours. Finally the leather is laid out to dry in the sun — ready for the traditional craftsmen who will work the material into the saddles, jackets, bags, bindings and cushions for which Morocco is famous.

Today, images of this place, like hallucinations, lie imprinted on my brain. I see before me every paint-box I’ve ever owned — those used up, forgotten or abandoned. It’s a devilish march of trial and error, busyness, lethargy, sun-baked labour and toil, losing, winning. Maybe it’s time to go home.

Best regards,


PS: “An artist spends himself like the crayon in his hand, till he is all gone.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson) “Colours are light’s suffering and joy.” (Wolfgang von Goethe) “Our life is made by the death of others.” (Leonardo Da Vinci)

Esoterica: Eastern rug dealing, with its parallels to some Western art dealing, is a remarkable combination of information, choreography and bullying. If you find yourself sitting with a cup of tea, carpets piling up in front of you, you’re on your way to becoming a plucked chicken. The salesman, his assistant, and the manager-closer make sure you understand that ragged old carpets sell for more than fresh new ones. A subtle way of talking “investment.”


Tanner’s souk, Fes, Morocco


Unfinished skins arrive from the countryside, Fes, Morocco


The white vats lime away the hair, fat and flesh in several days


Vats of toxic solutions used for bating and pickling skins








Workers relentlessly pummel and turn the skins in the vats.


Skins stretched after being treated with sulphuric acid and oil.


Originally vegetable, many of the colours are now alum-based.








Art replenishes
by Deborah Lynch

The quote from Mr. Emerson: “An artist spends himself like the crayon in his hand, till he is all gone,” couldn’t have been more wrong. You don’t spend yourself through your art… rather it’s been my experience that art is something that is replenished through use… and the more you use it the more you have to use.


Use of dyes and mordants
by Charles Corbet

Concerning vegetable dyes and mordants in the colouring of Moroccan leather, The Herb Book by John Lust, has several fascinating appendices — one of which is on the use of natural herbs as dyes and mordants.


Women Westernized
by Mary Jean Mailloux, Oakville, ON, Canada


“Summer Delights”
watercolor 16 x 12 inches
by Mary Jean Mailloux

The Moroccan woman who wrote about the women of Rabat is correct. Even in 1981 when I was there, many women were dressed in western garb (not all by a long shot), but there were many on the street. I traveled with students studying in France who lived in Rabat. A brother and sister of a family of seven or so. They were thoroughly westernized.




Colour held up
by Wayne Usted

Currying is the process by which the leather, known as “crust-tanned” is soaked with grease in order to make it into the best possible product. The vats or “fulling mills” you saw were originally filled with natural vegetable based dyes — many of them made out of oak and chestnut bark. Tamarisk gall is still used for tanning leather white. These natural dyes have held up remarkably well when you consider particularly the large number of ancient Moroccan-bound books still showing the original colour, even on their spines.


East-west confusion
by Janeson Rayne Bull, Toronto, Canada


Janeson Rayne

Back in ’92, I had a memorable experience of east-west confusion. I had been on the coast of England — Penzance — painting, dreaming, being — for two weeks. Then to France, Normandy, for a little past-life painting excursion. After that, I went to the coast of Maine to work on a film with Mel Gibson. I remember standing by the ocean watching the sun go down and having a really hard time understanding how… now that I was on the East coast… how could the sun be setting “there” — as it normally would, in the sky. I thought about that for a long while — and then I just kept painting, leaving out any references to direction.


by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia


“Ways of Overcoming”
wool tapestry 19 x 24 inches
by Olga and Yaroslaw

It is a hard picture — skins, sulfuric acid, heat — there are many countries in world and many factories with poisonous dyeing solutions. Well known disease of aniline factories workers — cancer of urine bladder. Talking about artist work — we have at our hands solvents, pigments, glues, resins… Last time we also tried to use acrylic paint — as if it is not so harmful, but also at fingers… what is solvent is not known — it is wrote as if water dilute, but it coagulates successfully when diluting. To clean fingers from acrylic also is task even when diluted.

P.S. To save from divorce also. Anne Copeland, of California, USA “It was a yellow divorce” — reason of yellow divorce is weak energy of reflected light from body after weak yellow rays — yellow means absorbing high energy blue these. Weak photon — communicating between persons in yellow light.

There is also the well-known work of yellow colour in restaurants — people being more quick to leave it. Public houses and also newspapers are called yellow sometimes — yellow colour is energy-taking. Feeling of warm and cool colours is additive: when we give our energy, we feel it going away as warm — organism activates to substitute lost energy. “Activated man at weak body-body light communication” — syndrome of yellow kitchen described by Anne Copeland.

Men can check influence of woman nature changing a photo colour at PC art program from yellow to red-blue — digital camera +PC allow to measure any real woman actual colour in PC-digits in such way and compose comparative table before potential divorce (at standard light conditions, of course to have personal coefficient of divorciteness)…

But yellow-kitchen syndrome is influenced by art media — tapestries from natural fibres are energy-giving and yellow syndrome is not working especially strong when other colours work together.


Endangered lives
by Gertjan Zwiggelaar, Red Deer, AB, Canada


“Hellooo, Lunch”
acrylic 24 x 48 inches
by Gertjan Zwiggelaar

Your letter regarding the tanning souk is one of note. Your descriptions of the people and the place, accompanied by the posted photos, made an incredible impression on me. Your sympathy regarding the workers — unprotected, working with highly toxic substances, gave me pause to reflect.

The tannery workers are endangering their lives, and indeed, shortening them considerably, to feed the insatiable tourist market, where rich foreigners are able to purchase a piece of these workers’ lives for a pittance compared to what those Moroccan leather goods cost back home. The endangered workers, likely the great, great grandsons of tannery workers, earn such a small amount of money for their efforts, which, as you said, are monotonous, under hot sun, in toxic air, in shorts — it is quite atrocious, really. The photo of one of the workers walking past skins soaked with sulphuric acid and oil shows very clearly that these people do not wear protective clothing and gas masks. Although the industry is done outside, the fact that the whole place is tightly surrounded by buildings, in a place where there is not a lot of air moving around, makes the tannery a toxic place. Albeit beautiful with regard to the pots of dyes, and the picturesque, ancient buildings, the tannery hides a human misery story. We should be careful about complacency.

Thanks a bundle for providing such excellent food for thought on a Tuesday morning. I am really enjoying your travel letters from North Africa. I spent a month and a half in Morocco in 1973. As far south as Tan Tan. I traded beads in Golemine. I still use a blanket I bought in Marrakesh. Morocco is an amazing place, a step back in time. When I was there I thought I was walking in places of Biblical description.


Take on the day
by Jaime Lavin, Gardner, KS, USA


“Wind Over Trees”
painting by Jaime Lavin

Today I seem capable of only lying around; focused on the unimportant. Recovery from the flu is sometimes so slow. Five pieces of the reef are on the easels and there are turtles to paint! Thanks always for the inspiration; I give your site out to every artist I meet. Their response is always “thank-you.” Sometimes, it’s better to take on the day than to take on the world!


Thanksgiving thanks
by Phillis Elliott, Ohio, USA


What a delight. Once again you have taken those of us who must travel by armchair on an exciting and sensual trip. Thank-you, it is like flying on a magic carpet. Even the smells and sites come through your descriptions. I am especially grateful for the pictures you send back. It seems that you are as adroit with the camera as with the paint brush. The images of the desert and Ibrahim are wonderful. I feel as if the desert is right there in front of me with all its shadows and light. I wish you, your family and all of our subscribers a Happy American Thanksgiving as I am thankful to receive your letters.




More from the thanks dept.
by Terry Pappas, California, USA

I am new to your “service” (gift) and it’s already been a thrilling, insightful adventure! Travel is out of my picture for a while and I’m enjoying your words and pictures. Thank you for being so generous. It is much appreciated — Jennie Ruth Marsh.

Thank you so much for the letters and the amazing images. It’s a joy to open up the windows and have a sense of what you are experiencing… Colour is a major part of me… So this is a wonderful extravaganza — Laurie Wisdom.

Thank you for expanding our world through your brilliant writing of imagery and thought provoking observations. Each week my soul is fed and celebrates with you through the molecules of space… a direct hit on the nucleus of the artist heart!

(RG note) Thanks for these notes. The above, and the question, “Why are you doing this for me?” are the most frequent letters we get. To answer the second, I have to say that I get the biggest kick out of writing the letters. The regularity these days seems to anchor me in an otherwise chaotic life. They give further reason to consider the actions of myself and others. The learning curve at this end is the most fun thing. Also, many of you who are much more professional at instructing than I am, will know that it is not possible to do everyone justice — there is just not enough time when you are following your own self-ordained program. So I also look on these letters as useful supplements and teaching aids for workshoppers and art professors. It’s an expedient way for us to connect with one another. Furthermore, many artists write to say that they have received real value from our site, and that’s always encouraging. But more than anything I know that these letters are part of a greater community, a brotherhood and sisterhood, of which I am deeply honoured and grateful to be a part. As such, between print-outs, translations, and pickups by other sites and forums, we are at the present time a group of about seventy thousand friends. There seems to be so much that we can come to know in this business. And it’s growing. Thanks for being part of the adventure.


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