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7 Jun 2016

Shark scented art

A fascinating variety of people seek out advice from our experts at the Royal Botanic Garden and it is not always botanical information they are after. Last week our librarian Miguel Garcia met with art student Angus Fisher to see if he could shine any light on the mysteries surrounding early scientific illustrations and how they might have been created.

Angus is researching Australian colonial printmaking as part of a Masters of Fine Art at the National Art School, focusing on the birds of Sydney.  Not content to just learn about the ways colonial artists would have created inks and prints, he has been doing some experiments of his own to make an authentic folio of etchings.

“I am trying to replicate an old colonial ink recipe using shark oil, acacia gum and charcoal. I haven’t got the recipe right yet and the prints I have created really smell like fish.”
Angus Fisher

Miguel Garcia has an incredible knowledge of the books in his collection and the stories they tell but he is curious to ask Angus about how the early European settlers might have created etchings, engravings and prints in their new home of Sydney. Miguel is fascinated to learn that the First Fleet brought an etching press to Australia in 1788, possibly intended for printing official documents and newspapers. 

The recording and sharing of discoveries in natural science was heavily dependent on the skills of illustrators and artists in the early days of settlement, when art supplies had to be resourcefully acquired and nobody had a camera. As Angus writes in his Masters Exegesis:

Their job was to faithfully represent, understand and quantify the newly expanding world for an eagerly awaiting audience. A golden age of natural sciences had swept through Europe. The printed folio, documenting discoveries in remote and exotic corners of the globe, remains one of the best legacies of this period of discovery.

Angus has found it difficult to uncover details of the materials and ink recipes used by colonial artists and not many of the original prints have made it to the present day for analysis. 

In order to replicate colonial art techniques himself, Angus is visiting many of Sydney’s art and history institutions where antique art might provide clues. On arrival at the Herbarium to meet Miguel, The Banks’ Florilegium examples on display were a great starting point as the first colour prints to be made from engravings of Joseph Banks’ collections on Cook’s first voyage. Miguel also revealed an array of beautiful plant and animal prints in the rare books room for Angus to examine in detail.


Inspired by his visit to the library, Angus has just made a new batch of ink, harvesting sap from a Sydney species of Angophora to make the gum that helps the ink bind with the paper. Modern ink makers use shop-bought Gum Arabic, sourced from the sap of exotic acacia trees. Creating high quality ink from local ingredients might take Angus a few more attempts as the current batch has showed signs of fading after a several days. His homemade eucalyptus charcoal pigment, while hand-ground over many hours in a mortar and pestle, has been clumping a little bit as well. The good news is that the prints have been losing their ‘fishy’ smell, after some time in the air, so he can stick to shark oil as the base for his ink.

Engraving and etching are time consuming techniques at the best of times, but even more so using natural and homemade ink recipes. The resulting representations of plant and animal features are perfect for scientists and art lovers alike; revealing texture, shape and patterns more wonderfully than any camera could capture.

Would you like to see how an etching is created? Check out this video to see Angus at work: 


Or visit his website for more art.

Wonderful rare and historical images and books are on display in the Red Box Gallery throughout the year. Stay tuned to our Social Media for upcoming information.

Shark Scented art Angus Fisher s painting work station

Shark Scented art Angus folio box

Shark Scented art How Angus makes the paint

Category: Science
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