Innovation & Enterprise


UCL artist finds art in coal mine muck

23 April 2018

Onya McCausland, a PhD graduate of the UCL Slade School of Fine Art, has created a series of new British Earth pigments derived from mine water treatment schemes across the UK.

Ochre wall installation at Slade Research Centre

The five new colours will be unveiled at a ground-breaking exhibition on Thursday 26 April in the UCL cloisters. Five Colours, Five Landscapes will display wall paintings featuring the five colours discovered by Onya. Each colour comes from mine water from treatment schemes in five former coalfields in Scotland, Lancashire, Yorkshire and South Wales.

Talking about the exhibition Onya says:

“Five wall paintings will be installed throughout the UCL cloisters as a series of monochromes inhabiting unexpected and related architectural spaces. The shapes of the wall spaces echo the large lagoons of waste iron oxide colours in their landscape context.

“The work requires an examination of materials from different perspectives, view points and across various scales. It’s not only about discovering new colours, but also considering alternative ways of perceiving them.

“These pigments and artworks have come into existence thanks to human activity. They're not only beautiful but also highlight the intricate relationship between humans and the way they exploit the local landscape. The mine water treatment schemes are the really important link between the colour, the material, and the place.”

The Five Colours, Five Landscapes exhibition, and future events, is the culmination of three years of work for the artist. On top of this great achievement, Onya's also celebrating being awarded a PhD from the UCL Slade School of Fine Art on the origins of earth colours and their contemporary significance in painting.

Developing the new pigments

Onya discovered the never-before captured pigments when she visited a number of the Coal Authority’s mine water treatment schemes at five former British coalfields. There are 75 of these schemes across the country, treating no fewer than 122 billion litres of water each year. This prevents 4,000 tonnes of iron solids entering and polluting local watercourses and drinking water aquifers.

As clean water leaves the treatment schemes and enters local watercourses, the waste product of iron solids is left behind. This is the ochre, or ferric oxy-hydroxide, substance Onya has been using to develop new pigments for use in commercial paint products.

“The colours form the basis for my studio painting,” says Onya. “These paintings are informed by the particular complexities of each colour from each landscape. The relationship between landscape and painting therefore develops through the common materiality of these complex human colours.”

Coal-laboration and commercialisation

As Onya was finishing her PhD in 2017, she began to see evidence for the implications of further research into the earthy colours she'd discovered. “I was fortunate enough to make contact with Dr Steven Schooling at UCL Business (UCLB) who saw this was a significant piece of research and was prepared to offer guidance and support, which he continues to do with total commitment and engagement,” says Onya.

Onya travelled the length and breadth of the UK collecting ochre samples to take back to the laboratory and her studio as part of her project. The striking differences between the new colours became apparent when she began painting with them. These nuances seem to be entirely down to the geographical location of their source.

“I applied to UCL Innovation & Enterprise’s Knowledge Exchange and Innovation Fund (KEIF) with Jo Volley the Deputy Director (Projects) at UCL Slade School of Fine Art, a move supported by Professor Susan Collins, Slade's Director. This funding helped develop a business case for the commercial potential of the research. This was a chance to integrate the discovery of a new cultural significance for ochre materials forming in ex coal mines with their potential as commercially available pigments by framing their emergence in the landscape as living artworks.”

In collaboration with UCL chemists and the Coal Authority, Onya has been carrying out a number of trials on the ochre substances. In order to explore the full potential of each colour, experiments have seen the substance milled, burned, examined under an electron microscope, and subjected to light fastness tests.

Onya and her fellow researchers received £23,200 in KEIF funding in order to undertake these commercial feasibility studies. Other activities included market assessments, prototype development for the extraction and preparation of materials, and the test production of pilot batches.

Cultural significance and next steps

The artist is also in the process of thrashing out a formal agreement with the Coal Authority that will mean the mine water treatment schemes producing the ochres can be promoted as public works of art in their own right.

If a deal is struck, it would mean Cuthill in West Lothian, Scotland; Deerplay in Bacup, Lancashire; Saltburn in East Yorkshire and two in South Wales - Six Bells and Tan-y-Garn - can become the first-ever functioning industrial sites to become public works of art. In turn, the sites and their unique colours will be recognised and acknowledged as part of Britain’s cultural, social and industrial history. “I want to highlight the paint as a new, significant cultural material and promote the site of its formation as equally important by defining it as a living artwork,” says Onya.

After signing a Heads of Terms agreement with UCL, the Coal Authority also pledged £116,000 towards providing technical support for the project until March 2018. This support paved the way for a commercial agreement and standalone joint venture between UCL and the Coal Authority.

In addition to all her achievements so far, Onya's also secured recognition from industry for the new paints she's developed. Manufacturers Winsor & Newton have given the new pigments the industry seal of approval saying the ochre-coloured materials compete in quality with artists’ paints currently available on the market.

The works will be on display in the UCL cloisters from Thursday 26 April at 9am.


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Image: Onya McCausland, Five Colours, Five Landscapes, 2018 © Onya McCausland and University College London. Photo by Anna Betts