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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Ancient Art Supplies (Part 1)

Manufactured artists' supplies, probably from around 1900.
The next time you order your art supplies online, or drop into your local hobby emporium for a tube of titanium white, you might want to stop and ponder for a moment where artists of the past got what they needed to create their ancient masterpieces? Unless you're thinking of artists from the previous century or two, you can bet the names Grumbacher or Windsor Newton weren't stamped all over them. The former dates back only so far as 1905 while the latter was founded in 1832. Paint in tin tubes were invented by the English portrait artist, John Goffe Rand in 1841. Before that, artists kept their homemade paints in pig bladders or glass syringes. Artists, or their assistants, had to grind each pigment by hand, carefully mixing the binding oil in the proper proportions. Painting apprentices often knew more about chemistry than painting and drawing. Once paint in tubes began to be produced in bulk, the caps could be screwed back on and the paints preserved for future use, providing both flexibility and efficiency. This encouraged artists to begin painting outdoors. The manu-factured paints had a balanced consistency that the artist could thin with oil, turpentine, or other mediums. Paint in tubes also changed the way some artists approached painting. The artist, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, said, “Without tubes of paint, there would have been no Impressionism."

Cave painting reconstruction, Font-de-Gaume, (southwestern) France
Throughout recorded history, people have had the desire to decorate their living space. Naturally, paint and painting were crude during prehistory, but both evolved tremendously in the millennia that followed. The oldest reliable painted evidence is the burial of the dead with red ochre applied to the body. Some examples of this are almost 100,000 years ago among the Neanderthal. There are unproved claims of cave drawings in ochre and charcoal being as much as 60,000 years in some places including Australia. As early as 38,000 B.C., people used paint made from soot, earth, and animal fat to adorn the walls of their caves. The ancient Egyptian painters over the course of about three-thousand years, were known to have mixed ground glass or semiprecious stones, lead, earth, or animal blood with oil or fat. Clearly people have been making art for a long time.

West Bank Tomb of Sarenput II, Aswan, Egypt
Art demands wealth, power, monuments, and a corps of state or temple artists to feed a growing demand for industrial scale production of pigments. Malachite, a natural green copper ore was mined along with its blue variant called Azurite. Orpiment a poisonous and impermanent yellow was discovered. It's shortcomings were known, but it was also the only bright yellow known. The beautiful dark blue we know so well from Egyptian tombs was Blue Frit, also called Egyptian Blue. It was basically blue glass ground up as a pigment. Later, a green variety was also made. Gypsum and chalk sufficed for white. The common black was an early form of lamp black (soot) still used today. The only reds were natural earth minerals such as Red Earth and Cinnabar. Madder and Indigo were known at this time as dyes for textiles. It's uncertain whether they were used as artists pigments, but given the limited alternatives it would not be surprising if they were.

The Statue of Liberty is verdigris green. It's made of copper.
By the Roman period verdigris, an artificial copper green, and green earth were developed. Ivory black was made by burning ivory. White Lead (Flake White) came into use along with new yellows massicot and Naples yellow. Tyrian purple was made into a glazing pigment while burnt and raw forms of umber and sienna joined the artist's palette. A yellow red was used in the form of realgar, an arsenic compound that occurs naturally. Bright red was supplied by 'Dragons Blood', claimed by Roman historians to be the blood collected after the fighting of dragons and elephants. Surprisingly this very impermanent pigment was common until the 19th century by which time it had been discovered to really be the gum from a tree in Southeast Asia. The villagers who collected it surely had one of the most successful marketing campaigns in history. It is likely that dyes and plant extracts intended for textiles supplemented artists color ranges in many instances. With the exception of the blacks and earth tones, virtually all of these colors exhibited problems. Most were impermanent (or weak and coarse like blue frit), and those that weren't tended to be highly toxic.

Ye ole vermilion, white, and ultramarine.
With Medieval times came two important colors from Asia. In the 8th-century artificial vermilion was imported from China. Although poisonous, it was the first of today's powerful, bright, and yet permanent colors. The second equally bright and permanent color was a blue. At first no one in Europe knew what it was or where it came from, only that it arrived on Arab ships from "over seas," so it was termed "ultra marine." Pure ground Lapis Lazuli stone had been used for millennia but it was weak and not as useful as Egyptian blue. Many found it difficult to believe that the older Lazuline blue and the new ultramarine were from the same source, but gradually the knowledge of how to refine the blue from lapis spread through Europe. During the 12th-Century, the new rich, deep, and strong blue would revolutionize art. Later it was discovered that it came from Persia and Afghanistan.

Illustrated manuscript of
St. Matthew composing
his gospels, c. 800 AD.
The need to illustrate Bibles and decorate churches was largely res-ponsible for the survival of Roman methods of color production during the Renaissance. Despite this good for-tune, there were still major gaps in the color ranges of artists five-hundred years ago as to the permanence of colors. It is astounding that they could produce such brilliantly colored works with so few choices at hand. So many colors were either too expensive (as with blues), too impermanent (reds and yellows), or quite dangerously poisonous. Strangely, considering the huge artistic flow from this period, there were only two major pigment developments. Naples yellow was produced artificially for the first time and red lake was developed into a large range of beautiful colors. While the name seems to have often been loosely applied to various reds the name originated with just one color. These days we know this color as carmine in the studio and as cochineal (cockroaches) in the kitchen. It is derived from certain such insects in Central America and India. 'Red Lake', or just 'Lake' was the name given to this type of pigment.

In 1686, Richard Waller’s “Table of Physiological Colors Both Mixt and Simple" set the stage for a broad expansion of manufactured paints and pigments. As you can see, many of his pigments were not very permanent. This chart takes good eyesight and some translating from Elizabethan English.
The year 1704 marks the beginning of the revolutionary development of modern-day artists' colors. Prussian blue, a form of ferric cyanide came first. Some of these 18th-century discoveries proved short lived. Bremen blue was thought to be the perfect blue when invented, but it was almost immediately superseded by Cobalt blue. Turner's yellow came and went, to be supplanted by Cadmium Yellow. Prussian blue, though still available today, has largely been replaced by Pthalo Blue. The 19th-Century marked big changes for artists. New colors seemed to come along every four or five years. Cobalt blue arrived in 1802, cerulean in 1805, chromium green oxide along with Indian yellow arrived in 1809. The latter came from India and eventually people would find out that it was made by cruelty to cattle (force feeding on Mango leaves and collecting the urine to concentrate to make the pigment). It was soon banned. Cadmium Yellow, which came along in 1817 was better in any case. An artificial (and cheaper) ultramarine, zinc white, rose madder, viridian, and cobalt violet soon followed.

As lethal as a gunshot.
Nonetheless, there were mis-takes. Emerald green, a favorite of van Gogh, was found to be so poisonous it became a popular insecticide sold only in hardware stores as 'Paris Green' (right). Around 1800, a British merchant named Robert Ackermann may have operated the first art supply store. He also sold prints and books. He made his own water-colors as well as supplying pigments and recipes for those who wanted to make their own. Out of a list of 68 pigments he sold, less than 20 were perman-ent or non-poisonous.

20th-Century pigments Shop, Venice
The 20th-Century started with new high-performance organic pigments (the Hansa colors). They became a replacement for the poisonous vermilion (cadmium red) and the long awaited non-toxic, yet opaque titanium white. The pthalocyanines were discovered in 1935, and soon to follow were the quinacridones, and all the other laboratory products that would finally give the artist a wide range of beautiful permanent colors. Now the problem is no longer not enough choices, but too many, with some artists buying colors, not because they need them, but just because they are beautiful. So, the next time you get the urge to grind your own pigments, keep all this in mind.

It's only pigment, medium
and vehicle...


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