Color consists of many different components, each fulfilling a different function. There is the medium or vehicle that changes the properties of the paint, making it thicker or thinner or increasing its drying time. There is the solvent that can be added to prevent the formation of lumps and lumps. Last but not least, there are pigments that give the paint its opacity and, above all, color.
Today most artists use synthetic pigments. These are mass produced and made from acids, petroleum or other chemicals. However, this is only a more recent development. For most of art history, artists have had to use biological pigments derived from minerals or clay.
In general, biological pigments are much more difficult to obtain than synthetic ones. A prime example is the color blue, long coveted because it rarely occurs in nature. Another example is Tyrian Purple, a textile dye once used to dye the robes of Roman emperors. Its only source was the mucus secreted by species murex Shellfish that live off the coast of Tire. For 1.5 grams of dye, 12,000 shellfish had to be crushed.
Most art lovers are not interested in learning about pigments, which – like easels, brushes, or canvases – are mere tools and not nearly as meaningful as the masterpieces they helped create. In reality, however, pigments have had a massive impact on the course of art history. The discovery of new pigments dictated how painters arranged their palettes, as did the eventual loss of other pigments. The color itself also had a high symbolic power, often in connection with the manufacturing process.
“It’s important not to overlook this material side of painting,” said Lola Sanchez-Jauregui, curator at Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge hyperallergic in an article about the blue color called lapis lazuli. She added that “looking at these tools will help people approach the paintings from a new angle.”
Lapis Lazuli: a pigment derived from gemstone
Also known as ultramarine, lapis lazuli is a deep blue pigment made by grinding the gemstone of the same name into a soft powder. Human interest in stone goes back thousands of years. Already in the year 7570 BC. In the 4th century BC, members of the Indus Valley civilization incorporated lapis lazuli into their bracelets and arrowheads.
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It wasn’t long before people started using lapis lazuli in painting as well. In 2006, microscopic analysis of a Bronze Age mural from the Mycenaean city of Gla revealed that the pigment was mixed with red iron to produce an equally deep purple. Lapis lazuli became particularly popular in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when it was used to paint the robes of religious figures.
Limited supply and growing demand meant that the blue pigment was more precious than gold for a long time. The vast majority of lapis lazuli was quarried from a single location: the valley of the Kockha River in Badakhshan province in north-eastern Afghanistan. To this day, the stone plays an important role in both the local economy and politics, with illegal mining activities contributing to the rise of the Taliban in the late 1990s.
European painters valued the pigment for its colour, which is stronger and deeper than any other shade of blue on the market. Its inclusion could make a mediocre painting good and a good painting great. Many credit Johannes Vermeer for his continued success The girl with the pearl earring to the title bead, but the girl’s lapis lazuli turban, accented by the yellow of her dress, is just as intriguing. The use of lapis lazuli also compares the unnamed sitter to the Virgin Mary.
Vermeer diluted his pigment so it would not overpower the portrait. The same cannot be said of the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato, whose paintings The Virgin in Prayer shows lapis lazuli in all its glory. As Walter Benjamin argues in his essay “Art in the Age of Machine Reproduction”, ultramarine has a quality that has to be experienced first-hand and cannot be adequately conveyed through copies.
Grind mummies to turn them brown
Mummy Brown is a brown pigment made not by cutting gemstones but by Egyptian mummies. The pigment became popular in the 16th century when traders had established a well-oiled network for smuggling mummies into Europe. Human mummies provided the best pigments, although in their absence artists also made do with the mummified cats buried alongside their Egyptian owners.
The pigment was popular with both Renaissance painters and the Pre-Raphaelites, a reactionary movement that rejected the idealization of classical art in favor of a more naturalistic approach. Despite their differences, both groups valued mummy brown for the same reason: it was a highly transparent pigment that worked wonders for glazing canvases and painting shadows and skin tones.
In the 19th century, painters slowly fell in love with mummy brown. This development was driven by two developments, one financial and the other cultural. According to British chemist and painter Arthur Church, an Egyptian mummy could produce color for 20 years. Despite this, centuries of busy painting had meant that the number of mummies on the market had plummeted, driving up the price so much that most painters could no longer afford the pigment. The more artists learned about the origins of mummy brown, the less willing they were to use it, seeing the practice as destroying another country’s cultural heritage and desecrating a single human life.
For these reasons, the painter Edward Burne-Jones, who had long used the pigment to envelop his paintings in a warm, fantastical haze, is said to have buried his tube of mummy brown in the garden and never used it again. Painters can still buy mummy brown in stores today, although it’s now made synthetically – and is mummy in name only.
Another kind of expensive paint
Some people paid for their pigments with their lives instead of money. Painting used to be a dangerous profession as we now know that many of the paints contained toxic substances such as heavy metals. Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh died by shooting himself in the chest with a revolver while painting in a field. His tragic suicide was caused by a lifelong battle with a mental illness that some historians suggest may have been aggravated by lead poisoning, a condition whose symptoms—anaemia, abdominal pain, and seizures—the painter frequently displayed.
Like other artists of his day, van Gogh used paints high in lead, including lead carbonate and lead chromate. Unlike other artists of his time, van Gogh used this color in extremely large quantities, splashing paint on his canvas to create the vivid images we know him for today. It is also believed that Van Gogh habitually licked his brushes, making it likely that he contracted lead poisoning at some point in his life.
You don’t have to be a painter to get sick from pigments. Often just being in close proximity is enough to do the trick. Historians believe this may have been the case for French conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte, who, while imprisoned on the island of St. Helena, took long, hot baths in a room covered in Scheele’s green-pigmented wallpaper.
As one might assume, Scheele’s green is no longer used today because it is a health hazard. The pigment contains arsenic which can be inhaled as particles flake off. In addition, when exposed to moisture, for example in a bathroom, it can encourage the growth of a mold that produces the toxic and carcinogenic gas arsenic (which also contains arsenic). Napoleon died of stomach cancer, and a toxicology report later found that his hair follicles contained high levels of arsenic. Perhaps one of the world’s greatest military leaders was felled by wallpaper.