It’s always struck me as one of the major miracles that there are substances that absorb all the colours of white light — except one. I’m talking about earth’s natural materials — the ancestors of the stuff in our colour-boxes — the brews that the first wizard-artists turned into art.
Take yellow. Traditionally, yellow has come from five main sources — mango, gamboge, orpiment, ochre and saffron. In the case of the mango bush, leaves from a certain area in India were force-fed and passed through the bladders of a certain type of cow before the urine-dyestuff could be harvested and exported in the name of Indian Yellow.
Gamboge, a corruption of the word Cambodia, first came from that country. It’s an extract from a tree Garcinia hanburyi, which, when raw, forms into dirty brownish balls like earwax. When touched with water or other medium it becomes a brilliant yellow.
Both gamboge and orpiment are full of arsenic. “There is no keeping company with orpiment,” warned Cennino Cennini, about 1390. Orpiment means “gold-like” — it fascinated Middle-Ages alchemists.
Ochre is an iron-oxide mineral found on every continent, but notably in Turkey, southern France, and at Sienna in Tuscany. While less brilliant than most other yellows, ochre is perhaps the earliest artists’ colour, and, to this day one of the more useful.
Among the yellows, saffron has the highest price-tag. Used in both cookery and art, saffron comes from the delicately harvested pollen on the tiny stamens of a purple crocus. Originating probably in Kashmir, saffron culture spread to Morocco, then Spain, and in the 16th century to a short-lived industry in and around Saffron Walden in England.
These days the pigment business is greatly synthetic. Colour-making represents the confluence of the art of chemistry and the chemistry of art. What we do with it is not too far removed from the day when some cave-dweller picked up a chunk of ochre and found that he could make his mark. “I have magic,” he or she must have thought.
PS: “There are painters who transform the sun into a yellow spot, but there are others, who, thanks to their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into the sun.” (Pablo Picasso)
Esoterica: For a fascinating artist’s odyssey, see Colour –Travels Through the Paintbox, by Victoria Finlay. A passionate and brilliantly curious young woman, Victoria, in one of many colour-seeking adventures, rickshaws out to the village of Monghyr, near Patna in Bihar State, India, to try to find why the ancient cows died young.
Books on colour origins
(RG note) Several artists asked this. The Victoria Finlay book mentioned above is a chatty yet persistent trip to the four corners of the world in search of the origins of color substances. It’s the type of book you could take along on a vacation. The traditional brief sourcebook is A Dictionary of Art Terms and Techniques, by Ralph Mayer. This handy reference book is pretty well a must for every studio. A source-book for the popular colours offered by the prominent colourmen is Ian Hepplewhite’s Artists’ Materials. Some basic color information is at The Quiller Gallery Artists asked if there would be more letters on the history of the different colours. There will be.
Cesar Girolamo, Padova, Italy
You missed out Naples Yellow. This is one of my favorite colours and I think it is very old. I use it as a substitute for white. Does it come from Naples?
(RG note) Naples yellow originated in Babylon — present day Iraq. It was used in ceramic tiles — some of which were recently stolen from the Baghdad Museum. It’s a pale yellow pigment made of calcined lead and antimony oxides. It was used by the Europeans in the 14th century. Cennino Cennini, mentioned in my letter, jumped to a few conclusions in his writing about the source of colours. He thought the pigment was a native earth from somewhere around Mount Vesuvius — which is near Naples. Modern Naples yellows are synthetic, but they still contain lead which can be dangerous to humans over long use.
Source of orpiment
Ian de W. Semple, Port Coquitlam, BC, Canada
Just a mild point of correction to your interesting notes concerning the earth yellows. While it is true that orpiment is indeed “full of arsenic”, it is not a “tree species” but rather a mineral: Arsenic trisulphide, As2S3, having a lemon(ish)-yellow colour and a resinous lustre.
(RG note) Thanks Ian. I stand corrected and the reference has been changed in the letter.
Bryan Dunleavy, Lower Swanwick, Southampton, UK
The story of how Indian Yellow was made is a “colourful” one and I have often repeated it, but after reading a book last year on Colour by Victoria Finlay, I decided to chuck that story out of my repertoire. Apparently the whole story rests upon a letter written in 1883 by a Mr Mukharji describing how the pigment was obtained. This is the story we know and love, but there is not a single piece of corroborating evidence anywhere. Victoria Finlay went to Monghyr, where Indian Yellow was purported to have originated. She found no folk memory, no written evidence, no record of the laws supposedly passed at the time to protect cows from this maltreatment. In short, the only evidence of the manufacture of Indian Yellow by the force feeding of cows with mango leaves is the letter from the aforesaid Mr Mukharji! Victoria Finlay’s book, Colour –Travels Through the Paintbox is a fascinating one.
Joy of yellow
Sherry Preston, Christina Lake, BC, Canada
Without color the world would be black and white and we would find sadness in the tones without the vividness of bright colors to bring things alive. Every color has its place and is valuable in its own way. I enjoy having vivid colors in my pieces, the brighter the better. I also find it always needs a balance, as one color can overpower another very quickly. To find the balance of color is a wonderful ability, something I work towards when I am creating a piece. Each piece has its own balance and one can find that if a painting is not balanced you can start to see the frustration and problems the artist had creating it. Yellow is such a wondrous color, the warmth of the sun.
Don’t erase the inexplicable
Kitty Wallis, Stuart, Virginia, USA
The “borinary” is to be avoided, by both the artist and the viewer, no argument. The incongruous sometimes happens when we paint honestly, when we don’t pretty it up or erase the inexplicable in our painting. Contriving the incongruous is another matter, done for the sake of relieving the boring piece. It even works occasionally using the welcome splat of contrast; boring momentarily relieved by the unexpected. We monkey-minded humans like contrast. I hope to hear, at least sometimes, from a higher function of my artist’s soul. I want to paint the mystery in plain sight. I want to be thrilled by the ordinary, to create a transfixing vision of reality.
(RG note) Kitty Wallis is the inventor of Kitty Wallis sanded paper for pastels.
Can’t find book
I went to Barnes and Noble to get the book (in which you were quoted) but they didn’t have it. It is the one about secrets of professional artists when designing their paintings. Where can it be found?
Painting oils on wood
I have been walking along the Glenmore reservoir which is very near to home and wondering why I’ve never painted here before — boring in the summer — exciting in the spring! The ice is varying shades of turquoise and an interesting pattern of cracks is developing. It is changing with the thaw on almost a daily basis. There’s no green anywhere, mostly greys, umbers and ochres with the rich darks of the spruce, almost black. There is so much to paint in this season I almost don’t know where to begin.
Regarding painting oils on wood, do you still paint the edges and backs of your “door-skin” panels? I’ve been painting on a good 4 or 5 ply birch and only coat the front with acrylic medium but not the back and edges. Is it necessary to do this to keep the wood from warping?
(RG note) I’m a believer in priming the back and edges of panels. This goes for all types of panels — wood, plywood, masonite, heavy cardboard. The backs need not be gessoed. They need to be sealed with something that will neutralize the natural bending that takes place when paint is put on the front. Acrylic medium is excellent for this. Shellac and well-thinned varnish are other possibilities. Edge sealing prevents moisture from getting in. It also discourages wood-eating beetles that exist in some climates. One never knows where works of art are going — so it’s a good idea to protect them for the future.
Projectors in drawing
As a developing artist, I have struggled with the use of image projectors by artists in the process of creating a painting. I am struck by the seeming contradiction of artists being critiqued and possibly rejected by jurors for faults in drawing in a piece, whereas many famous and professional artists seem to use projectors routinely to ‘assist’ them in their work. I can see that for large murals this is almost a necessary part of the process, and if the source of the image is an original painting then I see no ‘loss of purity’. The ‘grid’ method of moving from a sketch or a photograph may be a mechanism that is half-way between “freehand’ and projection, so maybe this is a matter of degree. My question is should I just forget about the principle that may be here, simplify my life and start projecting some of my images, or is there another, perhaps more purist view, to consider?
(RG note) Many artists who get awards for good drawing should really get an award for good projecting. But I say — it’s a tool, and a good one — go for it. But be aware there are pitfalls. Projector dependency brings the tendency of photographic verisimilitude rather than creative sensibility. Think of it this way — it is not always a matter of getting things “right.” Art has more to do with personal interpretation. Never underestimate the value of “Wonky.”
Helen Channen, Kingston, Ontario, Canada
I’m concerned with eyesight, sudden trauma, and an artist’s struggle to learn to cope, stay optimistic, hopeful, positive and, above all, creative. Would you know of others who may have formed, or are wishing to form, a support network around this issue? Also, is there any likelihood of your phrasing an article or one of your editorials around the question of that amazing sense, “sight”?
(RG note>) One of our subscribers, Janet Rasmussen, announced a while back that she had cancer. She has now been through operations, chemo and radiation, and has made up a loose-leaf binder of letters of encouragement and support that have come to her via The Painter’s Keys. Artists who write to this community and state a problem or a concern will often get letters from like-minded artists who want to share. The brotherhood and sisterhood is strong and willing. We know of at least two cases where artists have traveled long distances to meet, fall in love, and decided to get together. With regard to the marvelous sense of sight — there must be some sort of serendipity here — I’ve been thinking about this subject as a possibility for a letter for some time.
No mass production
Mary Mironoff, Bencia, California, USA
I haunt my email each week for your letter. Thank you for making it all worthwhile. So many times I need a “kick in the butt” to continue painting the pictures I want to paint rather than the salable ones the gallery thinks are necessary or in high demand. They, the gallery, finally realized that I am not Ford Motor Co. and do not do mass production. They saw that if they were selling pieces at a high rate “I needed time to produce My art at My rate.” Your letters have encouraged me to paint everyday and stress a little less. I enjoy painting and amazing others.
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