Painting Used To Be a Real Grind

It’s a good time to be an artist or designer. One can begin creating simply by opening up Photoshop or Illustrator and begin pushing pixels or vector paths. Need some paint or a few pencils? Just pop out to your local store and peruse their stock.

This beautiful but deadly yellow is made from tin and lead.

It wasn’t always so easy.

Before paint was mass-produced, artists had to mix their own. To keep things very simple, paint is pigment suspended in binder and filler. The pigment was usually finely ground material – minerals, plants, and often more exotic items. Browns, ochres, whites were all relatively easy colors to produce as clay and chalks were abundant. It was the more exotic colors – the blues, golds, greens – that were so difficult to produce because the ingredients were more rare. And because they were rare, they were reserved for special figures. (see my musing on the color blue )

WHERE these pigments came from is the subject of a recent book Atelier Éditions An Atlas of Rare and Familiar Colour. It examines the vials of pigment that the Harvard Art Museum collected starting in the early 20th century, to use in restoring or maintaining their own Italian art collection. Many of the materials used are no longer available, and in many cases, probably shouldn’t be. Take a look at these raw pigments , read Smithsonian Magazine’s great article on the collection and pigment history,  and then let’s discuss.

That large tube of green powder is labeled rokusho. In Japan, one form was used to patina patterns in knives. Another was ground up malachite (that beautiful green stone shown in the photo gallery). Take a look at that process at here.

That large yellow ball? “Watercolor Indian yellow” and manufactured from “the urine of cows or buffaloes that were bred on mango leaf diets.” Fortunately for the artist, the only negative factors in grinding up and using this pigment was the “ick factor.” Other pigments were deadly as they contained lead and arsenic. That gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “dying for one’s art.”

Consider also that every artist had their own recipe for manufacturing their paints. Certainly there were a lot of “standard issue” base paints. But it was the artist who explored with pigments and techniques that began to set his work apart from other artists.

Every time I read about early art techniques, I think back to Robertson Davies’ book “What’s Bred in the Bone.” Medieval art forgery is one of the book’s themes, and the steps that the forgers took (scraping paint off of unremarkable old paintings to reconstitute as new ‘old’ pigment for paint fascinate me. But again, it is also a great insight about what creating art was like prior to the availability of commercially produced materials.




Posted in Color, History