Category Archives: Color

A few books on the history of pigments and colors

Books on the history of pigments and colors
First of all, this is not an end-of-year book list, or a series of reviews, or even recommendations.

I just realized there seems to be a kind of mini-genre of books about the history of various pigments and colors, many of which are of interest in terms of artist’s pigments.

I haven’t read these, I’ve simply noticed them and selected a few that seem potentially relevant to artists. I’m only presenting them as a kind of FYI that they exist.

The capsule descriptions and reviews on Amazon should provide clues to those you might find interesting. Some are out of print, but appear to be available used.

Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story Of An Ancient Color Lost To History And Rediscovered, 2012; Baruch Sterman

A Red Like No Other: How Cochineal Colored the World, 2015, edited by Carmella Padilla and Barbara Anderson

A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire, 2006, by Amy Butler Greenfield

Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World, 2002, Simon Garfield

The Brilliant History of Color in Art, 2014, by Victoria Finlay

Color: A Natural History of the Palette, 2002, by Victoria Finlay

Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, 2003, by Phillip Ball

 
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A Revolution of the Palette at Norton Simon

A Revolution of the Palette: The First Synthetic Blues and their Impact on French Artists:

Though it had been slowing expanding over the centuries, the range of paint colors available to artists increased most dramatically in the 19th century, when a number of new synthetic pigments began to come into production, partly as a result of the industrial revolution.

Prior to that, new color discoveries were few and scattered, and the development of a significant new color could change the course of painting.

A Revolution of the Palette: The First Synthetic Blues and their Impact on French Artists” is an exhibition at the Norton Simon Museum in California that traces the development of one of the most important of these colors: Prussian Blue — a greenish blue addition to the palette that could be used more liberally than the artist’s other primary blues.

Smalt was a difficult to use blue pigment made from particles of glass containing cobalt, and Ultramarine Blue was an incredibly expensive color made from crushed semi-precious stone that could only be used sparingly. (The French Ultramarine we use today, beautiful though it may be, is an inexpensive synthetic version created in the 19th century.)

Conservator John Griswold, who curated the exhibit, tells the story of the discovery and impact of Prussian Blue in the beginning of the 18th century in an article on Zócalo: “The Accidental Color That Redirected Human Expression“.

There is also a podcast version of the story, accompanied by slides, on the museum’s site.

Unfortunately, the museum’s preview images gallery for the exhibit consists of an anemic little slideshow, not even bothering to link to the mentioned images in the museum’s online database.

I’ve taken the trouble to do that for you. Though I don’t see a comprehensive exhibition object list, here are the items shown in the preview (in the order shown above). Note that the images on the museum’s object pages are zoomable and the zooming window can be resized:

Canoe on the Yerres River, Gustave Caillebotte
Portrait of Theresa, Countess Kinsky, Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun
Sappho Recalled to Life by the Charm of Music, Louis Ducis
The Abduction of Psyche by Zephyrus to the Palace of Eros, Pierre-Paul Prud’hon
Baron Joseph-Pierre Vialetès de Mortarieu, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
The Seine at Charenton, Jean-Baptiste Armand Guillaumin

“A Revolution of the Palette” will be on display at the Norton Simon Museum until January 4, 2016.

(For more on the history of pigments, see my article on the ColourLex website.)

 
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ColourLex

ColourLex
Back in 2012, I wrote about a website called Pigments through the Ages; a resource about the history and nature of artist’s pigments. That site is 10 years old now, and as far as I know, is no longer being actively developed.

However, one of the original authors of that site, Juraj Lipscher, has created a new, more extensive and currently active site on the same subject, titled ColourLex.

The ColourLex site can be explored through multiple paths: by pigments, paintings, artists and periods, each with sub-paths. Pigments, for example, can be explored by type, color or first date of use.

Each pigment is then broken down by properties, sources, identification and history, and a gallery is provided of important paintings in which the pigment was prominently used.

Lipscher’s background is as a PhD in physical chemistry. He brings his experience in teaching and lecturing at the college level to the presentation of his fascination with the history of artists’ pigments.

New material is being added on an ongoing basis; the most recent additions of pigments and paintings are listed on the home page.

In addition, there are resources on paintings, painters, pigments and methods of scientific investigation of pigments used in historic paintings.

ColourLex is a fascinating resource, and a terrific crossover between art and science.

 
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The joys of a limited “three primary” palette

Limited three primary palette: Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Yellow Light
I was struck yesterday by a post on the blog of Jeffery Hayes about his experimentation with the limited palette recommended by Mark Carder in his method of learning to paint.

Hayes is a still life painter who uses a wide palette of up to 70 paints, and produces quite beautiful results from his choices. While not normally a fan of limited palettes, he tried this particular one at the suggestion of a friend, and was surprised at how flexible it was.

This prompted me to think about the palette I’ve been using, which is quite similar.

When I returned to painting after a long hiatus, I knew I wanted to use a limited palette, and set about researching which colors would be most advantageous.

What I eventually decided on was a palette of three colors, used as “primaries”, with the addition of one or two supplementary colors, depending on the intended use. (In choosing my palette, and for the purpose of this article, I put aside arguments about what “primary colors” actually are or are not, and I’ve used the term in quotes here to emphasize that.)

The basic colors I arrived at are: Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Yellow Light.

Like almost any oil painting palette, these are used along with white (usually Titanium or Titanium-Zinc).

I’ve found this is actually a very common limited palette, and/or the core of many palettes I’ve seen in which these three “primaries” are augmented with one or two additional colors (as Carder has added the Burnt Umber to compensate for the high value of the yellow).

Adding a bright, warm red like a cadmium or pyrrole red is common. Burnt Sienna is sometimes used in place of Carder’s Burnt Umber. Another common addition is Viridian, which mixes with Alizarin to produce a nice range of dark greens and reds, as well as making a pretty good chromatic black (as does Ultramarine Blue mixed with Burnt Umber, or the deep purple that can be mixed from Ultramarine Blue and Alizarin Crimson).

Kevin Macpherson, in his popular and well regarded books on painting, uses these three colors as primaries, supplemented with Cadmium Red Light and Phthalo Green.

I’ve seen these three colors on numerous supply lists for classes and recommended starter palettes for those learning to mix colors.

Some people have pointed out that there are “three primary” palettes that produce a wider gamut of colors (in which paints closer to cyan and magenta are used instead of blue and red), but gamut is not the only characteristic of paints relevant to artists. There are other factors like transparency, covering power, mixing strength, range of value and the ability in a limited palette to create strong mixing complementaries.

These three paints, when used as primaries, seem to work exceptionally well together.

Alizarin Crimson — while the subject of some controversy (and perhaps another post) — has a depth, richness and subtle characteristic in its undertone that is not found in other reds. Notably transparent, it makes a good glazing color and mixes well with other colors to create deep, transparent darks.

The controversy has to do with the debate over the lightfastness of Alizarin Crimson. Carder, and many other artists, use a “Permanent Alizarin” substitute. These are generally not Alizarin at all but quinacridone reds, essentially an “Alizarin Crimson Hue” — though why they aren’t labeled as such, I don’t know. While I personally prefer the real thing when painting in oils, I would not recommend genuine Alizarin Crimson in a watercolor version of this palette.

Ultramarine Blue (French Ultramarine) is beautiful and remarkably flexible. It’s warm and strong, but not overwhelming in mixes, where it excels in creating a broad array of colors. A touch of Cadmium Yellow Light brings it into the range of cool blues common for skies.

Cadmium Yellow Light (or Pale) is perhaps the strongest, clearest, “yellowest” yellow available to artists — almost neutral but slightly warm (depending on the manufacturer) and nicely opaque. Combined with Alizarin Crimson, it can produce a warmer red (though not as bright and warm as a Cadmium Red) and a surprisingly bright range of oranges and orange-yellows.

The bluish Alizarin Crimson and the reddish Ultramarine Blue combine to make a beautiful range of clear purples, either deep or bright with the addition of white. Clear purples are often difficult in limited palettes.

Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Yellow Light can create a wonderful array of greens for landscape, bright enough that most still have to be dulled down a bit with Alizarin so as not to be too high in chroma.

Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Yellow Light mixed for secondary colors

All three of these colors are strong in mixes, but not so strong as to overpower other colors. (Phthalocyanine pigments, for example, can sometimes be overwhelming in mixes and difficult to control.)

Like any palette based on three primaries, each pair of primary colors when mixed produces a secondary color that is the complementary color of the remaining primary. (e.g. blue and yellow make green, the complementary color of red.) Complementary colors can be used to heighten the vividness of a color by juxtaposition or reduce its chroma in mixtures.

While not “ideal complementaries” — colors directly opposite on the theoretical hue circle — these colors produce effective “mixing complementaries” — paints that have the desired effect of moving a color toward gray when mixed together.

The weak point of a palette consisting of just these three colors (while simultaneously one of its strengths) is the high value of the Cadmium Yellow Light, which lightens almost any mixture to which it is added. This is the reason a dark orange-red like Burnt Umber or Burnt Sienna is often added.

These three colors, as primaries, also form the basis of many common “split-primary” (or “color-bias”) palettes, which utilize a warm and cool version of each primary.

Those palettes usually add a cool yellow (often Cadmium Lemon), a cool blue (commonly Cerulean, or Cobalt, which is almost neutral) and a warm red (Cadmium Red Light, or a Pyrrole Red).

The core palette, however is Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Yellow Light — in common use, augmented with one or two supplementary colors like Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, Viridian or Cadmium Red.

Painters who are used to a larger palette, but want to experiment with a limited one like this, may find it helpful to mix piles of the secondary colors from the primaries on their palette before starting to paint. That way, in addition to the tube color red, blue and yellow, your set-out palette can contain mixed orange, purple and green — and, with a little additional mixing, some pretty good approximations (at least in hue) of earth colors like ochres and siennas. It’s surprising what a full palette you can create from these three colors. Adding an actual dark earth color, like Burnt Umber, extends it even more.

A limited, three or four color palette like this can have several advantages.

One, of course, is simplicity and expense. You only have to buy five tubes of paint (including white) to have a relatively complete and versatile palette. I do recommend, however, not skimping on the Cadmium Yellow Light by substituting a paint labeled “Cadmium Yellow Light Hue” (usually made from an Arylide Yellow), which will be much less satisfactory in this use.

It’s also a convenient palette for keeping things light and simple when packing for plein air painting.

A limited palette like this forces a kind of built-in color harmony, in that almost any color applied is likely to be a combination of two or three of the same tube colors.

This kind of palette is ideal for someone like me. My temperament is quite different from Hayes and others who find a very broad palette useful (which it certainly can be for having the widest range of clean, intense colors available).

I get overwhelmed with too many color choices, and much prefer to mix from a limited number of colors. When mixing a red and blue to make purple, I don’t have to decide which red or which blue to start with — that’s a given. My goal at this stage is to learn these few colors well, seeking a deeper understanding of how they work with each other in repeated application.

Artists who find a multitude of color choices confusing, are starting to learn color mixing, or are looking for a convenient, limited palette to carry into the field, may find these three colors, with one or two additions, a great place to start.

 
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Golden Virtual Paint Mixer

Golden Virtual Paint Mixer
Golden Artist Colors, the well known manufacturer of artists’ acrylic paints and related materials, has posted an interactive Virtual Paint Mixer on their website.

The module allows you to choose from their range of colors and assign three tube colors to the mixing tubes on the right (by dragging or selecting and clicking) and then by adjusting the distance of the tube tops from their tubes, interactively produce a mix of the chosen colors and percentages in the mixer area.

While onscreen computer simulations like this will always be less than accurate in comparison to the real color of paint (even if just due to the vagaries of computer systems and monitor calibration), the tool still strikes me as useful for playing with and thinking about colors and color combinations (in a way that doesn’t use up any paint).

You can store colors temporarily in boxes at the bottom and there is a drop-down under the swatches area that allows you to choose between their lines of colors. The color mixing swatch is accompanied by smaller swatches to to give an approximation of tints at various mixes of white.

You can also select a tab to choose an initial color from a gamut image or by numeric entry, and have the system find the closest mix by way of changing the paint color selections and percentages on the right. This feature strikes me as less useful, however, in that you would have to have a selection of all of their colors to use it.

The feature is new and Golden asks for feedback from users with the intention of making it better and more useful.

My thoughts were that the interface overall could be larger (the page could be considerably larger and still fit on an iPad screen), the select a color to be matched feature would be more useful you could limit the palette from which the colors are drawn (i.e. colors you have onhand) and, while I realize the addition of a fourth color would add considerable complexity, it would be nice to just have a fourth adjustable tube for white tints rather then the limited preset swatches.

It’s hard to say how far they might develop this, but it’s worth watching and participating with suggestions.

[Via Ben Stansfield]

 
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Pigments through the Ages

Pigments through the Ages
Pigments through the Ages is a web feature that explores artists’ pigments and their history in a series of brief, interconnected articles.

From the navigation at page top you can Choose a Pigment, though I found it more informative to Browse Colors, as that gives you an overview of the limited list of pigments included in the feature within that range.

From either page you can arrive at a detail page about an individual pigment and get some information about the pigment’s history, composition and method of production, as well as short glimpses of the pigment’s use by an artist or two.

There is also a timeline that marks time periods in which various pigments became available. I wish this feature were more complete and easier to use (you have to roll over a line in the chart to see the pigment name) as I think it’s a particularly interesting aspect of the way artists through history have worked with the color ranges available to them.

Though not the most in-depth resource, it’s nonetheless interesting and may pique your curiosity and prompt you to go looking for additional information.

Pigments through the Ages is part of the larger WebExhibits website, that also includes features on Color Vision and Art, an analysis of the investigation of Bellini’s Feast of the Gods, and a fairly extensive feature on Van Gogh’s Letters.

 
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