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04.07.2003

The Chemistry of Art

Last night's post got me thinking about pigments, and their curious history. Art historians (most of them) don't make a big fuss about pigments. I have my own, uncharitable theories about why this is so. But a lot of nineteenth century art would be unrecognizable if it hadn't been for some major advances in industrial chemistry. Odds are good we would be waxing poetic about Van Gogh's subtle use of pastel tints. Tonight I thought I'd give the nineteenth century chem geeks their due.

A lot of the information here is cribbed from the fantastic website called Pigments through the Ages. Visit!

First, the back story:

Prior to the 19th century, oil painters had a really great set of reds, browns, and earth tones to work with, a nice black, and a very good (albeit toxic) white. However, the blue situation was bad. There was a great blue paint available called ultramarine, but it cost a fortune. It was made from semi-precious gems, and it took multiple grindings to get it into a usable state. That made it a great status symbol for those who could afford it in their portraits, but not a good deal for the average landscape painter.

Yellows were borderline. Ochre had been around since antiquity (it's just rust), and you could use other pigments to paint a decent lemon, but that was about it. Certainly nothing you could slab around in thick layers to paint, say, a nice vase of sunflowers.

But still, yellow paled (ha ha) next to green. Green was a monster. The Old Masters basically had nothing to work with, other than a few spinachy earth tones. That's why you'll never see a Rembrandt called "King David on His Luxurious Spring Lawn, Eating a Salad". And things hadn't improved much by the start of the nineteenth century.

Then, wonderful things started to happen:

1786 - Indian Yellow. This was a beautiful, transparent and intense deep yellow, imported from India. A big improvement in the yellow arena. It went by the name "purée of India", probably because that sounded better than "boiled-down cow piss", which is what it was. There were a lot of sad cows, fed exclusively on mango leaves, pissing their days away to make this paint. The people who imported it didn't believe it either, for a long time, despite the smell.

1814 - Emerald green. This was the first Great Green Hope. On the plus side, it was actually green, and very brilliant. On the minus side, it was highly toxic, not a color found in nature, and you couldn't mix it with certain other paints, or it would turn black. "The arsenic content made it extremely poisonous and it was blamed for deaths when employed as a wallpaper color." But what can you do - it's green! [copper aceto-arsenite]

1818 - Cadmium yellow. The first really good, saturated yellow. Colorists would go on to make a bunch of other yellows, oranges and reds from cadmium compounds in the years to come, but this was the most important. Not widely available until 1840, as people fell over themselves trying to find more cadmium. [cadmium sulfide]

1828 - Synthetic ultramarine blue. An overnight sensation, similar to when aluminum went from being a precious metal to a household commodity. A contest resulted in a method for making ultramarine without having to grind up lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone. Suddenly artists had a good blue paint they didn't have to mortgage the house for. You can still buy ultramarine made from real lapis lazuli, if you are insane. [big mess of sulfur, sodium, aluminum, and silica]

1838 - Viridian. The Mother of All Greens. It was green! It was green! You could paint green things! It was cheap! It didn't turn black! It didn't kill you! Very big deal. [hydrated chromium oxide]

1841 - John Goffe Rand invents the toothpaste-style metal tube for packaging paint. This was a huge breakthrough for outdoor painting; prior to this point you had to shlep your paints around in a pig bladder with a tack in it, or else use a metal or glass syringe contraption that was awkward to handle. Now paints could be sold in easy-to-carry tubes, enabling painters to work outside the studio with far less hassle than ever before. Rand, of course, died penniless.

1858 - Magenta. Oh, you thought magenta had been around forever? Nope. Named after an Italian city; one of the first synthetic organic dyes. [aniline dye]

1860 - Cerulean blue ( invented in 1821) became widely available. Not to take any piss out of ultramarine, but cerulean blue was superb for painting skies, and landscape painters made the most of it. Another beautiful blue pigment. [cobalt and tin oxide]

So pop quiz - when did Impressionism kick in? Damn straight, the 1860's. They were just waiting on that last blue, you see.

It used to be that painting and the sciences were pretty tight with each other. Painters were interested in optics and color theory (including the psychology of perception), botanists and zoologists had to know how to draw, and the study of perspective required artists to have a solid grounding in geometry and mathematics. And of course to make your paints, you had to know your chemistry. Now we pretend that the arts and sciences are the opposite ends of a spectrum. Grumble grumble.

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