The Past is a Different Color
July 8, 2013 9:03 AM   Subscribe

I'm so sorry, but I read this as "colorful stories of obsolete penguins" and was pretty intrigued. Now that I'm actually in the article, this is really interesting. I was obsessed with the lapis lazuli/ultramarine color as a kid.

Still would like to see some info on those penguins, though...
posted by phunniemee at 9:09 AM on July 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

I think this is fantastic, and I love the fact that some of them were known to be dangerous, but stayed in use anyway. Thanks for posting!
posted by the_royal_we at 9:11 AM on July 8, 2013

So, what I'm not understanding is why couldn't some of these pigments (not the dangerous ones obviously or the ones requiring rare ingredients) be made now? Is it just laziness overcoming the nostalgia or is there more?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:17 AM on July 8, 2013

why couldn't some of these pigments (not the dangerous ones obviously or the ones requiring rare ingredients) be made now?

Quality? A lot of older colors were pretty fugitive and/or unstable (see the Verdigris entry). Also, I suppose there's pretty low demand for them, given that contemporary pigments offer greater quality at a lower cost. I suspect there's still a need for some of these pigments when it comes to restoration work.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:26 AM on July 8, 2013

Apparently cinnabar was thought to be a mix of dragon and elephant blood.

“[Elephants] have continual warre against Dragons, which desire their blood, because it is very cold: and therefore the Dragon lying awaite as the Elephant passeth by, windeth his taile, being of exceeding length, about the hinder legs of the Elephant, and when the Elephant waxeth faint, he falleth down on the serpent, being now full of blood, and with the poise of his body breaketh him: so that his owne blood with the blood of the Elephant runneth out of him mingled together, which being colde, is congealed into that substance which the Apothecaries call Sanguis Draconis, that is Dragons blood, otherwise called Cinnabaris.”

posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:29 AM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

why couldn't some of these pigments (not the dangerous ones obviously or the ones requiring rare ingredients) be made now?

The first two probably can. Both are based on the indigo molecule (whether extracted from the indigo plant or shellfish or various other sources). The Tyrian purple is brominated vs the normal plant-derived version.
posted by janell at 9:41 AM on July 8, 2013

I was going to paint my office in Mummy White, but looks like I'll have some trouble sourcing the materials to make the pigment. Off to askme.
posted by cjorgensen at 9:42 AM on July 8, 2013

It faded out of mainstream popularity around the 19th century, probably alongside the very much waning fascination with elephant vs. dragon battles.

I am curious about this supposed waning fascination. I would watch an elephant fight a dragon any time of the day! Especially with nerf weapons, so no one got hurt.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:48 AM on July 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've always been interested in Japanese woodblock prints, and there's a sub-genre known as Yokohama-e (literally, "Yokohama pictures"). Yokohama was one of the first places where foreigners gained a significant presence after Commodore Perry brought an end to Japan's closed-country period, and these pictures both feature foreign themes and often foreign-made aniline inks. They have lurid shades of purple and yellow you never see in older ukiyo-e. Here's an example.
posted by adamrice at 9:55 AM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some of the old toxic pigments and paints are still made (primarily, I think, for restorers and the institutions who employ them): for example White Lead, Orpiment, Cinnabar...
posted by misteraitch at 10:00 AM on July 8, 2013

The story about Kremer Pigmente found through the first link is quite interesting. It shows how some of these historic pigments are still sourced and used by artists and conservators today.
posted by cubby at 10:12 AM on July 8, 2013

Color by Victoria Finlay is a book I like to recommend to people who are interested in cool stories about how some pigments came to be used. It's roughly organized in oldest-to-newest order, too. She also wrote a book about jewels called Jewels.
posted by ersatzkat at 10:12 AM on July 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

Artists' paints are generally exempt from the laws restricting paint toxicity, so while there are non-toxic substitutes for most pigments, it's still possible to get the toxic ones at your local Michael's or whatever. You usually have to pay a little extra, though.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:16 AM on July 8, 2013

I read thru this and laughed, gently and sadly. Mostly because I have been known to grab the flake white tube on occasion and because I am still a slave to the highly toxic cadmium reds, oranges, and yellows. That doesn't count my ceramic work where I make use of uranium, manganese, bismuth, lye, hydro-chloric gas, sodium and cobalt on a regular basis.

(I do have a semi-funny story involving strip searches, cobalt glazes and airport radiation detectors...)

In short: In case you're worried that being an artist isn't still a romantically, deadly occupation, I can assure you not only that it is, but also that schools are not educating up-and-coming artists of the dangers of the materials they use on a daily basis.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 10:33 AM on July 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

Also a quick call out to Doerner's The Materials of the Artist, which got me into more trouble than I care to think about with all kinds of fun toxic things.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 10:38 AM on July 8, 2013

If you like this, Philip Ball once did a lecture for Big Ideas on the chemistry and history of pigments that is to this day one of my favorite lectures.
posted by gagoumot at 1:41 PM on July 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

The 10th Regiment of Foot: "So, what I'm not understanding is why couldn't some of these pigments (not the dangerous ones obviously or the ones requiring rare ingredients) be made now? Is it just laziness overcoming the nostalgia or is there more?"

I think it's mostly the expense. My MIL is an oil painter and some of her pigments are CRAZY expensive. Here's some run-of-the-mill oil paints, scroll down to look at the variation in prices based on what color you buy -- from $6.19 for burnt sienna (and other siennas and browns) to $26.19 for cerulean blue. If you click through a specific color and click on "pigment info" you can see what, specifically, they're made of, as well as the history of the pigment.

Anyway, I've flipped through some of her artist supply catalogs and some of the paints are CRAZY expensive. Traditional ultramarine (made from lapiz lazuli) runs around $400 for 10 g. of just the pigment. I'm endlessly fascinated by her catalogs, because it blew my mind the first time I flipped through and realized different colors of paints cost different amounts.

Kremer Pigments sells historical pigments (like traditional ultramarine), which are mostly for restorers or for people trying to add a "genuine" medieval gloss to a painting. But you can still get a lot of those old pigments -- they're just hella expensive. I think clicking here will show you Kremer's online store's selection of pigments sorted to show the most expensive first.


Here's some sample history of pigments from the Blick catalog mentioned above. Oil painters do a lot of chemistry. I hadn't known before I married into a painting family. They have to know all this chemical stuff to know what colors they'll get and how they'll interact and stuff.

Cerulean Blue is cobalt(II) stannate (CoO n SnO2). History: "This pigment was discovered in 1805 by Andreas Hopfner, but it was not widely available until introduced by Messrs. G. Rowney & Co. in England under the name coeruleum in 1860 for use in aquarelle and oil painting. It was produced by the action of heat on cobalt oxide and other metallic bases."

Here's another one, Green Earth: "Terre verte is French for green earth. It was discovered in antiquity, and its use has been traced to the Ajanta caves in India and a variety of Roman sites, including Pompeii. Green Earth was very popular for underpainting flesh tones in medieval paintings because this green was the compliment to pink on the medieval color wheel. Its use declined after the Renaissance. The natural supplies of the pigment are mostly depleted, and manufacturers currently duplicate the hue using mineral bases like Viridian, iron oxide, or chromium oxide, or artificial ceramic colorants. Pigments sold under this name can also be the result of mixing Sienna and Phthalo Green." It's made of "hydrated iron, magnesium, aluminum and potassium silicates" (K[(Al,FeIII),(FeII,Mg)](AlSi3,Si4)O10(OH)2).

Prussian Blue: ""The first of the modern pigments," Prussian Blue is the first artificial pigment with a known history. It was discovered by accident in 1704 by the Berlin color maker Heinrich Diesbach, who was trying to create a pigment with a red hue by mixing iron sulfate and potash. The potash Diesbach purchased from a local laboratory had been contaminated by animal oil and blood during previous experimentation. The resulting mixture yielded a very pale red that changed to purple and then deep blue when he tried to concentrate it. Since previous blue pigments came from lapis lazuli, an expensive stone, Diesbach’s discovery was extremely important for artists of the time." (ferric ferrocyanide/iron(III)-hexacyanoferrate(II) -- Fe7(CN)18(H2O)x or C6FeN6H4N)

Sorry for lack of subscripts, I'm not sure how to do them.

All those pages tell you the toxicity of the substances involved too (spoiler: they're often toxic).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:24 PM on July 8, 2013

I think the articles may have been taken down, which is a shame.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:28 PM on July 8, 2013

Eyebrows McGee: Make subscripts by enclosing the text between <sub> and <\sub> (subscript on, subscript off) to produce a result like this. You can also do superscript with "sup" instead of "sub" or small letters on the same line with "small". You can combinethem to make smaller super- or sub-scripts and even do it repeatedly to make a descending line of text.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:37 PM on July 8, 2013

Wow, this was great -- my artist ex was very hoardy about some of those toxic paints, but I had no idea about a lot of them. I don't know if my favorite is the cinnabar dragons vs. elephants story, or the Scheele's green one.

Thanks for sharing this.
posted by emcat8 at 4:47 PM on July 8, 2013

No, wait, my favorite is Mummy Brown -- paint made from mummies! Mummy paint! How can that not be the cooolest and weirdest?
posted by emcat8 at 4:54 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Pardon me, but can anyone tell me what those Mayan musicians are dressed as, on the right of the picture there? I followed the source link but I still can't find out. They're mighty eldritch.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:22 PM on July 8, 2013

Wow, looking at Eyebrows McGee's links, lapis lazuli is even more expensive than diamond powder! (Also: diamond powder? What is that used for? Is it like glitter for grown-ups?)
posted by lollusc at 6:09 PM on July 8, 2013

A quick Google search shows me I can get Lapis Lazuli stone for around $30 a pound and linseed oil for $20 a gallon and a quick search of YouTube videos shows me how-to. I'll see you all later I'm off to make a fortune in the "artisan" pigment market!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:17 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's for watercolor, generally, but I'm in love with the one-man labor of love that is

posted by sebastienbailard at 12:38 AM on July 9, 2013

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