Have you ever wondered where the color in our paints, markers, colored pencils, etc come from?  They seem to appear by magic, through some modern technological process, neatly encased in tubes, ready to use.  What did artists do before artist colors were so readily available like this?

That's what I'm reading about in Victoria Finlay's book, Color: A Natural History of the Palette.  She explains how the Aboriginals rubbed water onto colored stones to turn them into clay that could be used as paint sticks; how brown ink was once made from the secretions of cuttlefish; how carmine red is made from the blood of insects; and how J.M.W. Turner used reds that would fade within weeks, so that his paintings we see today are only a shadow of what he intended them to be.  These are only a handful of the dozens of anecdotes included in her book... and I'm only half-way through!

Her book is an in-depth exploration of color. She examines how different cultures used, appreciated and even venerated certain colors, despite sometimes ill-effects (such as poisoning from lead white).  She details the lengths that people go through to obtain the secrets to certain colors.  She explains how before modern technology allowed us to easily buy reliable tubes of paint from art supply stores, artists had to rely on "colormen" who would create the artists' much-needed pigments, and how artists had to deal with dodgy batches, colors that would fade, or make them sick, etc. 

We are lucky these days that our colors are so reliable.  Art supplies are rigorously tested for longevity and reliability before they are made available for sale.  There are standards that paints must adhere to, in terms of lightfastness, health and safety, etc.  These standards protect us from getting sick from paints (when we use them properly), and also protect our paintings from premature fading (when treated correctly and displayed out of direct sunlight, etc).  There are also standard colors, so we know that each color will be consistent from tube to tube; for instance, the color from a tube of Liquitex Burnt Sienna will look just like the color from a different tube of Liquitex Burnt Sienna that we purchase a year later, etc.

Yet there is also something alluring - almost poetic - about the days when colors were not so trustworthy; when they were scarce, when artists had to grind the pigments themselves.  Finlay's book is a revealing exploration of those days, and a fun read for anyone interested in the history of color.


(That's one of my colorful abstract paintings above. As you can see I am a big fan of color!)

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Comment by Alan Minshull on August 26, 2011 at 6:23pm

Fantastic sounding book Thaneeya :) I must look out for that one on Amazon if its there.

Speaking of lead poisoning, did you know that Vincent Van Gogh used to paint with lead based paints, and often placed his paintbrushes in his mouth so he could swap them over quickly. Makes you think if this had something to do with him becoming very ill....

On the happier side of life:) Thanks Thaneeya for placing my post up, 'Being an Ocean Artist'. Gosh I owe you........


All my happiness


Comment by Louise Mead on August 26, 2011 at 6:53pm
That sounds really interesting.  I think we forget how lucky we are to be able to buy more paint in any colour we like.  I love your abstract works, I'm a huge colour addict.  It's medicine to me!
Comment by Thaneeya McArdle on August 27, 2011 at 11:47am

Thanks all - the book is indeed an interesting read, especially for color addicts! :) 

Yes, I've heard that van Gogh ingested some of his lead-based paint, which might have led to seizures. There's a good lesson there, in not sticking the end of your paintbrush in your mouth!  

Comment by Denise Mulligan on September 7, 2011 at 9:14pm

Sounds very interesting.  I'm so into color I will look up this book to read.

Thanks for the recommendation, good article.

Comment by Aditi Utekar on January 30, 2012 at 12:36am

Hey Thaneeya all this is so interesting..it inspires me to read the book..N lovely abstract must say!! very colorful..clearly portrays ur feelings about colors..


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