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!)