Making Color

Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay is a group of  digressive tales and fascinating anecdotes that together create a history of the colors that man has used. While bone black comes from animal bones despite some ghastly tales, brown was sometimes made with human remains, preferably that of mummies. White’s history tends to be deadly. Artists had many options to create white before the late arrival of titanium white, but tended to prefer poisonous lead white. Aside from being deadly (so thus not a very good choice for the white lead facepaint ladies of a certain era used), lead white also must be used correctly or it will turn black (as it has in some of the Dunhuang caves in China). Knowledge of how to create and properly use such paints have often been carefully guarded secrets, passed down from artist to apprentice and in families. Deceitful colormen would create and sell paints that looked good, but didn’t last. In fact, it is only recently that we expect paint colors to last. Perhaps that was on William Turner’s mind when he knowingly used paints that would fade, and refused to touch discolored works up when people brought them back only a few years later.

Early paintbox, early 1800s

Finlay also makes the interesting point that it is only recently, in the past 200 years or so, that artists have been divorced from the creation of the paints that they use. The ability to buy pre-made paint and the change in social status from craftsman to artist occurred around the same time, probably not conincedentally. I’ve only read about how humans originally sourced and created the pigments of ochre, black, brown, and white, and I’m totally hooked. I can’t wait to learn about the ‘real’ colors.

2 thoughts on “Making Color

  1. Oh – I just didn’t know that Ivory Black (Bone Black) is made from charred animal bones… It’ll be a totally different feeling next time I touch the Ivory Black tube…

  2. I don’t know if that is still true because the formulas for making colors have changes so much since the 1850s. But there is a great story about a shocked Englishman who, on learning the mummy’s brown was made of human remains, took those tubes of paint out into the backgarden for a decent Christian burial.

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