I was just thinking…………

………….well, actually, I wasn’t. I was reading. I’ve just been perusing one of my very favourite art bibles, ‘The Wilcox Guide to the Finest Watercolour Paints’ and since, for this month, I need to restrict my ramblings to one page, I think I’ll use it to share with you some of my findings. These juicy bits of information are nothing new of course, no ground -breaking discoveries here, but for those of us who are paint junkies, they’re manna!

When I feast my eyes on all those fat little tubes of paint in the art supplies shop, hanging invitingly like ripe fruit ready to pluck, I do, sometimes, spare a fleeting thought for the olden day painters. No wall-to-wall racks full of ready-made pigments for them! Good quality pigment was not cheap and was not readily available. There was very little sharing of information on the mysteries of mixing pigment and the techniques of lighting etc. A fifteen-year apprenticeship to a master was not uncommon if one had the dedication to succeed. Things have changed a bit, haven’t they!

The first material ever to be employed as a pigment is believed to have been soot from the cave man’s fire. We know this pigment today as Lamp Black. (I always wonder where the names of colours originated.)
Vine Black, valued by the medieval artists, was made by charring grape vines.

From the Middle Ages to the 1800’s the most expensive and treasured artists pigment was Genuine Ultramarine, derived by processing ground Lapis Lazuli.

Sepia was originally made from the dried ink sacs of cuttlefish or squid.

Many yellows were produced from fish, animal bile and gall stones. Genuine Indian Yellow was produced from concentrated cow’s urine.

The olden day artists have had a history of tragic early deaths and aside from the known suicides, we could be excused for thinking that such was their plight and fight for success that they really did starve! However, the truth was more likely that one of the pigments on their palette, Realgar, would have helped many an artist to his early grave. Realgar was an arsenic-based orange!

I have to stop now, so here’s my last bit of trivia. ‘Trying to add a little - um - body - to your masterpiece? Just reach for a dab of Mummy! Considered to be an ideal shading colour, this charming little pigment was produced - as the name suggests - from ground Egyptian mummies!


Lori Spencer