Pigment varieties – part II

portrait - ultramarine underpainting

portrait - ultramarine underpainting

In an earlier post were introduced two varieties of pigments, the natural inorganics and the natural organics. Third are the synthetic inorganic pigments. These are the human-made colored materials that contain no carbon atom, and are essentially artificial minerals and metals. In my opinion this group of pigments represents some of the greatest historical triumphs of colormen and alchemists through the ages. The earliest were Egyptian blue and Han blue and purple from China; then there is lead white and lead red; vermillion, verdigris, smalt, blue verditer, lead-tin yellow, cobalt blue, synthetic ultramarine, veridian, cadmium yellow, cadmium red, cerulean blue, and so on.

Some of these colors have been discontinued from the artist’s palette because of their great toxicity. Naples yellow genuine and vermillion genuine are made by only a few manufacturers now; lead white is still available in art supply stores but is generally only used by professional artists with a flair for tradition. Other synthetic inorganics, such as manganese blue, have fallen out of use because of economic or environmental considerations. Still others, such as ultramarine, are safe and made easily from common materials, and will probably be in use for quite a long time to come.

Ultramarine represents, for me, the greatest example of the triumph of the artificial synthesis of color. Not only in the fact that it is essentially chemically identical to the natural lapis lazuli (minus some impurities) – but it also took a breathtakingly expensive and difficult-to-obtain item and brought it within the reach of everyday artists. Processed lapis lazuli once traded its weight for gold – literally. Its use was identified in Europe first with the heavenly, and then with opulence. Now the synthetic variety can be bought in a tube for a few bucks. What was once one of the most expensive pigments you could buy (or more likely couldn’t buy) is now one of the cheapest. Despite my interest in natural pigments, I’m not overly interested in really expensive ones. I think art materials should be readily obtainable by artists, and the successful synthesis of ultramarine was a great step forward for the art world.

The example at the top of the page is a drawing and simple underpainting done in ultramarine by myself, from life, a couple of days ago. I’m unused to working in this way – normally I like to do a drawing and/or underpainting in natural burnt umber. This approach using ultramarine is one recommended by my teacher in order to allow the coolness of the blue to affect the layers of shadow color painted above. (I of course screwed it up a little by “erasing” the drawing too often, bluing the entire canvas.) This unfinished painting is relevant to this post in that a material must be common and inexpensive to be used in this way. The natural ultramarine of centuries past would never have been thrown onto the canvas only to be mostly covered up by the subsequent layers of the painting. To do so would have been outrageously extravagant, like painting opaquely over a gold ground. Today it is easy. Not only did the advances in synthetic organic pigments over the past couple of centuries expand the artist’s palette – they made possible entirely new ways of approaching a painting that would have been unthinkable before.

Smalt, a cobalt glass pigment, was indeed used in this way before the days of artificial ultramarine, but smalt does not have anywhere near the depth and saturation of ultramarine. Smalt needed to be darkened with burnt umber or another dark earth, which also would have desaturated the color and made for a quite different effect. In the painting above, the drawing was done with ultramarine alone.

The synthetic inorganic pigments that I have some experience making are various copper blues and greens, and mars yellow from iron sulfate. I’ll post about some of those later on. Next week we’ll see how this little painting turns out.

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2 Responses to “Pigment varieties – part II”

  1. Pigment categories – the blurry lines « Sunsikell Says:

    […] inorganic, natural organic, synthetic inorganic, and synthetic organic. (See the posts here, here and here.) The categories seem straightforward enough once you become familiar with them. However, […]

  2. What is a sustainable color? « Sunsikell Says:

    […] be collecting earths, and making lake pigments and a few synthetic inorganic pigments (definition here), for a long, long time to […]

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