Availability of high-chroma colors?

I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about a limited palette, and what it means to me as an artist, and which colors I might choose. We are so used to having bright, saturated colors available to us from the art supply store – but I’m not convinced that they will always be there for us. Not all of them, at any rate. I still haven’t gotten around to making the final “pigment categories” post about synthetic organic pigments – I’ll do it soon, I promise – but the short scoop is that the synthetic organics are manufactured from hydrocarbons: petroleum and gas residue (called coal tar). Hydrocarbons are, obviously, a limited resource, as well as currently causing intolerable environmental problems for us. Sooner or later, hydrocarbon production will decrease, and when that happens, the colors currently made from them, and many other things, will begin to get more expensive.

Even the availability of some of the synthetic inorganic pigments I posted on a couple of weeks ago is not reliable in the long term. Cadmium, from which cadmium red, cadmium yellow and cadmium orange are made, is becoming a real problem environmentally – is it prudent for us to continue using it? Given the recent issues with cadmium content in children’s toys from China – well, this is the sort of thing that can lead to legislation. And cadmium is generally produced as a by-product of zinc production. Does that mean zinc white is out too? As it turns out, zinc production has its own slew of environmental issues associated with it. And what about the cobalts? These are just a few examples.

high chroma portrait painting

high chroma portrait painting

Thing is, I’ve become rather attached to these colors just lately too. The cerulean blue I was talking about last post is a color made from cobalt and tin. And just this week I’ve begun a new direction in my thinking about color in painting – using color temperature as a partial stand-in for value, and painting much higher-chroma than I ever did before. Here is my attempt from class (and with help from my instructor).

Obviously there’s a lot wrong with it… it’s my first real attempt at something like this. But artisticially, I like the direction it implies. And that’s got me thinking. Two hundred and fifty years ago, not one of the colors I used in this painting was available to artists. Are we certain they are going to be available into the indefinite future? Or, even if they are: at what price?

This is just an introduction; I have a lot more to post about these things. Suffice to say, for the moment, that I believe we occupy a marvelously rich moment in history, in the colors we use for our paintings as in so many other things. And as these colors do not stretch into the distant past, they also may not stretch into the distant future. Something to which most artists don’t give a moment’s thought, but it’s worth thinking about nevertheless. What colors are really sustainable, and which ones are unsustainable – and what will we do without them?


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