Colors “straight from the tube”

Attitudes have certainly changed over the centuries regarding how we treat our colors when painting a picture, and much of the changing approaches are directly related to the questions of what pigments are available, and how expensive and difficult to procure they are. Much of what one reads and hears currently concerning color theory and ways of approaching a painting, other than color relationships, is concerned with mixtures of paint colors: Which colors will mix to produce a warm shadow, what mixture of colors will most accurately represent what I’m seeing here, and can I really get a good skin tone by mixing all these colors on my palette? This approach seems obvious to us – after all, one cannot accurately describe most real-world objects or scenes using paints straight from the tube, they are simply too bright and saturated. Most of the real world that we as artists are trying to depict falls into a much less saturated range. Concentrating on mixtures of colors generally seems to be the only reasonable approach, and so obvious it barely merits attention.

However, this approach was not always quite so obvious or accepted as it is to us today. There was a time when pigments were used much more often in pure, unmixed form in paintings – and this had much to do with a regard for pigments that was born of their scarcity and percieved inherent value. During the Middle Ages, when bright and purely intense colors delighted the eye to an extent not seen again until the twentieth century, mixtures of colors were used when necessary but were not considered ideal. Writes Daniel V. Thompson concerning mixed greens in medieval painting:

We are justified in believing that mixed greens were common in medieval painting; but we could easily allow ourselves to overstress their importance. In general, medieval painters did not much like to sink the individuality of their hard-gotten colours in complicated mixtures. Mixtures of more than two or three pigments were not popular, and there was a decided preference for achieving effects with single pigments, displaying their characters to the best advantage. (The materials and techniques of medieval painting, Daniel V. Thompson)

Mixing a color was sometimes even referred to as its “deflowering.” Some of this approach had to do, certainly, with a lesser necessity for complex mixtures, since medieval painting (to probably grossly oversimplify) had less to do with achieving realism than did painting in later periods. Complex mixtures are required in order to accurately describe natural light falling over the more or less desaturated forms of nature – but not to create an icon whose purpose is to inspire feelings of worship.

Much of this approach by medieval artists, however, had to do not only with the comparative de-emphasis of realism in their art, but also with the high regard in which pure, bright pigments were held in their time. Bright, permanent colors were scarce and generally expensive. If an artist has spent all day making a lake pigment himself, or purchased costly materials from over the sea, finally to attain a precious lovely color brighter than any to be found in readily available local materials, would it then make sense for that artist to be eager to quickly dull that color down in mixtures? As someone who has labored to manufacture a few lake pigments myself, I wouldn’t think so.

For various reasons, including the growing scarcity of basic materials, I expect many of our modern colors to become more expensive in the future – perhaps much more expensive. If this happens, I will be very curious to see if we artists of the twenty-first century develop more of a medieval attitude to the inherent value of pigments (among other things, perhaps to the dismay of modern relativist economists); and, in painting practice, the preservation of the purity of colors.


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