Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Exploring Grandfather's Paintbox - III

Chapter III


Grandfather had a sure eye for tone and colour. Astonishingly to me, even his early paintings show this ability and confidence. It was not until I myself resumed painting seriously that I began to appreciate just how good a landscape artist he was. A study of his paintings reveals a wealth of the subtle greens and golds, misty blues and purples so typical of the English landscape. He understood the light. Look carefully at any of his paintings and you can see the time of day, and the season of the year. He was not shy to use warm tones of orange and ochre in the foreground to evoke a hot summer day. Long shadows, salmon tinged clouds and purple haze bring to life a late afternoon in the meadows. Yet the colours in his scenes are always harmonious, never garish, the shades gently muted as they are in life in the higher latitudes of temperate northern Europe. In those days before the advent of universal (now virtually free) colour photography it cannot have been easy to capture the moment. Both observation and memory would have to be practiced and honed. In the old days I myself used to do a quick pencil sketch of a scene and cover it with scribbled notes as to hue and tone. Now I take a dozen reference photos instead, but I’m not sure that is better.

So let us talk about colour. In Grandpa’s paintbox are twenty-seven old tubes of paint. These are in three different sizes, all fairly small compared with those commonly sold today. The lead tubes are either two, three or four inches long, and have a uniform diameter of approximately half an inch. The smallest weighs about twelve grams or half an ounce when full, the next about 18 grams, and the largest perhaps 25 grams. At a guess, the tubes hold about 5ml, 10ml and 15ml respectively.
I decided to see if I could sample each of the paints and make a colour chart. I did ultimately manage to accomplish this (Grandfather’s Paint Colours), but it was a lot easier said than done. Naturally, after a lapse of seventy years, the tubes would be a little reluctant to yield their secrets. Surprisingly, some did actually open for me without resistance, but most of the caps needed very careful but firm persuasion before they would unscrew. I devised a method of gripping the tube in a curve-jawed visegrip after first wrapping the body of the tube in several layers of cloth. Then I used a pair of small pliers to unscrew the cap. That worked in a lot of instances, but some tubes were so fragile that they started to tear apart under the twisting strain. In these cases, and in those where I found the paint to be hardened to the point where it wouldn’t squeeze out, I sampled the paint by drilling into the tube (when possible through the neck) with a 9/64” twist bit. This gave me a paint sample in the threads of the drill bit. In cases where the paint was really hard I would then grind the paint in turpentine on a ceramic palette using a round-headed siding nail. In a few cases, the paint seemed quite miraculously fresh, only the label betraying the signs of age. Ultimately I was able to retrieve pigment from every tube. Virtually every colour seems to me still to demonstrate the original hue, with one exception – I am not sure whether perhaps the Aureolin has changed colour over the years. This is not a colour I am familiar with, but I did not expect it to show as such a muddy greenish yellow.

The colours I found in the box make an interesting list. Many of the labels have names I have never encountered before. This is not surprising. With the great strides in chemistry over the last decades there have been concomitant huge developments in the pigments offered to artists. Perhaps the pace has been especially rapid because so many paints used in the past were based on highly toxic compounds. Others were made from rare and expensive substances like the semi-precious stone Lapis lazuli .

I went to the Web to look up some of the unfamiliar names. After many hours of research I found what is (to me) the single best resource for this task of investigating obsolete artists’ colours. That source is “Field’s Chromatography”, edited by Thomas Salter. This treatise was apparently first published in Paris around 1830, then revised and published in English in 1869. I will refer to it below simply as ‘Salter’. It is available freely in its entirety as an ‘e-book’ , courtesy of the Gutenberg Project. What a gift! I also came across the modern equivalent entitled ‘The Pigment Compendium’ by Nicholas Eastaugh et al. The Web provided excerpts only of that one. Both these books are available, but the price of the second one might give a bit of a shock!

But before I discovered 'Salter’ I had already dug up a lot of information, often contradictory. For instance, I started my search by looking up ‘Veronese Green’. -

Veronese Green. What a nice, earthy natural sounding Italian name, I thought. On the very first page studied I found – ‘Veronese Green: Brighter and bluer than Cadmium Green. Favored by the French Impressionists. The original, no longer made, was arsenic based and very toxic.’ (source: O... K….so we know why that one is no longer on the charts! But here I went down the wrong path and confused myself, by jumping to the erroneous conclusion that Verona Green was the same thing as Veronese Green. Not so. Verona Green, otherwise known as Terre Verte, or ‘Green Earth’ - ‘ is collected by mining. The most famous and "best" deposit of terre verte could be found near Verona, Italy, and this mine was functional until World War II’. Here is another interesting web page :
Here we are told that this pigment is composed of celadonite and glauconite. Both of these minerals are of the mica group. Terre Verte, the natural earth is still available as an oil and watercolour pigment. Winsor and Newton list their Terre Verte as being– Hydrated Chromium Oxide. So Veronese Green and Verona Green (Terre Verte) are quite different in both colour and composition. The latter is a weak earth colour, a lot less vivid than the Veronese Green discovered in Grandfather’s paintbox, which is close to Viridian, as mentioned in ‘Salter’. - (Veronese Green) or French Veronese Green, is a comparatively recent introduction, similar in colour and general properties to the following (referring to Viridian); beside which, however, it appears dull, muddy, and impure. It is often adulterated with arsenic to an enormous extent, which interferes with its transparency,mars its beauty, and renders it of course rankly poisonous.”

I guess I need a chemist to tell me if I have the arsenic variety!

This detective work begins to take a grip on you. There is a certain fascination in finding a way through all the leads, some false, to arrive at a firm and correct understanding of a pigment; something which you would expect to be simple and straightforward but often turns out exceedingly complicated and perhaps with no firm resolution at all!

The next colour I researched proved more tractable. In this case, ‘Salter’ was no help, as the pigment was only discovered in the twentieth century:
Monastral Blue:
‘A final example (of a serendipitous discovery) occurred in 1928 in Scotland. A.G. Dandridge was operating a chemical plant that produced phthalimide from ammonia and molten phthalic anhydride. Since the temperatures were quite high, the reaction was performed in a large iron sealed container. Dandridge noticed some strange blue crystals on the cover and sides of the container and was curious enough to collect some for examination. he discovered that they resulted from a reaction between the iron container and the contents. Further study found the chemical structure of the pigments and he named them phthalcyanines. By substituting copper for iron, he produced an even better pigment called 'monastral blue'. This family of pigments, which have resulted in over thirty patents, have become some of the most valuable coloring materials for paints, lacquers and printing inks.’ (source: The Bakken Library []}.

That colour then, was a brand new invention at the time my grandfather was painting.

Next I tracked the Vermilions. Winsor & Newton list Vermilion as - ‘Obsolete’ and now offer ‘Vermilion Hue’. I should dearly love to quote ‘Salter’ at full length on this one, but if I start to do that this blog will end up as a book, and mostly plagiarized at that; but I cannot resist giving you his closing paragraph on the colour:

‘ … vermilion is not so much adulterated as it once was; although, even now, brickdust, orpiment, &c. sometimes sophisticate it. The knavish practices to which the pigment has been subjected, have acquired it an ill-fame both with authors and artists. Vermilion has been charged with fading in the light, and with being blackened by impure air; but it was the custom to crimson the colour by means of lake, or tone it to a scarlet hue by red lead. With pigments as with persons, evil communications corrupt good manners—a motto that might be written with advantage on every palette.’

Scarlet Vermilion: is (technically) the compound Mercury Sulphide (HgS). We all know nowadays that mercury is bad news, so no wonder I cannot find it offered as an artist’s colour.
‘Salter’ says: Resembles the preceding (Vermilion) in all respects, except in being more scarlet in its tint, and washing better; advantages which render it more useful when the tone is required to be very bright and pure. At one time, the Dutch alone in Europe possessed the secret of giving to vermilion a rich scarlet colour.

Prussian Brown sounded interesting - ‘Prussian brown is a good and permanent colour made by calcining Prussian blue. It is a very transparent iron brown of a yellowish hue. An-other form of Prussian brown is prepared from a solution of blue copperas added to a solution of yellow prussiate of potash. This is a copper brown’:
I found a very pretty story about how to make Prussian Brown on the website -
‘According to Bouvier, a colour similar to that of bistre, and rivallingasphaltum in transparency, is produced by partially charring amoderately dark Prussian blue; neither one too intense, which gives aheavy and opaque brownish-red, nor one too aluminous and bright, whichyields a feeble and yellowish tint. Yielding to a rapture we cannotwholly share, he describes its qualities in the warmest terms. In hisopinion, it has the combined advantages of asphaltum, mummy, and rawSienna, without their drawbacks. "I cannot," he says, "commend toohighly the use of this charming bistre-tint: it is as beautiful and goodin water as in oil, perfectly transparent, of a most harmonious tone,and dries better than any other colour suitable for glazing. Closelyresembling asphaltum in tint as well as in transparency, this brown ispreferable to it in every point of view." As the colour is very quicklyand easily obtained, the artist can judge for himself of its propervalue. M. Bouvier's process is, to place upon a clear fire a large ironspoon, into which, when red hot, some pieces of the Prussian blue areput about the size of a small nut: these soon begin to crackle, andthrow off scales in proportion as they grow hot. The spoon is thenremoved, and allowed to cool: if suffered to remain too long on thefire, the right colour will not be produced. When the product is crushedsmall, some of it will be found blackish, and the rest of a yellowishbrown: this is quite as it should be. Chemically, the result is amixture of oxide of iron and partly undecomposed or carbonisedprussiate’.
Doesn’t that sound like fun?

Bouvier, cited above, was I believe the original French author (or originator) in about 1827 of the work later translated as ‘Field’s Chromatography’. On p.310 of ‘The Pigment Compendium’ by Nicholas Eastaugh et al. there are a number of instructions and directions given for how to make Prussian Brown, with references ranging from 1827 to 1906.

Ultra. Ash #2. This little tube intrigued me because, in brackets, it said ‘Lapis lazuli’., which is a semi-precious stone. ‘’ says Ultramarine Ash is ‘The residue of lapis lazuli after the ultramarine has been extracted; used as a pigment in paints’. Emma Pearce, in her book ‘Artists’ Materials’ says only that this is ‘poor quality Lapis lazuli’. The sample I recovered from the tube (see chart), proved to be a grey of a slightly greenish-blue cast; quite interesting, and different from anything I can see on the W&N chart today. The ‘’ says –

‘(Paint.) a pigment which is the residuum of lapis lazuli after the ultramarine has been extracted. It was used by the old masters as a middle or neutral tint for flesh, skies, and draperies, being of a purer and tenderer gray than that produced by the mixture of more positive colors.
- Fairholt
‘Salter’ gives an even more poetic description of this colour.

Fascinating. So lastly, I searched for - Mineral Gray, since that also stated on the label that it was ‘Lapis lazuli’.

Mineral Gray which turns out to be an even lower derivative of the stone, obtained after all the blue and ash have been worked out. The sample I have shows a purely neutral grey. So much for the rare and expensive substance! Last of all the unfamiliar colours, I came to -

Verona Brown
‘a pigment peculiar to oil painting, is a native ferruginous earth. A citrine brown of great service in tender drab greens, it forms with terre verte and the madder lakes rich autumnal tints of much beauty and permanence’ – Salter.

In addition to the archaic colours investigated above, Grandfather had the following tubes, which are mostly more familiar:

Antwerp Blue
Burnt Umber
Cadmium Green
Cerulean Blue
Charcoal Gray
Cobalt Magenta
Cobalt Violet
Extra Madder Carmine
French Ultramarine
Indian Red
Ivory Black
Purple Madder
Raw Sienna
Raw Umber
Rose Madder
Venetian Red

I find the total selection provokes some questions. Why such depth in the range of Madders and Browns? Two Verona Browns?, plus Raw Umber which is oh, so similar? and yet another (unlabelled) Mid Brown? What with the Cobalt Violet, the Cobalt Magenta and the three Madders, there are no less than five hues in the red-purple range. But the selection was thin in the blue section. No Cobalt Blue? For me that is an absolute must! How was it that he bought no less than three very close orange/scarlets? Why no yellows apart from the Aureolin? No Yellow Ochre? No Chrome or Cadmium Yellow? Grandfather certainly used plenty of this type of hue in his paintings, so perhaps he had just run out. And there were no whites either.

From my exploration of these colours and their history on the Web I learned some interesting things about the development and use of pigments. Moreover, it really brought home to me what a hugely valuable resource we have now at our fingertips on the Internet. Rare books, documents and studies from scientists and libraries around the world. How marvelous that we live in a new age of enlightenment, where such previously arcane knowledge is now freely available to all.


B2-kun said...

Quite an interesting chronicle of your family heirloom and pigment sleuthing made for a fairly entertaining read. At least for "art supplies" geeks such as myself. Regards

DCG said...

It's a fascinating history of pigments you have collected, Andrew. In particular, I was struck by the story of Verona Green composed of minerals are of the mica group. It cannot be only coincidence that has the closest town to where we live, named Verona. During the late 1800's and early 1900's this part of Ontario earned its keep from Mica mining. Now I must go and see if I can dig up some of the pigment locally!

Andrew said...

Thanks B2-kun. I too find I just love art materials for their own sake. The problem is, you end up buying stuff on impulse that you may not get around to using for years!

DCG - That tie-in of place name to the local original industry is fascinating. If you find any Terre Verte, send me a lump! Let's see if we can make paint.