I am going to be teaching a workshop this spring in which my students will copy a painting by an artist from centuries past. They will paint with watercolors, even though the original artist painted frescos or with tempera or oil, etc.
In preparation for this workshop I did some research into what pigments were available to artists in different times and found it rather fascinating. Here’s some things I learned that you might find interesting.
Very few pigments available now are the same as what the artists of old had. They are in general better, brighter, cleaner, less toxic and more lightfast – and cheaper.
Sources of earth pigments (ochres, umbers, siennas) of the quality and brilliance available to the Old Masters have for the most part been depleted. However, the new synthetic iron oxides, etc., have approached or surpassed what they had.
The “ancients” used what they had. And were eager to try out new pigments as they became available for the artist. However, many of the early non-earth yellow and red dye-pigments were quite toxic and would fade or change color (to brown) over time. The cadmiums developed in the 1870-1920s replaced many of these pigments on the artist’s palette, just as the Quinacridones are replacing the cadmiums today.
The greens in early paintings were either earth greens (greenish clays) or were mixes of yellow and blue. Depending on what pigments were used in the mix, these greens were susceptible to fading. (i.e.: indigo was quite fugitive).
Blue pigment was expensive. The best was Lapis Lazuli (color of Ultramarine) and was used sparingly until the late 1800s when synthetic Ultramarine was developed (in France, hence the term French Ultramarine). Other available blues did not have the staying power of Lapis/Ultramarine, such as Azurite (no longer made) or Indigo (the modern pigment is much more permanent).
Many of the brighter colors are more modern, being developed after the late 1800s. These new colors allowed for the bright colors of the impressionistic paintings.
Black: Ivory black is not from ivory, but from burnt bones (there is now no pigment made from burnt ivory).
I have discovered for myself some wonderful earth pigments and other colors that I wouldn’t have tried if it hadn’t been for looking more closely at artists’ paints of old. Here’s some I find I really like:
Earth reds: Venetian Red/Indian Red/Light Red. These are some lovely reds. Not real bright, but very useful, especially in landscapes. Diluted, the pigments work well for making flesh tones.
Earth green: The ancients used earth green (Terre Verte) as an under-painting for shading skin in portraits. I tried mixing it with Venetian Red and a little Yellow Ochre and discovered quite realistic flesh tones. Using the Terre Verte as a complement to mix darker value paint for shading and shaping face and hands looks quite realistic. (Better than the purple I’ve seen some use.)
Antwerp and Prussian Blues (1700s) They are beautiful, rich blues with a green bias. Lightfastness is of some concern, but not fugative.
Perylene Maroon, promoted as a substitute for the old, fugitive Alizarine, is a pleasing muted cool red, although a bit muddy compared to the real thing.
About black. I am using Ivory Black for the workshop because the Masters did use black for deepening value and I am trying to match their colors. But I am finding that I do not like it because it is so dull and “flat.” Perhaps in oil paint it is less flat. I found it helps to glaze mixed darks over the black. I continue to be convinced that mixed blacks are preferable to tube black.
I hope you found this interesting. There is a wealth of information on the internet, but the best resource I found was on the Dick Blick site. There is a pigment description and history of the pigment for every paint color they offer. You access the pigment information from the list of paints (Here’s the Winsor & Newton watercolors page – scroll down to see the list of paint colors http://www.dickblick.com/products/wi...s-watercolors/
Click on the item number and it will open the information pages. )