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Old 03-01-2010, 10:21 AM
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Painting with historic pigments

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).
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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.
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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. )
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Last edited by Surfinia : 03-01-2010 at 10:30 AM.
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Old 03-01-2010, 10:54 AM
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Re: Painting with historic pigments

Check out this book Color: A natural History of the Palette in the Book Reviews thread on the history of pigments.

Doug
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Old 03-01-2010, 01:00 PM
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Re: Painting with historic pigments

Yes, an EXCELLENT book, Yorky. I found it in our library and liked it so much I bought a copy for myself. Great information with brilliant photos (I very much like pictures in my books).

From reading this book I have a better understanding of how paints are made, and a lot about paint chemistry (written in an easy-to-understand manner). It was a little short on pigment history but did cover the major pigments.

For my workshop I was after dates of when pigments were introduced as artist paints and had to look other places for more complete information.
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Old 03-01-2010, 01:09 PM
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Re: Painting with historic pigments

I just did a Google for "when were paint pigments introduced" and ffound several links including "Pigments through the Ages".

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Old 03-01-2010, 01:20 PM
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Re: Painting with historic pigments

Very useful information Surfina Good luck for the workshop
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Old 03-01-2010, 01:54 PM
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Re: Painting with historic pigments

In my search on the internet, I found a retail outlet for earth pigments - for use in all kinds of paints like house paint, including artists pigments.

For those who think it would be fun to mix your own paints like the Masters did, this is the place to go. They provide instructions and any additional ingredients needed to mix artist paints of any medium, including watercolor.

Earth Pigments Company

The pictures of the range of earth pigments will blow your mind. I had no idea one could get so many colors from "dirt".
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Old 03-02-2010, 08:44 AM
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Re: Painting with historic pigments

If you are interested in pigments, this is the place to go:

http://kremerpigments.com/
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Old 03-04-2010, 11:03 PM
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Re: Painting with historic pigments

And if you find making your own paints a bit daunting, Natural Pigments has lots of lovely old-world colours to choose from.

I have several of the NP Rublev watercolour sets, and I do like them. However, some paints are a little *too* earthy... I have a pan of Vivianite will no longer release any colour, no matter what I do to it. (Soak it, poke at it, scrub it... ) Also, I have found the paints work best with a particular style - you need a direct approach with minimal fussing, as once on the paper, the paints do not handle being re-worked and disturbed very well. Anyway, I really enjoy the earth greens, Lazurite, and the Indian red is also quite lovely.

Thanks for the post, Surfinia, I have always had a special love for earth and historic pigments - to me they are especially lovely and soooo subtle after a session with my glorious Graham's.
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Old 03-05-2010, 07:27 AM
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Re: Painting with historic pigments

Laura, the Natural Pigment site is great. So many articles on artist paints, etc.
I'm very much tempted to purchase a small set of these historical pigments.

My exploration of this topic of what pigments(colors) were available at what periods in art history has shown me that one can produce excellent art without so many colors. We moderns get enamored by the color selection we now have and tend to forget that there's more to producing a successful painting than color. I tell my students that color is the least important aspect of a painting - composition and tonal values are much more important. Color is just the icing on the cake, so to speak.
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Old 03-05-2010, 09:12 AM
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Re: Painting with historic pigments

While not necessarily interested in painting with historic pigments, I've thoroughly enjoyed this thread and the links... it has made some wonderful reading... Thank you so much for sharing all this...

Oh... and I respectfully disagree about colour's unimportance... how we use all the beautiful choices we enjoy is just as important as value and composition...
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Old 03-05-2010, 01:53 PM
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Re: Painting with historic pigments

Quote:
Originally Posted by CharM
Oh... and I respectfully disagree about colour's unimportance...

Sorry, I retract my statement. I don't want this thread to digress into a debate.
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Old 03-07-2010, 11:18 AM
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Re: Painting with historic pigments

Surfina,

I think Earth pigments is a good site, and have beautiful earth pigments-however just becareful that you use the colors that have not been enhanced with other pigments such as pthalo blue. I know that they do this in some of their pigments and state it in their pigment composition. They sell pigments for all uses.

I've been making my own paints and using natural pigments for over 3 years now...wonderful results can be done with these pigments- venetian red is way different than the venetian red you get from synthetic iron oxides.
Even the cadmiums can't compare with the vermillion genuine as far as texture and looks.
If you have any questions, I'd be happy to help.

Natural pigments does not enhance their pigments as they speciallize in historic and natural pigments. This may be more ideal for your class.
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Old 03-07-2010, 11:18 AM
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Re: Painting with historic pigments

Surfina,

I think Earth pigments is a good site, and have beautiful earth pigments-however just becareful that you use the colors that have not been enhanced with other pigments such as pthalo blue. I know that they do this in some of their pigments and state it in their pigment composition. They sell pigments for all uses.

Natural pigments does not enhance their pigments as they speciallize in historic and natural pigments. This may be more ideal for your class.

I've been making my own paints and using natural earth pigments for over 3 years now...wonderful results can be done with these pigments- venetian red is way different than the venetian red you get from synthetic iron oxides.
Even the cadmiums can't compare with the vermillion genuine as far as texture and looks.
Williamsburg sells italian earth pigments that are exceptional though expensive.

www.webexhibits.com is a great source as well on thier pigments through the ages.

If you have any questions, I'd be happy to help.
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Last edited by rcollege : 03-07-2010 at 11:23 AM.
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Old 03-08-2010, 08:34 AM
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Re: Painting with historic pigments

Roger,
I'm curious about the vermillion genuine you use -does it fade? I've heard so much about it's being a fugitive pigment.

I'm not asking anyone in my workshop to purchase historic pigments, but am suggesting that they use a color palette similar to what their chosen artist had available to them. This means, for them, the best match color-wise. And also may mean a more limited palette than they are used to.
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Old 03-09-2010, 07:03 PM
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Re: Painting with historic pigments

I'm curious about vermilion, too. I ordered it in a set from NP this week, and am keen to see what it actually looks like compared to my cadmiums. The set I ordered also contains a chrome yellow.

In Hilary Page's Guide to Watercolor Paints, she shows one image of a vermilion sample gone brown, but she gives the paint two stars. I guess it doesn't fade away like alizarin (which gets one star), vermilion just goes dull. She does state that "modern-day vermilion is less stable and duller than the vermilions of medieval Europe".

rcollege: Does making your own paints allow for a more robust vermilion which fades/dulls less?
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