Discovering Color

I am obsessed with Color. For me, it began in 1988 when I was five years old and used crayons for the first time. Crayons on top of an assortment of bright, vivid, richly colored construction paper. I was also a thief. 

Return to Childhood by KD Neeley

I was in Ms. Irene's Kindergarten class at Corales Elementary School. I wanted to do an experiment but I didn't know that word yet. I was afraid that if I asked, the answer would be no.

I snuck over to the drawers where she kept the art supplies and, as quickly as I could,  I began taking one of each color of the crayons in the bottom drawer, and I reached up into the top drawer which was above my head, but the drawer was transparent and I could tell the construction paper was in there. I pulled out a pile and snuck it into my backpack.

It was a strange and new feeling, guilt coupled with an addicting excitement. I had the supplies I needed to try something out.

I took one of each color of construction paper and folded it in half, then put the folded papers all together to create a little book. I brought this over to the stapler and stapled my book together by putting three staples into the seam. Then it was time to go home.

When I got home I was very excited because I had the colors I needed to learn what I wanted to know. I taught myself what yellow looked like over red paper, how white and pink and bright green shouted out when I drew them onto black paper, and how the colors were affected by each other as I filled each page of my book with the different colored crayons. I tried everything I could think of and I was mesmerized by the entire process.

I made more books this way before I was finally caught by Ms. Irene. She picked up my books and looked through them. She wasn't angry,  but Ms. Irene never got angry. Just because she wasn't angry didn't mean you weren't in big trouble. I knew that how I had obtained my art supplies was wrong. 

Back then, in Corales, our teachers used to visit with our parents at our homes. I remember Parent-Teacher Conference day when Ms. Irene was walking up to the trailer where I lived. I went to my room and sat on my bed, I thought I was going to be in big trouble. But a spanking never came. Instead, when I saw my mother, she gave me a gift. She gave me my first box of crayons and a coloring book!

By not punishing me, Ms. Irene and my mother had allowed me to feel that what I had done with those colors was indeed something very special and that I was something they called "an artist". It was the first thing I ever believed about myself.

100,000 years ago, someone very much like myself, filled abalone shells with ochre and charcoal. I imagine that whatever they made, they must have been just as excited as I was. These remains have been found as some of the earliest art supplies we know about, in the Blambose Cave in South Africa.

I think that early artists were more ambitious than I was because they mixed their own paints. They produced their paints by mixing ochres, ashes, charcoal, or bat guano (and who knows what else) with urine, saliva, or animal fats. Then they applied their paint mixture with their fingers or perhaps created something we can call a brush. And some genius figured out that the mixture could be blown through hallow animal bones like an ancient airbrush. Paleolithic cave paintings are filled with humans and animals made with ochres, calcite, charcoal, hematite, and manganese oxide. Cave painters of the Lascaux Cave 25,000 years ago made a 25-mile trek to the source of their ochres.

>Cave Bull by KD Neeley

In Egypt, we find some of the earliest binding agents. They used egg, resin, and beeswax in their mixtures so that the paint would adhere to the plaster that covered their limestone structures. King Tut was buried with a paint box that contained powdered malachite, orpiment, and red ochre.

The durability of artwork was increased by the Minoans, who developed a technique for frescoes by painting onto lime plaster while it was still wet. Some of the earliest encaustics were created by the Greeks, who used beeswax for images that have lasted for centuries. Red Vermillion mined in Spain, was used by the Romans who borrowed Egyptian and Greek pigments in their work.

The Mediterranean region contains artwork that features dyes made from plants. Saffron, turmeric, and pomegranate rind created a yellow, indigo made a dark blue, and Madder created red. These early primary colors were also used to mix other colors.

The Philosopher by KD Neeley

In the Middle Ages, a new color was introduced! It was Ultramarine, a name which means "From beyond the seas". It was derived from expensive lapis lazuli mined in Afghanistan. Pigments were mixed with water and egg and glazed in thin layers to prevent cracking. These transparent layers of egg tempera work together to generate a very finished appearance.

Then there is the Renaissance! Oil painting was first introduced, in which the pigment is mixed with walnut or linseed oil instead of egg. The transparent walnut and linseed oil harden, holding the pigment in place and carrying the light through the painting, making it glow! These rich, deep, luminous colors created breathtaking works of art that had beautiful, soft, buttery blending more akin to reality. To begin the process on the canvas, we dug into the Earth for natural mineral pigments that could be shaped into sticks and used for drawing.

Artists and alchemists used to develop their own secret recipes for their paints and it isn't known just how much more we could have learned and developed sooner had they been willing to share that knowledge. Watercolors came to the West in the late 1400s when artists still had to formulate and grind their own paint.

In 1661, Robert Boyle of Oxford published 'The Skeptical Chemyst' which distinguished between Chemists and Alchemists. This is said to be the beginning of chemistry, and since then chemists have worked to develop and understand the substances that make up our world and some began research into the production of synthetic paint colors. In the early 1700s, Prussian Blue was accidentally discovered by a chemist who was trying to make a red. New chemical processes began to drive the cost of color down.

Paint Cakes

In the 18th Century, paints were finally manufactured specifically for artists. These pre-mixed paint cakes were sold by Colourmen and came in pig's bladders before the paints were made available in syringes like grease guns. Old Watercolor paints had to be broken into usable pieces and ground up in water to be used. In 1766 William Reeves set up shop and manufactured the first water-soluble dry cake colors. It wasn't until 1800 that you could buy oil paint in tin tubes.

In 1826 a synthetic ultramarine was finally created.  In 1867, Sherwin-Williams manufactured and sold the first pre-mixed wall paints. Before that, we had to mix our own wall paint colors using powdered pigment. 
By the end of the 19th Century, nearly any color could be obtained for a respectively low price.  Polymer-based Acrylic paint was invented in the 1940s and was introduced to the market as house paint. It's creative uses by artists lead to the development of more stable recipes. In 1978 lead was finally banned in the manufacturing of consumer paint.

In 2014, Surrey Nanosystems created the darkest black ever seen. It's called Vantablack and it traps the light so well that it creates the illusion of a void by absorbing 99.96% of light. The pigment is generated by growing carbon nanotubes on a metal surface. Rembrandt would have loved it! Unfortunately for all artists, one man owns the exclusive rights to the color--which you'd think would be illegal (sort of like owning a gene, but I digress).

Paint Tubes

All that we've learned about making this vast variety of colorful pigments and paints works to teach us even more about the histories of art, manufacturing, the economy, and trade. Pigments made from rocks can carry a geological signature that can be matched with the region in which the substance was derived. By looking at paint samples under a microscope, we can see trace minerals that aren't completely removed during the refining process. The combination of trace minerals found in pigment may be unique to the location in which the pigment was originally mined.  This process of analyzing geologic samples and comparing them to works of art where the location of origin is known is what helps us answer more questions about our history.

 

Resources

The Colorful History of Paint

The Secret History of the Color Black

A Brief History of Color in Art

Pigments Through the Ages

What do Rocks Have to do With Renaissance Art?

History of Paint

A Colorful History of Paints and Pigments

No. 831: Oil Paints in Tubes

History of Watercolor: Whereforth it Came