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THE WEEKLY MUSE - Pursuing the Perfect Pigment


“Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” Wassily Kandinsky Whatever it is an artist wishes to convey in a painting—and whatever meaning the observer derives—color is a key part of that exchange. It’s no surprise, then, that an artist’s pursuit of the perfect pigment has been a compulsive urge for centuries, using gems, poisons, trees and plants, bones, minerals, and metals to create exciting and stimulating colors that inspire both creator and observer. Pigments were first created thousands of years ago by mixing colored soils with animal fats and burnt charcoal. Ever since, artists have continued a relentless quest involving new technologies, dangerous practices, and wild experimentation in a ‘color arms race’ that’s every bit as creative and challenging as the paintings themselves. In medieval paintings, the Virgin Mary was often depicted wearing brilliant blue robes; the Ultramarine Blue color was derived from the rare gemstone lapis lazuli. The black pigment in many ‘old masters,’ called Bone Black, derived its name from the process of burning animal bones in an air-tight chamber. The dazzling qualities of the 17th-century color Lead White were achieved by layering animal manure over lead (not known to be poisonous in those days) soaked in vinegar. In the 19th century, JMW Turner pushed the boundaries of color in his ethereal seascapes by using Indian Yellow, said to have derived from the urine of mango-fed cows, filtered, mixed with clay, or heated over a fire. In the same century, Scheele’s Green and Paris Green were hugely popular colors. That arsenic was a vital ingredient in creating their unique shades didn’t seem to be an issue at the time, despite releasing dangerous fumes into the air. Today, pigments are created much more safely with advanced chemical technology providing color solutions to artists’ continuing creative demands. What hasn’t changed is the search for a beguiling palette, the pursuit of that elusive color with which artists draw our eyes and our hearts to their work.

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