Notebook, 1993-


Artificial Inorganic Pigments

It is erroneous to think that only natural earth colors were available in ancient times, for methods of producing inorganic colors artificially have been known for a long time. Most inorganic colors were metallic compounds. Lead white, the cerussa of antiquity, was superior to chalk or white clay in many respects. by calcination of lead white, litharge, ranging in color from light yellow to reddish yellow, was produced. According to an old tradition, a shipload of lead white is [p. 52] said to have been turned into a beautiful red color during a fire in Piraeus Harbor. The consequence of fire, wind, and accident was turned to advantage and resulted in the knowledge that brilliant red minium could be produced by strongly heating lead white under a stream of oxygen. If a mixture of litharge and minimum were heated, the result was the ancient pigment sandaraca. In the eight century, artificial vermilion could be made from mercury and sulfur. The ancient Egyptians had already mastered the technique of producing a coarse crystalline copper silicate by means of high temperatures, but this method was forgotten during the fourth century. Only quite recently could this magnificent Egyptian blue be analyzed and its production thereby made possible again. However, it has lost its practical value. Caeruleum [the name means "sea-blue"] was invented in Alexandria, according to Vitruvius. Verdigris, a beautiful, transparent color, was used in spite of its chemical and technical drawbacks, which were obviated by ingenious means.

The medieval alchemist discovered new colors by accident. Only in recent times has it been possible for technology to improve continually and systematically a great number of chemical pigments. Even the old, reliable earth colors can now be made artificially. What nature created in thousands of years is now manufactured by chemical industry in a few hours or days--and, what is more, in uniform shades according to the demands of the consumer.

The color secrets of the old masters have long been stripped of their mystic aura. In principle, today's artist still works with the same pigments as his great predecessors. Only a few enigmas, unimportant from a practical point of view, remain. One of these is the nature and composition of the old "bianco San Giovanni," which has not been entirely clarified, although recently some probable explanations have been offered.

In the last decades numerous new pigments have been developed, with the result that there is such a great variety of colors available today that painters often find it difficult to make a choice. There are only a few isolated requests for new colors. These are not as much for completely new hues or shades as for improved quality, especially light-fastness. This is particularly true of organic colors. [pp. 52-53]

[Wehlte, Kurt. The Materials and Techniques of Painting. Translated by Ursus Dix. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company. 1975.]



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