Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Mystery and Beauty of Indian Yellow and Historic Colors

It's the little things in life that can make a painter's day. Well for me it wasn't so little. For years I have been researching the  history of artists' pigments. Certain colors remain a mystery, often because of the irresponsible publishing in technical art history, which unfortunately, extends to research in all artists' materials. Hard to believe, but some authors who were not artists, when in doubt, literally copied information from others that was incorrect. This misinformation remains published in some of the primary artist's materials books.

I want to solve the mystery of why these colors remain stable in some pictures while failing in others. Ah, this is a never ending quest where more and exciting research surfaces daily thanks to The National Gallery in London, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, Artists' Pigments book series, and institutions like the Canadian Conservation Institute and numerous other publications and individuals.

Historic colors represent  an entirely different way to paint. They place color back in the control of the artist. While advancements in technology have brought us the ease of readily prepared tube colors, technical advancements don't always serve all individuals,  particularly artists. The quintessence of color and pigment have been watered down to a material that is used world-wide without any individual attributes.  Modern science has created a slew of new and more powerful colors. Super colors that rarely fade, are more stable and far more intense in chroma than anything you will find in nature.

More is not always better. Lost is the subtle and beautiful character of color that was created and enhanced by artists solely for works of art.  Perhaps this explains why many artists of my generation and younger artists, have moved away from painting and object centered art. It may help explain conceptual art and other art forms as a means for the artist to regain control. To this end,  I take pleasure in my research and am driven by the possibility of using historic colors, some that I am actually using with success, and some  that I still can't  find.

Indian Yellow is the color I am talking about.  It is a substance called a lake - meaning it lacks it's own "body" and in production is given one, usually on a clay or similar material. The lakes are used in oil painting as glazes and account for some of the most beautiful effects in oil painting. Genuine Indian Yellow has not been available since the 19th century. Numerous synthetic modern lakes exist, each possessing the usual trait of modern colors - a chroma that is far more intense than anything in nature. Here is an example of two pictures I made using this color, The Romantic, oil on panel and Rooftop Sunset , oil on panel:

Historically, we are told that Indian yellow was made from cow's urine that were fed exclusively on mango leaves. ( Harley, R.D. Artists' Pigments c. 1600-1800, 2nd edition,   Butterworths 1982, 117. ISBN 0 408 70945 6). This was long accepted as the source of the color.

Recently, I acquired a copy of MJFL Merimee's book,  "The Art of Painting in Oil and Fresco".
I came upon Merimee's book in a round-about way - researching it for the production of another lake, madder. But there it was on page 109, one small paragraph from 1839 that appears to have lessened some of the mystery of  Indian Yellow:

"... I have been informed by a learned naturalist, who traveled in that country (Bengal), that this colour is manufactured in Calcutta by an Englishman, who keeps the process quite a secret; but the traveler has found that the colouring matter is extracted from a tree or large shrub, called memecylon tinctorium, the leaves of which are employed by the natives in their yellow dyes. From a smell like cow's urine, which exhales from this colour, it is probable that this material is employed in extracting the tint of the memecylon. "

Now, I  just have to locate the plant and a cow. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Modern Reliques in Brooklyn

With Spring finally here, and the re-birthing that comes with it, I thought I would post some pictures that I have been working on....a sort of re-birthing of old canvases, awaiting their final glazes. Relic is one such painting.  My paintings are often based on photos I have taken from my Brooklyn studio atop Clinton Hill where the view is divine and ever-changing. These two pictures give little reference to a "place", like Brooklyn for example, however, they are from Brooklyn none the less, and more so from that inexplicable place that is borne in the studio, owing it's creation to more than a view of the sky or pictures from a window. 

So welcome to my place, where some might say magic happens, but I prefer to use the term alchemical oil painting.  Long gone are the days that I wondered why my tube oils were inconsistent in color, even if from the same manufacturer and the same pigment. All that aside now, I began making my own colors almost 10 years ago. And while few artists still engage in this archaic act, fewer still know enough about materials used centuries ago.

My pictures are a testament to the use and preservation of historic methods and materials. I will talk more about this later.  For now, lets just say I find joy not only in making my painting, but the paints as well, and the varnishes and sometimes the pigments themselves.


This picture, Relic of a sunken day in Brooklyn, is close to completion, but I have posted it here to show the use of lead-tin yellow - a wonderful yellow pigment that I have used for the highlights in my picture. This is an historic pigment and ranges in color from light lemon to deep mustard depending on how it is  made. The background sky is azurite and the shadows are a combination of madder and cinnabar.

Next week I will re-post this picture in it's completed state with it's final glaze.

Another relique

I have posted a  canvas here, Descending Azured, that shows the completed process in reference to what I mentioned yesterday. The final madder glaze has been applied and one can see the highlights shining through from the layers below, creating the kind of richness I desired: