What’s In A Color?

Joanne Artman Gallery
Sep 6, 2018 10:45PM

Some of the most important innovations to the development and progression of art as a practice is the evolution of artist materials and tools. Access to more sophisticated means of application, as well as an even wider array of pigments and binders have had a tremendous impact on the type of work that artists can make. The distinction becomes evident when studying particular periods, movements, and regions. The most interesting stories come from the history of pigments  - the implications around their development, production, and use are full of drama, intrigue, and sometimes, surprising consequences. Today we can see the legacy of this history in what role color plays in our lives today - from fashion to electronics it is undeniably a prevalent (and sometimes unnoticeable) force.

One of the best books on the subject is the exemplary Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay, tracing back the origins, histories and legacies of the pigments that have left their mark. One of the best known of these is the story of lapis lazuli, a stone ground used to create the pigment ultramarine, imported from mines in Afghanistan beginning in the 14th and 15th centuries. More precious than gold, artists (including even Michelangelo himself) could not afford to purchase the pigment on their own. Most often used in depicting the blue of the sky, as well as the robes of the Virgin Mary, artists had to rely on wealthy patrons in order to fund and support their practice. Other blues were available such as azurite, but as artists already knew then, all alternatives were prone to a blackening deterioration due to molecular instability. Thus, only those artworks from the period which are painted with ultramarine, are intact completely and can be seen the same as they looked when first painted. The artists who weren’t so lucky, have like their art, faded in memory with time.

Natural Ultramarine pigment (Image Courtesy of WikiCommons)

Other pigments of note include carmine, the bright red hue made of crushed, dried insects called cochineal scale, which have been used by both ancient Aztecs in dying cloth, as well as in contemporary production including as a colorant for Coke Cherry. The story of the discontinued pigment, Scheele’s Green, is one of death and horror, responsible for the loss of many lives. The brilliant green pigment contained enough arsenic to be act as slow poison over time, and was used in Victorian Britain in everything from dying cloth, to ornaments, paint, food dye and wallpaper. Modern examples of pigment use (or disuse) reflect contemporary concerns and issues, such as the discontinuation in the 1980s of the bright and irreplaceable blue hue of manganese blue, due to the detrimental environmental impacts of its production.

In fashion too, color has always played a major role, ranging from distinguishing class and wealth to being an essential element of a personal style or brand. One of the most notable contemporary examples is Pantone’s color of the year campaign. Since 2000, Pantone has declared a particular shade of its production to be a “Color of the Year” based on what that particular color means and represents for that particular moment in time based on socio-cultural and political connotations.

Of most recent note, writer Nancy Hass has written a fascinating article on renowned paint specialist Pedro da Costa Felguerias, who is tasked with reproducing the lost pigments of the ancient Greeks, in a story that celebrates the volatile history and evolution of color.  

Anthony Hunter is represented at JoAnne Artman Gallery  

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Joanne Artman Gallery