Pigments

March 20, 2016

Being a colorist at heart, I’ve always been curious in seeing raw pigments and learning about where the colors come from, be it minerals or plants, or those that are created in a lab.  My watercolors are infused with color.  In my workshops I show my students ways to mix and layer colors to create richer, glowing colors, rather than using color right out of the tubes.  I know there are plenty of painters who use specific palettes of color, limited to a small assortment of colors to create a certain tone to their paintings.  I’m a color hog, the more the merrier.  I never use any browns or black, and rarely grey.  I mix them or layer them using all sorts of colors to get wonderful rich colors in my paintings.  

Shutters

“Shutters”  Original watercolor on paper. 14″ x 14″. Architecture Collection. Study of classic tuscan windows, shutters and wrought iron. Orange, yellow and plum colored walls with green and blue shutters, the sky reflected in the window glass.      ©Jill Rosoff 2005

And I am curious about where pigments come from.  Typically they come from plants or minerals, and sometimes animals.  Imagine grinding up a lovely piece of lapis lazuli to get that specific blue in your painting!  Blues are purples were most expensive, so its no surprise why they are associated with royalty.   With the Industrial Revolution, color and pigments could be developed in labs, and more especially after the Scientific Revolution in the 18th C.   

I just found this article on My Modern Met about a lab at Harvard that has a collection of over 2,500 pigments from around the world, and you can go see them.  Its the Forbes Pigment Collection at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, part of the Harvard Art Museum.  They have the pigments there to use in art conservation work, to be able to match colors of old paintings that are being maintained and preserved.

forbespigmentcollection3photo from My Modern Met, colors from the Forbes Pigment Collection

Seeing this article made me wistful for an art supply store I went to when I was studying printmaking in Florence way too many years ago.  Its called Zecchi Colori, on via della Studio (evocative name, no?).  Head a couple of blocks toward the Arno from the Santa Maria del Fiori, the Cathedral that dominates Florence’s skyline, Zecchi is on the right side of the street. The first time I went in there I thought I’d died and gone to heaven because around the perimeter of the store on the top shelf of the supplies were huge glass jars of pigments, bright, intense, glorious. I never did get a photo of them, seems ridiculous since I was so taken with them that I just never took a photo.  I did by a crock, though!  But I think I need to get into that lab at Harvard…

Majolica crock from Zecchi Colori, Firenze.

Majolica crock from Zecchi Colori, Firenze.  Its sitting on a new still life of fruit and vegetables that’s in process.  

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"Three Purple Tulips", ©Jill Rosoff, 2007, 5 1/2" x 8 1/2", $55.00

“Three Purple Tulips”, ©Jill Rosoff, 2007, 5 1/2″ x 8 1/2″

In my workshops, especially the newer students often use the word “dark” when talking about colors that are the opposite of pale.  So I like to ask them, “What do you mean by dark?”  This question usually gets a lot of stumped looks.

The word ‘dark’ means having little or no light, when you look it up.   So it’s really not a very accurate word to use for a descriptor of deep or rich color values.  So I’ve developed a list of contrasting words that I encourage my students to consider instead of the words light and dark.  It opens them up a new way of thinking about how to describe colors, hopefully.  

pale                                                   rich 

diluted                                              saturated

soft                                                    harsh          

weak                                                 strong

muted                                               bright

tint                                                     shade

subdued                                            loud

restrained                                         intense

 

delicate                                             overpowering

 

mild                                                    deep

These comparisons produce a lot of different ideas about colors.  Can you think of any more?

 

Whenever I want browns or greys in a painting, I mix them.  I do not use brown, black or grey paint in my palette.  I’ve just started a new workshop, and realized this is something I tell all my students.  When new students sign up for the workshops I send them a supplies list so they’ll be prepared on day one.  I don’t include white, either.  I like my colors bright, clear, and initially un-muddied.  When black, browns and white are included in a pre-fab set of paints, so be it, but they are never included on my list of colors for a new student to buy.

Why do I believe this?  Because its easier than pie to mix your own greys and browns, and when you do, the colors are much more interesting. Browns and greys can be mixed using different combinations of the primary color triad, or secondary or tertiary triads for that matter.

lav+yellow=brownish

Various warm browns mixed by using violet and yellow or orange (above and below)

warm brown-scarlet&violet

Want a nice chocolaty-brown?  Use Alizarin, a bit of cobalt blue or even purple, and a nice cadmium orange.  Change the amounts of each color you add to get the tint you want.  

brown from red and green

red and green to make a cool brown, using drop-in and mixed methods

How about a nice warm payne’s grey?  Start with Permanent Blue or French Ultramarine, add a little yellow, and then if needed, a touch of red. Or pink.  Again, play around with the amounts you add to change the tint.

grey v.1

a Payne’s grey, mixed from primaries:  blue and yellow

cool grey

a whole different grey using three versions of primary colors

So my thought has been: why buy them, unless of course you use a lot of them?  I don’t use them much.  But also I think that when you mix them either in the palette or on the paper, they’re so much more intriguing.  Shadows and dark areas are much more luscious using darker values of colors, or putting in a layer of an opposing color on the area you want the shadow to be.  There’s so much more to discover in the painting.

Here’s a question: how often does brown occur in nature?  Yes, the ground is brown.  A lot of animals are.  Tree trunks, generally, are brown, but there’s so many different colors.  If you look at a eucalyptus tree, is the trunk the same color, as, say, a redwood?   I find it so much more fun to see what I can come up with.

Cherry Blossoms

Detail, “Cherry Blossoms”, ©Jill Rosoff 2012

I did a painting last year of Cherry Blossoms.  Have you ever noticed that the branches on fruit trees are sometimes more of a rich burgundy color, not at all brown?  If  you look closely at this painting, you may notice that the branches here are indeed a deep, reddish burgundy.  What may not be so obvious is that I painted each branch first with a layer of Alizarin Crimson, a great, rich, deep, cool red.  And while the strokes of color were still wet, I dropped in some Viridian green.  This is a color you just can’t get out of a tube of raw sienna, or burnt umber.  It’s a very complex burgundy.   That’s right, its in the purplish range, and oh so very interesting!  See the full painting here:  Cherry Blossoms.

And by the way, do you know where the two browns’ names, sienna and umber, come from?  Go to northern Italy.  The earth in Sienna, in Tuscany, and in Umbria, which is next to Tuscany, are just about those colors.  And the difference in raw and burnt?  The raw versions are straight from the ground.  The burnt, or warmer, versions, have literally been burned, where the fire brings out the warmer tones.  Don’t you just love knowing that?

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