Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Brief History of Color in Western Painting

edit of "The Cincinnati Museum of Art - An Ambitious Student" (Harpers Weekly 12/20/1890) from the "Painters" folder of the Art, Music & Recreation Center Picture File

In its most basic form, painting may be defined as the use of pigments (pure colors) in powder form which are suspended in a medium and then applied to some sort of support. The earliest pigments date back to around 350,000 BCE and were made from colored earth materials such as crushed red and yellow sands called ochres. Manganese oxide provided browns and blacks, and white came from calcite. These colors have been found in cave paintings throughout the world and the pigments were used by themselves or mixed with animal fat for better adherence.

As civilizations grew in sophistication, so did the art of painting. Animal fat medium became replaced by plaster, wax, egg tempera and eventually oils such as linseed and poppy seed. Artists moved beyond cave walls and started using papyrus, wood, parchment, and eventually linen canvas for supports.

During the Middle Ages, the artist’s palette became broader due to the discovery of new animal, vegetable and mineral products found locally and abroad. Much of the research in color chemistry and technology was carried out by physicians and alchemists. Pigments were sold by grocers or pharmacists because many of the materials used in painting also had pharmaceutical uses or were found among the spices. The colors were then made by the artists themselves in a long and exacting procedure that required extensive knowledge on the part of the painter.
By the latter part of the seventeenth century pigments were available ready-ground and were sold to artists by specialized grocers who became known as color merchants. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the trade of the color merchant evolved from just grinding pigments to preparing paint and packaging it for sale.

John Brooking's Studio from the "Painters" folder of the Picture File

Until 1841, pieces of pig’s bladders were the normal method of storage, but because they were so permeable, the paint would gradually harden. Pig’s bladders were messy, not easily portable and once the bladder was punctured, the paint began to harden very quickly. The invention of the collapsible paint tube in 1841 by John G. Rand, was one of the most important developments for nineteenth-century painting. Paint in tubes contributed significantly to the ever-growing number of amateur painters. It also made the practice of painting outside much easier. The painter Auguste Renoir is often credited with saying that without paint in tubes, there would have been no Impressionists.

The advances made by chemical scientists in the 19th century brought about the invention and availability of new pigments in colors that had never been used by artists before. Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Matisse were but a few of the artists who embraced these new colors and used them for emotional impact. Monet and Seurat, on the other hand used colors to capture light and produce optical color mixing effects.

The next major change in painting materials occurred in the 1950’s with the invention of acrylic paints. Initially sold as latex house paints, they rapidly found their way into the artistic community. Water soluble, artist quality acrylic paints became commercially available in the 1960’s.

The Library has many books on painting materials and techniques that may be checked out. The following is just a sample of the titles that are available:

Alla Prima: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Direct Painting by Al Gury (Watson-Guptill, 2008).

Color Mixing Handbook
by Julie Collins (David & Charles, 2007).

How to Paint: A Complete Step-by-Step For Beginners Covering Watercolours, Acrylics and Oils by Angela Gair and Ian Sidaway (New Holland, 2005).

New Artist’s Manual by Simon Jennings (Chronicle Books, 2006).

Paint Like Monet
by James Heard (Cassell/Sterling Pub., 2006).

Painting Abstracts: Ideas, Projects and Techniques by Rolina van Vliet (Search Press, 2008).

Traditional Oil Painting: Advanced Techniques and Concepts from the Renaissance to the Present by Virgil Elliott (Watson-Guptill, 2007).

Understanding Color: Creative Techniques in Watercolor by Marcia Moses (Sterling Pub., 2007).

In addition to reading books on painting technique, it is helpful to look at a variety of painting methods used by other artists. Some painters worth studying include Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Pierre Bonnard, Peter Paul Rubens, Frida Kahlo and Jackson Pollock. Ask our librarians for other recommendations.

Works cited in hyperlinks:

Noa Noa: The Tahiti Journal of Paul Gauguin
; translated by O.F. Theis (Chronicle Books, 1994).

Renoir / edited by Margherita d'Ayala Valva and Alexander Auf der Heyde (Rizzoli, 2005).

Van Gogh, Starry Night; text based on the interviews between Federico Zeri and Marco Dolcetta (NDE Pub., 1999).

Henri Matisse by Susan A. Sternau (New Line Books, 2006).

Monet, preface by Roberto Tassi (Rizzoli, 2005).

Georges Seurat by Pierre Courthion (H.N. Abrams, 1988).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti by Julian Treuherz, Elisabeth Prettejohn, Edwin Becker (Thames & Hudson, 2003).

Pierre Bonnard: Observing Nature / edited by Jörg Zutter (National Gallery of Australia, 2003).

Peter Paul Rubens by Claudia Bauer (Prestel, 2004).

Frida Kahlo, 1907-1954: Pain and Passion by Andrea Kettenmann (Taschen, 2002).

Jackson Pollock, 1912-1956 by Leonhard Emmerling (Taschen, 2003).

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