Friday, March 17, 2006

A History of Color

“Who can tell me what this is?”

The freckled strawberry-blond before us lifts a glass jar filled with small, clinking brown bits. He’s here to talk shop to a bored class. The traveling salesman from Windsor & Newton comes bearing ancient powders and free sampled paints. Pigments, primaries, the works.

“Crushed, they make this color; carmine.” The shock of crimson paint he smears on a gessoed page is a translucent and bloodied red.

“Seeds?” Ventures a cute sophomore with feathered bangs and feathered earrings.

He tips the jar forward, spilling onto a blue paper towel. “Sort of.”

She brings her face closer to the pile. “Wait. These seeds look like bugs.”

They are.

He illustrates by smashing a glass weller onto them, smearing the page with their corpse dust. After a dip of linseed oil, the red runs from their dried shells. He tells us the color is still made just as he's shown today; the bugs are grown by eggs hatched, then harvested, on cacti.

The next illustration is Indian yellow-culled from the crystallized urine of overfed cows, gorged on mango leaves, their urine stained a deep acid tone. That practice, he tells us, has since been banned once the British left India. Animal cruelty.

The final demonstration is for Mummy Brown, what used to be made from the mummified bodies of desert dwellers. It blotted the pigment a rich gray-earth. As an aside, we learn all black clothes were dyed with the charred remains of slaughtered livestock, their bones sold from refineries and farms.

“Where did you think the color came from?” He asks, incredulous at our surprise. “This happened until little more than a hundred years ago.” We never had thought of where the color came from, because we never stopped to question or care. Now, we look down at our black vinyl drawing bags.

We’re told we can be our own mixologists, like mad scientists in the days of patroned artists and crushed jewels for colors, in an East Village shop to fashion our own pigments. Glass beads, marble dust, and anything else can be added for texture, for glimmer.

He tells us this is the history of color. That if one wanted the use of one, one had to go out, find it, and somehow bring it into paint. That we are so lucky for what we have now, to live now, to exist as would-be artists now. A book upon the table displaying the graphic eroticism that got one Chilean artist arrested and banned many times in his short life of twenty-five years illustrates his points.

The strawberry-blond tells us that if we were to bring a new color to Windsor Newton today, and they found it viable, they would make it.

But he truncates our budding imaginations for color crusades with this. Unique chroma (his wording) is very unstable, very volatile, and very untrustworthy. These colors cannot be often recreated, they cannot be counted upon to stay deep and bright over time, and they do not react like other, more common hues.

They flash in a short time, and fade away afterwards, leaving no remnants of their former selves to generations in front of us.

But still, I'm in search of one.


Jack said...

I was a child when I found out what cochineal was.

I saw a bottle of red food dye in the supermarket labelled 'artificial cochineal' and asked my mother what, in that case, real cochineal was.

Her answer kept me quiet for days.

GeminiWisdom said...

There was a reason why I blogrolled you and once again, I'm glad I did. Every day, I visit you to get my daily dose of beautiful words.....and then I visit Beautiful Man to get my daily dose of,well, a beautiful man.

bt said...

carmine is used in all sorts of products still. popsicles, fruit drinks, beauty aids, oral hygenics. smashed bugs make your day better, redder.

also i vaguely recall you tried this once with the name and color of a lipstick.

D.T. said...

So...youre in search for the perfect color. The one that lasts forever, huh? Good luck on your search! I remember my freshman art teacher told me that it is un-humanly possible to draw a perfect circle without the aid of some kind of tool and since then, I've been practicing to prove him wrong. Maybe someday, when I do achieve the perfect circle you can color it with your perfect paint!


Enjoyed readin' this blog but now my brain hurts so I'm goin' to lie down for a bit....

I'm going to say "Artificial Cochineal" when I get back to work so they'll think I'm intelligent and promote me....

Poor bugs....

Mike said...

Searching for the perfect color that will last forever? How every Caulfield-esque. :-)

Thanks for dropping by my blog earlier. One good comment deserves another. You are a fantastic writer. A bit intimidating, actually. I have to step up my game!

Consider yourself blogrolled. Almosts Unite!

Serena said...

The idea of an artist on the quest for color is so romantic. In my mind, I can't wrap my arms around whether I'd want to be the artist or the color being sought.

Jeannie said...

I guess wearing black to mourn had a deeper meaning...who knew? I knew of the history of some colours but never really delved into it. Awesome post. I think your drawings are very well done also.

tall glass of vino said...

An expansion of your class lesson can be read in "COLOR - a natural history of the palette" by Victoria Finlay.

Not only are the sources for our primary colors identified, but how the social economies around these discoveries were affected - fortunes made, secrets kept.

a fascinating read.

Movie Lover said...

That photo of my dear friend Willie on my site is indeed real. Check his blogsite -- the link is on my site. I moved to from a little town in Texas NYC when I was 19. I can share many experiences with you. Best of luck in your adventure!