A Brief History of Color in Art

The Art Genome Project

By Sarah Gottesman
May 20th, 2016
Originally found on Artsy.net

Artists invented the first pigments—a combination of soil, animal fat, burnt charcoal, and chalk—as early as 40,000 years ago, creating a basic palette of five colors: red, yellow, brown, black, and white. Since then, the history of color has been one of perpetual discovery, whether through exploration or scientific advancement. The invention of new pigments accompanied the developments of art history’s greatest movements—from the Renaissance to Impressionism—as artists experimented with colors never before seen in the history of painting.

Found in iron-rich soil and first employed as an artistic material (as far as we know) in prehistoric cave paintings, red ochre is one of the oldest pigments still in use. Centuries later, during the 16th and 17th centuries, the most popular red pigment came from a cochineal insect, a creature that could only be found on prickly-pear cacti in Mexico. These white bugs produced a potent red dye so sought-after by artists and patrons that it quickly became the third greatest import out of the “New World” (after gold and silver), as explains Victoria Finlay in A Brilliant History of Color in Art. Raphael, Rembrandt, and Rubens all used cochineal as a glaze, layering the pigment atop other reds (like red ochre) to increase their intensity. A non-toxic source for red pigment, the cochineal bug is still used to color lipsticks and blush today.

Ever since the Medieval era, painters have depicted the Virgin Mary in a bright blue robe, choosing the color not for its religious symbolism, but rather for its hefty price tag. Mary’s iconic hue—called ultramarine blue—comes from lapis lazuli, a gemstone that for centuries could only be found in a single mountain range in Afghanistan. This precious material achieved global popularity, adorning Egyptian funerary portraits, Iranian Qur’ans, and later the headdress in Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665). For hundreds of years, the cost of lapis lazuli rivaled even the price of gold. In the 1950s, Yves Klein collaborated with a Parisian paint supplier to invent a synthetic version of ultramarine blue, and this color became the French artist’s signature. Explaining the appeal of this historic hue, Klein said, “Blue has no dimensions. It is beyond dimensions.”

Few artists in history have been known for their use of yellow, though Joseph Mallord William Turner and Vincent van Gogh are the most notable exceptions. Turner so loved the color that contemporary critics mocked the British painter, writing that his images were “afflicted with jaundice,” and that the artist may have a vision disorder. For his sublime and sun-lit seascapes, Turner used the experimental watercolor Indian Yellow—a fluorescent paint derived from the urine of mango-fed cows (a practice banned less than a century later for its cruelty to animals). For brighter touches, Turner employed the synthetic Chrome Yellow, a lead-based pigment known to cause delirium. Vincent van Gogh also painted his starry nights and sunflowers with this vivid and joyful hue. “Oh yes! He loved yellow, did good Vincent, the painter from Holland, gleams of sunlight warming his soul, which detested fog,” wrote the painter Paul Gauguin of his friend and artistic companion.

While the color green evokes nature and renewal, its pigments have been some of the most poisonous in history. In 1775, the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented a deadly hue, Scheele’s Green, a bright green pigment laced with the toxic chemical arsenic. Cheap to produce, Scheele’s Green became a sensation in the Victorian era, even though many suspected the color to be dangerous for artists and patrons alike. The French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom wallpaper even featured Scheele’s Green, and historians believe the pigment caused the revolutionary’s death in 1821. By the end of the 19th century, Paris Green—a similar mixture of copper and arsenic—replaced Scheele’s Green as a more durable alternative, enabling Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir to create vivid, emerald landscapes. Used as a rodenticide and an insecticide, Paris Green was still highly toxic, and may have been responsible for Cézanne’s diabetes and Monet’s blindness. Not surprisingly, it was eventually banned in the 1960s.

“I have finally discovered the true color of the atmosphere,” Claude Monet once declared. “It’s violet. Fresh air is violet.” The purple shadows and lavender specks of light that enliven Monet’s haystacks and waterlilies owe much to a little-known American portrait painter named John Goffe Rand. In 1841, Rand grew frustrated with the messy practice of storing paint in a pig’s bladder, which was the prevailing method for preserving pigments at the time, and invented a more practical and portable option: a collapsible paint tube made of tin. This enabled artists like Monet to paint plein air, easily transporting their color to outdoor locations to capture impressions of the environment, and in turn led to the production of nuanced, pre-mixed paint shades in tin tubes, such as Manganese Violet, the first affordable mauve-colored paint that meant artists no longer had to mix red and blue to make purple. The Impressionists—especially Monet—so adored the new hue that critics accused the painters of having “violettomania.”

Zambezi
Frank Stella, Zambezi, 1959

The darkest pigment found in Old Masters paintings is aptly named “bone black,” and is produced by burning animal bones in an air-free chamber. While the Impressionists avoided black paint—finding areas of darkness to be filled with color—American artists in the ’50s and ’60s returned to black with a vengeance.

Frank Stella, Richard Serra, and Ad Reinhardt all created monochromatic black paintings, stripping the canvas of any subject matter other than the paint itself. Taken together, these painters prove that black is as nuanced a color as any other, capable of many permutations, tones, and textures. Speaking about his practice in 1967, Reinhardt quoted the Japanese painter and printmaker Katsushika Hokusai, saying, “There is a black which is old and a black which is fresh. Lustrous black and dull black, black in sunlight and black in shadow.”

Robert Ryman
Robert Ryman, Series # 32, 2005

Of all the pigments—Chrome Yellow, Scheele’s Green, Paris Green—that have been banned over the centuries, the color most missed by painters is likely Lead White. This hue could capture and reflect a gleam of light like no other, though its production was anything but glamorous. The 17th-century Dutch method for manufacturing the pigment involved layering cow and horse manure over lead and vinegar. After three months in a sealed room, these materials would combine to create flakes of pure white. While scientists in the late 19th century identified lead as poisonous, it wasn’t until 1978 that the United States banned the production of lead white paint. In this era, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Ryman, and Agnes Martin turned to titanium and zinc whites to create monochromatic white paintings, while artists like Dan Flavin bypassed pigments altogether in sculptures that emitted white light directly.

Art for Dummies

Originally posted on Justsomething.com

The following is a funny guide that’ll help you link famous painters and their style and paintings together in the future. Even though it was conceived as a joke you will realize how this list captures the essence of each artist, resulting in the end actually useful.

Caravaggio.
If everyone looks like doey-eyed girls, then it’s Caravaggio.
Reubens
If everyone has giant asses, then it’s Reubens.
Dali
If it’s something you saw on your acid trip last night, it’s Dali.
Picasso
If everybody has some sort of body malfunction, then it’s Picasso.
Bruegel
If the paintings have tons of little people in them but otherwise seem normal, it’s Bruegel.
Bosch
If the paintings have lots of little people in them but also have a ton of crazy bullshit, it’s Bosch.
Titan
If the images have a dark background and everyone has tortured expressions on their faces, it’s Titian.
van Eyck
If everyone – including the women – looks like Putin, then it’s van Eyck.
Rembrandt
If everyone looks like hobos illuminated only by a dim streetlamp, it’s Rembrandt.
Michalangelo
If everyone is beautiful, naked, and stacked, it’s Michelangelo.
Boucher
If the painting could easily have a few chubby Cupids or sheep added (or already has them), it’s Boucher.
Degas
If you see a ballerina, it’s Degas.
El Greco
If everything is highly contrasted and sharp, sort of bluish, and everyone has gaunt bearded faces, it’s El Greco.
Monet
Dappled light but no figures, it’s Monet.
Frida
If every painting is the face of a uni-browed woman, it’s Frida.
Renior
Dappled light and happy party-time people, it’s Renoir.
Manet
Dappled light and unhappy party-time people, then it’s Manet.
Mondrian
It it looks like an Excel sheet with colored squares, it’s Mondrian.

Photographic Portraits of Famous Artist’s Paint Palettes

via Colossal | An art, design, and visual culture blog... by Matthias Schaller

Since 2007 photographer Matthias Schaller has photographed raw, abstract paintings. The paintings however are not found on canvas, but rather smeared onto the tools used to craft each work of art—the palettes. His series, Das Meisterstück (The Masterpiece), claims these behind-the-scene objects as portraits of the artist, while also giving a direct insight into the detailed techniques performed by each painter.

Schaller was first inspired to begin his photographic collection during a visit to Cy Twombly’s late studio. During the visit he stumbled upon the artist’s palette, which he discovered to be an accurate reflection of the artist’s paintings. Encouraged to further discover the similarities between palette and painting, Schaller has gone on to photograph over two hundred of these historic portraits. His search has led him to collect palettes from all across Europe and the United States, finding the objects in major museums and private foundations and in the custody of artists’ relatives and collectors. The palettes he’s photographed so far in the series belong to seventy painters from both the 19th and 20th century, and include such artists as Monet, van Gogh, Matisse, and Picasso. To accurately analyze the details from paint hue to brushstroke, Schaller presents the images in large format, each work existing at approximately 190 x 150 cm.

Through June 8, the Giorgio Cini Foundation will present Schaller’s Das Meisterstück alongside the Venice Biennale, an exhibition that will focus on 20 of Schaller’s palette photographs. (via Hyperallergic)

Paris in (Almost) Springtime

At the end of March my husband had to travel to Paris for work and guess who was able to tag along for a vacation? Before he had even finished telling me the plans, I emphatically said, “YES!” and had mentally packed my bags and made arrangements for the boys and the animals. Let’s just say he had me at, “Paris.”

Hotel Ares Eiffel (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

We left on a Friday redeye out of Detroit and landed in Paris about 8 a.m. Saturday, albeit tired, so ecstatic to be in “The City of Lovers”, “The City of Light“.

We stayed at Hotel Ares Eiffel a quaint boutique style hotel in the Grenelle neighborhood of the 15th Arrondissement. We stashed our luggage and quickly located the neighborhood Starbucks for some much needed caffeine and European croissant. Once our room was available we unpacked whatever would fit into the tiny hanging closet and crashed for a few hours.

In the evening we hopped on the Metro and headed out for dinner across town to the historic Brasserie Balzar located near the Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter of the 5th Arrondissement.

Brasserie Balzar
Bordeaux & L’Onion Soup

The brasserie opened it’s doors in 1890 and has been frequented by philosophers, artists, and intellectuals ever since. The brasserie, according to Sandra Gustafson’s Great Eats Paris, “..remains a favorite of Left-Bank intellectuals and would-be bohemian’s of all types.” French existentialist philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were regulars at the Balzar. Actually, it is said that they had their last great argument here in the summer of 1952 which led to the demise of their friendship.

There was no such great drama in the air during our dinner; to the contrary, we met a nice family from California seated next to us and the L’onion soup and Bordeaux was delicious!


On Sunday we did a whirlwind tour of Paris. By the end of the day I was thoroughly exhausted and my legs were sore. I kept thinking about and thanking my surgeons. Without my new ankles and back, none of this would have been possible! I was feeling truly blessed and grateful.

After croissants and cappuccino’s, we caught the Metro and made our way along the Seine to the iconic Eiffel Tower in the 7th Arrondissement. It was much larger than I’d imagined and more beautiful in person.

Eiffel Tower
Eiffel Tower

We followed the Parc du Champs de Mars East and wandered the nearby streets. I was on a mission to see the infamous building at 29 Avenue Rapp designed by French Art Nouveau architect Jules Lavirotte. On the way we spotted another one of his beautiful designs at 3 Square Rapp.

Next we headed over to view the Arc de Triomphe and shop on the world famous Avenue des Champs-Élysées in the 8th arrondissement. Around 9 p.m. we dragged ourselves into Pizza Pino for dinner and wine overlooking the streetlights of the boulevard.

Arc du Triomphe
Arc du Triomphe
Avenue des Champs-Élysées
Avenue des Champs-Élysées
Musee d'Orsay
Musee d’Orsay

Tuesday was cold and rainy – perfect for touring the Musée d’Orsay. After waiting in the cue for over an hour in the drizzling rain, it was a relief just to get inside and sit for a few minutes. The building itself is a beautiful piece of art. Set on the banks of the Seine, it houses art collections from 1848 to 1914.

Musee d'Orsay Clocktower Cafe
Musee d’Orsay Clocktower Cafe

The museum, which opened its door s in December of 1986, was installed in the former Orsay railway station built for the World Exposition in 1900.

The museum is home to some of the world’s most famous sculptures. The entire ground floor was sprinkled with giant marble monoliths from the past two centuries. Since I didn’t have too long, I started with the Impressionists’ paintings. To get there, you pass through the back of the museum cafe which is gorgeous! At the end of the cafe is an enormous clock window overlooking the Seine.

After hours of walking around the museum, I jumped on the Metro towards ‘home’, grabbed dinner at a local brasserie, drew up a steaming hot Hermes bubble bath back at the hotel, and called it a day – and what a great one it was!

Stay tuned for my adventures in Montmartre, Saint-Germain du Pres, and Louvre-Tuileries. Au Revoir for now.