Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Subject of Art # 13: The History of Colors, Chapter 4 - Synthetics Rule!

As we saw in last week’s chapter of the History of Colors, the search for a stable, bright and affordable blue pigment led to the discovery (or re-discovery, considering Egyptian Blue) of the process of making synthetic pigments — let’s take a look at a few of the most popular!

Cobalt Blue
Governments in 19th century Europe sometimes took a very active interest in supporting the arts. For example, in 1804 Minister Chaptal of in France appointed several chemists to do research into the creation of new, more permanent colors. One of the results of this project was the discovery that the blue pigment in Smalt—the metal known as Cobalt—could be removed from the glass it was naturally found in when roasted in a furnace with alumina, resulting in a much more intense and very stable pigment which we now know as Cobalt Blue. This bright and very pure blue became an instant hit and found its way into the skies of paintings by Maxfield Parrish, Vincent van Gogh (who described it as a “divine color”) and many others. With the success of Cobalt Blue, scientists altered the formula to produce many different colors from the original metal including yellows, greens and violets.

The very popular and important green pigment known as Viridian was developed by the famous color-maker Pannetier in 1838. This brilliant and lightfast pigment has a bluish undertone and a very fine transparency that makes it excellent for glazing. Viridian was produced by mixing Boric Acid with Potassium Bichromate and then soaking the resulting salt crystals in water, resulting in a fiery, gem-like green color. Viridian quickly replaced most other greens because of its permanence, but also because the other most popular pigment, Emerald Green, was extremely toxic as has been detailed in an earlier chapter.

Cadmium Yellow, a very bright, opaque and permanent pigment, was first synthesized in 1820. The process involved mixing cadmium salts with a sulfide and heating, which would result in the intense yellow hue. Cadmium was, and still is, a very rare metal, so it was fairly expensive to obtain and remains one of the most costly types of pigments even today. In 1919 the process was altered by adding selenium to the formula which resulted in a bright red-orange pigment called Cadmium Red. Variations in the amount of selenium allowed a range of colors from orange to scarlet to red to maroon, all of which are beloved and much-used in contemporary art.

These inorganic synthetic pigments became widely distributed and accepted by the middle of the 19th century in Europe and, together with the invention of pre-packaged paint tubes, contributed directly to the accessibility of art materials to a much wider group of people than at any other time in history. Today, we take for granted that we can have a wide range of colors available at relatively low cost and already pre-mixed with oil, acrylic or watercolor mediums, and it’s easy to forget that it was not that long ago that none of this existed! 

The artists of the time took full advantage of the new colors and it was these technological innovations that allowed the color explorations of Monet, Van Gogh, Seurat, Delaunay and many others to bloom and helped to launch what we now know as the Modern Art movement. The story doesn’t end here though, in the last chapter of our History of Colors, we’ll look at the innovations of the 20th century and the development of new synthetic colors from organic compounds!

What kinds of topics are you interested in learning about? Let us know!

No comments:

Post a Comment