Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Subject of Art #14: The History of Colors, Chapter 5: The Organic Revolution!

Contrary to what you may associate with this subject, this final chapter on color is not about food, it's about the shift in modern times towards an organic way of thinking. Most of the pigments we've looked at in previous chapters were inorganic, being derived from metals and minerals. Unfortunately, mining for these inorganic pigments is a labor and/or cost intensive process, so artists, alchemists and scientists from all different time periods have always been searching for better alternatives.

The solution, however, did not come about until relatively recently, when advances in organic chemistry made it possible to create whatever colors we desired from their component parts. After that, the spectrum of color exploded into a whole new rainbow of bright, lightfast variations and completed the range of hues that we are familiar with today and that you can find in the paint aisles at BINDERS.

Organic pigments have always been known and used since humans began coloring things. In our previous explorations, we have touch upon a couple: Indigo, which is derived from plants, Tyrian Purple, which comes from an insect called the cochineal, and Indian Yellow, which is derived from the urine of cows who were fed a steady diet of mango leaves. There were many others in use for thousands of years as well, most prominently the root of the madder plant, which produces a bright crimson red color (which was the red used for centuries in the uniforms of British soldiers, the Redcoats!).

Without exception these pigments derived from plant and animal sources are quite unstable, being very likely to fade over short periods of time, so, while these natural organic pigments were often used by artists, if a suitable inorganic pigment became available that filled the same niche in the color wheel then the organic one would usually be dropped right away. Natural organic colors were most popular in the textile industry as ingredients for dyes, which makes more sense because one might expect clothing not to last for more than a few years of heavy use anyway, plus they could always be re-dyed at some point if desired (which is not a particularly easy thing do do with a painting!).

The aforementioned madder root became the first natural organic pigment to be replaced by a synthetic pigment, which we know today as Alizarin Crimson, in 1869. The chemical compound Anthracene was synthesized from coal-tar, a byproduct of the industrial production of coke, which was used as fuel for stoves and furnaces and for smelting iron. Once the chemical process for production of Alizarin Crimson was perfected, the madder root dye industry collapsed practically overnight, a sequence of events that would occur repeatedly as scientists discovered and developed synthetic versions of organic colors that were brighter, more durable and cost less to manufacture. The original Alizarin Crimson pigment is still in use 150 years later, although its lightfastness rating is low compared to the colors that would be produced in later centuries. The newer versions are usually a mixture of two or more synthetic organic pigments labelled as Alizarin Permanent or Alizarin Crimson Hue.

The phenomenal advancements that occurred in pigments during the 20th century were largely the result of industrial manufacturing and the requirements of objects in everyday life to be brightly colored, with the application of those pigments filtering their way into the artist's palette after they had been thoroughly tested out in the world. The first leap forward occurred in the 1930's with the development of Phthalocyanine Blue, which was originally created as a more stable cyan color for the printing industry. The intensity and durability of Phthalo Blue made it suitable for all sorts of applications and sparked off a rush of research into pigments synthesized from the carbon molecules found in petroleum. The chemical structure of these synthetic organic pigments is similar to plastic, so as the plastics industry advanced, so to did the science of color production. Phthalo Blue was quickly followed by Phthalo Green, while new organic compounds helped to fill out the color spectrum. The automobile industry had a lot to do with the development of a wide range of colors, since car paint needs to be extremely durable and people like having cars that are bright and shiny. Synthetics like Quinacridone Red and Arylamide Yellow (also called Hansa Yellow), helped to fill that need.

From the point of view of fine artists, the color range was expanded tremendously, and furthermore, the synthetic organics are very pure, "clean" colors, with very little gray or brown undertones. A certain amount of "muddying up" the colors was found to be necessary to achieve a more natural look, since the real world actually has a whole lot of gray and brown in it! As these new pigments were initially being assimilated into the art materials industry, many paint producers felt that the chemical names of the pigments sounded entirely too scientific and intimidating, so Phthalocyanine Blue became Winsor Blue for the Winsor and Newton company, and Naphthol Red became Grumbacher Red for the Grumbacher company. It's worth noting that, at least in the United States, paint manufacturers are required to list the pigments used for a particular color on the paint tube or jar, so you can look there to see exactly which pigments are being used to create it.

So this is where we stand today! We've gone a long way from digging up red and yellow dirt all the way to the modern organic chemist's laboratory and it's unlikely to end there. Who knows what the future may hold?

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