I went where I always go, the travel lit section, and within a few minutes juggling several books in my hands, I actually turned and cursed the man working behind the counter.
“Yes you can. In the future, please put up displays of boring places so I don’t get sucked in here, okay? You’ve got too many fantastic books here, and now you are going to rob me of twenty bucks because I can’t leave the store without this book. I’ve been resisting coming in here for precisely this reason, and now look what's happened.”
Yeah yeah yeah, stereotype me like that, buddy. But I have to say, he was right, and even though I’m not finished the book I bought, I have already been inspired to write several blog posts about it.
The book is called “Color” and the author is Victoria Finlay. And damn you too, Victoria Findlay, for writing a book that I would die to write, and writing it well. Ms. Finlay travels around the world to discover the origins of the colours in a simple paintbox, and ooh the stories are juicy!
If you’ve ever bought paint, you know that there is a huge spectrum of names of each colour. Lamp Black is slightly blue, Bone Black is a brown black. Personally, I don’t know the difference between Titanium White and Chinese White. If Victoria Finlay tells me, I will tell you. Promise. I never really thought about these names before, but I’m discovering all sorts of history about the origins of the paints I use and it’s blowing my mind! I never realized that there was such a deep history behind these names, or that the commercial brands I buy are named after rock stars of the paint industry.
Back in the Renaissance, artists had the skills to mix their own pigments into paints, a skill obviously lost over time. Leonardo da Vinci was known to spend so much time mixing up his paints, his patrons fretted the actual work would never even begin! In the mid 17th century, colourmen began to appear and sell paints that were difficult for artists to consistently mix up themselves. This separated the artist from the craft of their work, but left more time for creating and less time practicing chemistry.
Some interesting facts about the some Art Stars and the history of paint:
Vincent Van Gogh bought his colours from a very famous color family, the Tanguys. Letters were written to them from Vincent complaining of the insipid nature of the paints. Vincent was right, and a recent study of his painting, “White Roses” revealed their to be traces of red madder in the white, meaning at one time, the roses were actually pink!
Michelangelo could not always afford the colours he needed, one being the precious ultramarine from Afghanistan. He’d often finish everything in a painting and wait for his precious ultramarine to arrive in order to complete a painting. This was important to Michelangelo, because the Virgin Mary was always painted in Ultramarine blue. I personally wonder if the expense of the colour lead to the creation of Virgin Mary Blue, kind of as a materialistic tribute to the Virgin Mother. But in any case, in unfinished paintings such as "The Entombment”, the part left unfinished is the Virgin Mary waiting for her precious colour.