Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Trip Through the Paintbox!

The greatest masterpieces were once only pigments on a palette.
~Henry S. Hoskins

Painting for Halloween at work in Shanghai. Alright, not the best example of my painting skills, but the five year olds loved it!

Several weeks ago I got sucked into a travel store near my house in Vancouver. I say sucked in, because I had been avoiding them for weeks, knowing that whatever I found inside would be detrimental to my wallet. I’d managed to march past it for a few weeks but when they put a giant display in the front window of nargileh pipes, backgammon boards, and all things Turkey, I had a moment of weakness and stepped inside.

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.

Tibetan Monks working on a Sand Mandala, Penticton, BC, Canada.
“Can I help you?”

“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.”

Mysore India. This man painted his sheep like the flag of India!

“Yeah, that seems to happen to us quite regularly.” He smirked back. “We lure you people in like flies to a web and rob them of their dollars with our tantalizing book collection.” He laughed. “By the way, you’re going to love this book, especially if you are an artist and you like to travel.”

Hindu Temple, Singapore. Because of the wet, moldy nature of things in Singapore, these celestial statues need to be repainted regularly.

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!

Hand-painted Maracas! Merida, Mexico.

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.

Selling pigments in Mysore. I accidentally shoved my camera lens into the purple. Whoops!

One of the most famous colourmen was William Reeves, who discovered that if you mixed watercolour pigments with honey and gum arabic, you could mold watercolour into cakes and it would stop the paint from completely drying out. (Before this, watercolourists had the very messy task of grating their watercolours.) His discovery allowed him to create the first travel paint boxes for the East India Company.

Tibetan Mandala sand.

Artist Henry Newton and Chemist William Winsor of the famous brand Winsor & Newton (Who happen to frolic in my paint box from time to time!) added glycerine to Reeves’ concoction, which meant watercolours no longer had to be rubbed and could be used straight from the pan. Yay Winsor & Newton!

A little bit of colour in the desert: Emirati pride, Al Ain, UAE.

Oil paints benefitted greatly from a simple invention which entered the art world in 1841: The paint tube. Before this, Oil paints were stored in little tied up pig bladder parcels and pierced anytime the colour was needed, but then the hole needed to be mended in order not to dry out the rest of the paint.

John Coffee Rand invented the paint tube with some old tin and in turn revolutionized the art world. With this simple invention, artists who painted in oil were now free to paint wherever they chose, giving birth to Impressionism, which was often painted live, in nature, in the moment! Without the simple paint tube at that time, think of the great art works that never would have been created! (Yes I know, something would have eventually been invented, but it’s at least interesting to think about the impact at that time!)

Some interesting facts about the some Art Stars and the history of paint:

Van Gogh's "White Roses" (once pink!)

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's "The Entombment"

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.

Painting of a Saint (Saint Peter?), Greece.

In the 8th Century, the Byzantines considered whether or not it was against God’s teachings to make images of saints (As idols were not permitted.) But it was agreed that beautiful artworks were a celebration of God’s gifts, right down to the material, (rocks, insects, eggs and plants) used in creating the natural paints. This is why Orthodox icon painters still use egg tempura to paint icons today, because humans, like natural paint, are a creation of God, and humans and natural paints are created pure, but never perfect.

And this is just the beginning!!!
Stay tuned for earthy ochre!



  1. Fascinating. Pig bladders! I had no idea. I've never seen that Van Gogh before either.

  2. Going to Kinokinuya to find that book! Takes me back to my "Artworld" days.

  3. I wonder if people find this as intriguing as I do, or if I am a hopeless art nerd and don't see it?! ; )

  4. Such a wealth of already-taken pictures! Please keep sharing your ever-widening interests. I can remember being shocked at how old the concept of having glass windows was and how amazing the ancient glass blowers were.

  5. Excellent! Thanks Joanne! Ps. I now know the difference between Titanium and Chinese white. ; )