How they used to make paint?
Colors of the Earth
If you look at any masterpieces of the great Renaissance painters, they have a quality that seems linked directly to the landscape. This would have something to do with how their pigments were made . Unlike today, they couldn't just walk into the nearest art suppliers and buy a tube of paint, they were experts in blending, grinding and brewing their pallet.
Paint requires two compounds, a pigment, the basic element that makes the colour and a binder, a liquid that holds it all together. Binders from that age where normally from two sources, either tree gum, the cherry tree was one popular source but a particular favourite, as today, was the sap of the Acacia tree - Gum Arabic. The others were derived from eggs, in the form of tempere (egg yolk) or glair (whisked egg white).
Then came the colours themselves. It is ever likely that the landscape; even today, from Florence southwards and Perugia north has a renaissance feel to it. Endless blue sky, light fluffy white clouds with a hint of pale yellow and lots of greens and browns. This is the region where the artists Michaelangelo, Leonardo, Perugino, Paolo Ucello, Piero della Francesca and Luca Signorelli all came from.
The four pigment sources
- Minerals, naturally occurring rocks like Lapis Lazuli, ground to a fine powder.
- Earths, the baked and ground clays and earths of an area give rise to particular colours,
- Dyes, boiling natural plant or animal matter which releases pigment, Saffron make a yellow, ripe buckthorn berries produce green.
- Chemical process,with alchemical expertise artists produced chemical reactions that gave rise to colors, whether oxidisation, evaporation, baking or burning their raw material.
So when the great masters mixed and ground their paints they would often use the materials closest to hand. The rich brown earth of Umbria, or Siena's softer golden brown earth permeate their masterpieces. The plants, bones and woods of the area would have been boiled or burnt to make sap green and lamp black. Lead and iron, oxidized or cooked, a dangerous and noxious but producing flake white, red lead, mars black and lead yellow.
The most lethal color was Orpiment as it contained arsenic sulphide, whilst verdigris had to smell the worst, copper suspended over urine (although you could use wine or vinegar too). The apprentice’s most hated colour was madder red, the longer is was ground the brighter the red became. However to produce blue from Lapis or Azurite and Malachite's green hues by reducing a piece of rock to fine powder was hard, laborious work and time consuming.
Despite the effort required these recipes left us with a wonderfully delicious record of what the colors of the renaissance would have really been like if we were there to feel the sun on our skin and the cool northern breeze in our hair. By just walking through the gorgeous wooded valleys of Umbria or climbing the ochre hills around Siena is to experience the master’s world at first hand. Add a medieval tournament, a religious festival or local feast and you are there in the middle of the fifteenth century.
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- ART HISTORY RESOURCES ON THE WEB: Renaissance Art in Italy
Information about the painters and the era.
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