Arsenic, Sheep's Dung, and a Yellow called Pink*

From top: Ignaz Schiffermüller's chart of blue color samples, Vienna, 1772.
Moses Harris's Natural System of Colours, London, 1766 
Richard Waller, "A Catalogue of Simple and Mixt Colours with a Specimen of Each Colour Prefixt Its Properties," in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, vol. 6 for the years 1686 and 1687  
Tray of jasper trials, ca. 1773-76, Josiah Wedgwood

I'm surprised the Church never outlawed color. Not only because of its sensual enticements and potentially corrupting power but because pigments seem to have been so unnaturally poisonous. There is something almost allegorical going on there. The toxicity of these precious distillations was astonishing: the rich golden yellow called orpiment, and the pure brilliant orange, realgar, prompted early 15th century painter and writer Cennino Cennini to write "Beware...lest you suffer personal injury...look out for yourself." In the 19th century Carl Wilhelm Scheele tinkered with compounds of arsenic and devised what would become an enormously popular green. Unfortunately, Scheele's green and a similar "emerald green" proved potentially poisonous: if exposed to dampness, it decomposed into arsine, a toxic gas. It was said Napoleon may have died in part because of the exhalations of his green wallpaper.

All of the incredible images here are from a stunningly detailed monograph The Creation of Color in Eighteenth-Century Europe by Sarah Lowengard, online in its entirety through Columbia University Press and Gutenberg-e. Lowengard examines the scientific experimentation which led to color discovery and the subsequent implementation. In the Age of Empiricism optics, physics, chemistry, taxonomy and naming, diagramming all came into play in the creation of color. Taste, of course, was also a motivating factor. Demand for popular colors such as pompadour, Saxon green and nankeen were offered by the dyehouse (textile), pottery and pigment (paint, ink) workshops. Thus there were the different characteristics each color took on in the different media, and each creation's fugitive or stable nature to consider.

Another color text to consult is a lecture given by Phillip Ball, a noted English science writer, author of Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour (which I have not yet read), among other books. This is a far broader and briefer work. Ball skips lightly and effortlessly from the earliest color designations to Medieval minium to William Perkin's creation of Mauve from coal tar. Ball cites the science of color and each pigment's chemical properties but raises many philosophical points as well. The progression of Medieval religious art, for instance, was in some ways motivated by the creation of vermilion. The product of yellow sulphur and silvery mercury, the brilliance of this red automatically called for other colors in the palette to follow suit and match intensity. Another fact to consider: the switch to an oil base paint from the quick-drying egg tempera allowed the softer modelling and shadows of Renaissance art. It is quite interesting to think that the extreme cost of, or arduous labor involved in, one pigment versus another, or the xenophobic response to a color's origins (ie "The East") could sway taste, commerce, and art itself.

* In the 17th century, the word pink was used to describe a shade rather than a color and often meant a greenish or yellowish color.

The creation of pigments and dyes proves ceaselessly interesting to me. The ingredient lists, the labor, the outlandish processes are a fascinating window into an age when people had a different conception of time...

Dye process for Turkey red on cotton
John Wilson An Essay on Light and Colours, 1786

1. Boil cotton in lye of Barilla or wood ash.
2. Wash and dry
3. Steep in a liquor of Barilla ash or soda plus sheep's dung and olive oil
4. Rinse, let stand 12 hours, dry
5. Repeat steps 3– 4 three times.
6. Steep in a fresh liquor of Barilla ash or soda plus sheep's dung, olive oil and white argol.
7. Rinse and dry
8. Repeat steps 6–7 three times.
9. Treat with gall nut solution
10. Wash and dry.
11. Repeat steps 9 – 10 once.
12. Treat with a solution of alum, or alum mixed with ashes and Saccharum Saturni (lead acetate).
13. Dry, wash, dry.
14. Madder once or twice with Turkey madder to which a little sheep's blood is added.
15. Wash
16. Boil in a lye made of soda ash or the dung liquor
17. Wash and dry.


Sophie Munns said...

A said in previous comments on last post on colour...
I must share this with those I think would love to read this Angela.

Much appreciated...

Sam said...

Great post, Angela. Here are two more books on color that are worth checking out (if you aren't already familiar with them):

angvou said...

Thank you both!
I will definitely take a look at those books. I love getting tips for new reading material!

male said...

Angela, hi from downunder!
. . . just dropped in on this and thought you should know about it:
Cheers from mal E

angvou said...

Mal! Good to hear from you.
Harrummph! on the Daily Poetics-- she could have given me a tip of the hat unless she found totally by coincidence...

Kickcan & Conkers said...

Found your blog today and thoroughly enjoyed exploring it. These colour charts are wonderful. I posted the last one on my Tumblr along with one of the WW11 posters you showed, with a link to your site.
Will definitely be back!


angvou said...

@Kickcan and Conkers Thank you very much! It's alway ecxiting to get a note like yours.

I have to admit I know nothing about how to do Tumblr or even Twitter... And I know I'm missing out there.

cristina eugenia said...

You may be interested in this article about forbidden colors...



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