I love paint and the more I learn about it the more I love it. My favorite paint is probably ultramarine (beyond the sea) blue. That’s been a lot of peoples’ favorite for a long time. Made of lapis lazuli that comes from Afghanistan it has magical light reflecting qualities that led to it being (besides incredibly expensive) absolutely magical when used in fresco. Fresco is amazing, too – when you think about it fresco is like manmade limestone with the pigments of the artist’s choice layered (yes!) into it.
Ultramarine blue was used almost exclusively for the clothing of Jesus and his mom. You can really see it here, in the frescoes in the baptistery by Giusto de’ Menabuoi. It’s radiant.
A new blue has been discovered/made and it’s very nice, too. It was discovered by accident — I think a lot of the pigments were discovered that way. It’s lovely but doesn’t have the depth of ultramarine blue. I can’t explain why I see/say that, but… I’ll definitely paint with it if I ever paint again and it shows up in a reasonably priced tube.
One color — woad blue — was often used to paint the Heavens. It comes from a plant that was worth lots of money in medieval times leading farmers to plant it instead of food crops. It has the unfortunate ability to ruin the soil where it was grown. The blue is rather flat with a black tone similar to indigo.
One thing that amazed me about pigments is that some of the best ones are just lying around minding their own business. In Verona we went on a school field trip to a place where green and yellow ochre just hang out outside of a cave in a limestone cliff. Dwellers of said cave had made frescoes with this color by grinding it, wetting the wall of the cave, putting the color in a hollow reed, putting a hand against the wall and blowing the color onto the hand. I don’t know if they were painting the entrance of the cave to say, “This is the cave of yellow hand” or they were painting themselves. The same chemistry of water, limestone and pigment happened on that cliffside as happens in a frescoed wall.
Many colors have incredible stories. A book I’ve been reading (I’m not a major reader these days — too much research all the time) Color, a Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay, is fascinating. There are archeologists who look at the layers of paint on disintegrating medieval frescoes and are able to determine what the original colors were because, you see, paint is chemicals. They interact with each other and with light and water and change. Some of them are just very fugitive — they don’t last, they fade completely or interact with moisture in the air and change colors.
Anyway…that’s paint for you.