I Could go ON and ON and ON but…

Most of them are just rocks and dirt that people discovered ages ago they could use to paint with. Cave paintings like this one from Argentina have been found wherever there is ochre clay clinging to the rocks, usually near limestone caves. Limestone + water + pigment = fresco. To get these amazing paintings, all they had to do was pulverize some ochre, put it in a hollow reed, wet the wall of the cave, put a hand up and blow through the reed.

Cueva de los Manos, Argentina. Red, brown and white ochre.

Ochre is common throughout the world. I saw brilliant green and gold ochre outside Verona (Verona green ❤ ). I’ve had the chance a few times to go to the Paint Mines not far from Colorado Springs. It’s a spot where Indians dug for face paint, but the white clay there is also good for pottery.

Artists still use these ancient pigments. We draw and even paint with charcoal and lamp black. All of our “earth colors” are really earth colors.

Under the boot and on the toe you can see the color of the pink rock from the Paint Mines that’s in the featured photo.

Other colors were harder to come up with long ago. Red was extremely challenging to produce, and some shades were deadly poisonous. A beautiful non-toxic red — carmine — could be derived from the Cochineal beetle which is found in South America. Carmine made its way to Europe in the 16th century. It was so valuable that the Spanish — who had cornered the resource, obviously — kept its source a secret until the 18th century. The most common red was ferrous oxide (rust). Some very rare and expensive colors are now made synthetically. Artists have benefitted through “better living through chemistry,”

The most beautiful blue came from this rock:

Raw Lapis Lazuli
Padua, Baptistry of the Cathedral, Giusto de Menabuoi

Ultramarine blue was so rare and expensive, its production (obviously) not easy, that for a while it was worth more than gold. For a long time, it was used only on Jesus’ robes. It is Ultramarine Blue — “ultra marine” — across the sea. It is made from Lapis Lazuli and came from Afghanistan to Europe on any of the arduous and dangerous trade routes.

A tube of Ultramarine Blue made from Lapis I bought last year before my hip surgery, and my ultramarine blue watercolor pencil

These days, many of the colors we use are synthetically derived — including ultramarine blue. Paints are less poisonous. Artists’ favorite white, lead white, became illegal in the 19th century and now there are a few substitutes. It’s thought Van Gogh went nuts from eating his cadmium yellow paint in fits of sunflower driven ecstasy.

Like any painter — have favorite brands. For watercolor, obviously, I love Caran d’Ache. I usually use pencils, but I also use watercolor crayons and paints from their traditional box, too.

My favorite oil painting brand is Gamblin Oil Paint. They are made in Portland, Oregon, in a small company, Gamblin Artist’s Colors. The founder, Robert Gamblin, is, among other things, an art restorer who builds traditional pigments, which, of course, I love. One of the main aims of the company is the production of safer paints and solvents. The oil colors and various media are beautiful, easy to use and responsive to my way of painting. The solvents are not only less toxic but also less stinky which is good because the place where I paint has no ventilation other than the doorway to the kitchen.

Well, as I said, I could go on and on and on…


I keep my paints in a jewelry box made by my Uncle Hank.

20 thoughts on “I Could go ON and ON and ON but…

    • I don’t know if it’s true about Van Gogh, but I first heard it from a really beautiful documentary series called The Power of Art done by art historian Simon Schama.

  1. My mother painted too. Oils only, although I think she gave a shot at acrylic towards the end. I remember the smell of the paint and the oil. I never thought about the paint until I had to buy my own and discovered that even cheap paint isn’t cheap and good paint is a second mortgage.

    I’m glad they are less poisonous and I wonder how many times my mother, in slathering on that white paint on every canvas she stretched, was ever so slightly poisoned. She was sure that oil painting would make her live longer — I think she got that from Monet and some other impressionists who lived really long lives. She said it was the oil that did it.

    Didn’t work for her. But oh how she loved her paint and her easels and the loving care she put on her brushes. I’m pretty sure she was a lot more loving to those brushes than to any of the kids. She liked us well enough, especially when we went out to play. She just liked painting much more.

  2. I used to love the feel of paint, squeezing it out of a tube, sometimes thinning it down to a glaze, sometimes applying a thick impasto. I can understand the fun of blowing paint over your hand, taking it away to leave an outline on rock or paper while your hand comes away with a layer of rich colour. If I go back to painting again it will be because of that tactile memory.

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