Experimenting with Natural Pigments

Last year for Christmas I bought myself a tube of real ultramarine blue made of lapis lazuli. This was the most beloved and rarest color of the Middle Ages and it’s so incredibly beautiful in medieval frescos, luminous and magical. I really wanted to try it. Fresco, Buon fresco, which is painted on wet plaster, is a perfect foil for the crystals of ultramarine blue. We know what oil does to paint if we’ve ever cleaned our kitchen walls. I knew it wasn’t going to look like this….

Real ultramarine on a fresco in the Baptistry of the Cathedral in Padova, painted by Giusto de Menabuoi

This past December I got an email from a company called “Natural Pigments.” For Christmas I invested in a set of oil paints made with the pigments — the real dirt, literally — used by medieval painters. They sat here on my table until this morning. Last night I dreamed about an old friend, a really good friend who was 100% supportive of me as a person, woman, artist, mind. In the dream I was showing him how beautiful the colors were when I drew with a rock I’d picked up hiking in a favorite place in Colorado Springs.

When I woke up I knew it was time to try the paints.

They are different. Modern synthetic paints have been made to be easy for artists to work with. Back in the day — until the 19th century, in fact — artists had to mix their own paints from raw pigments or chemicals. It was hard work and a lot of the chemicals are exceedingly poisonous. I imagine that for artists who lived on the shoulder of that change it was almost like going from library card catalogs to “Google” for anyone doing research today. The colors after the 19th century became more intense as the century wore on. That Van Gogh allegedly fell in love with colors makes perfect sense to me since he would have begun painting not only in comparatively dark Holland when he started out but also with different paints than he used later in Province.

So, I began by opening the tube of real Ultramarine blue. I was surprised at the color. Here’s how the two ultramarine blues compare. On top, Gamblin’s ultramarine blue (synthetic) and on the bottom Daniel Smith’s real ultramarine blue.

They’re very different

Its texture is different, too. It’s “rougher” and tints differently. I have to do more experiments with it, but today I painted sky.

The other colors are

I squeezed a bit of the colors I knew I would use onto my pallete — my palette is the top of a yogurt container. These paints are made with dirt and linseed oil. I love that so much. They were the colors I thought they would be out of the tube, but how would they be on a panel? I like best to paint on Ampersand Gessobords — basically masonite coated with gypsum plaster.

I had a photo that I thought (correctly) would naturally demand the colors I had without much mixing. I wanted to use the pure pigments as much as I could so I could get a sense of them.

I don’t, however, have the lead white that properly goes with these paints. I don’t want lead in my studio. I used a quick-drying white made by Gamblin because it’s not a very intrusive white, pretty neutral, and as these are linseed oil based paints, drying could take a while.

I went at it. It was different in the beginning because for landscapes I have a method and I couldn’t use it with these colors. I wasn’t going to mess them up by underpainting with synthetic paints and I didn’t know how these would be.

Messing around and underpainting

I wasn’t very hopeful seeing the blue which had sat in a box for more than a year in a room that for the past few months has been pretty cold. I don’t need to say a lot about what cold oil is like… But, I had a space heater in there with me and a thermal curtain pulled against the rest of the world.

I ended up loving every bit of this experience. I love the painting, too. That is not a testament to its quality, though. I love everything the moment I do it because the experience of doing it is so great. It’s a path along the Rio Grande in October.

5″x7″ in real life

I missed “real” yellow and actually needed it for this painting. The golden leaves of the cottonwood trees need that light that natural ochre, even this comparatively bright one, doesn’t have. Also, the green (real green from Veneto, from the mountains near Verona that I have seen on the ground) is very transparent but tinting it makes it heavy and weird. I couldn’t mix a green (I tried) with the ultramarine and the ochore. There’s also the fact that in October the wild asparagus is bright yellow and there is a lot of it growing at this spot. I expect to go back and work on the foreground a bit. Still, overall, this is a pretty successful painting, I think.

17 thoughts on “Experimenting with Natural Pigments

  1. As I scrolled down through this post and saw the initial painting I couldn’t imagine where you were going. Another short scroll and viola, a beautiful landscape. I’m in awe of you and other artists who can visualize all of the layers of a painting, knowing where to start and what to put on top of something else until the full idea is realized.

  2. I’m sorry I haven’t checked your blog in a couple of days, and oh lord, look what I’ve missed! So beautiful. I love art and have (surprise surprise) been spending several hours a day for the past week watching different artists working with oils acrylics and watercolours(not my favourite) and enjoying the gusto and passion and absolute talent they have at taking something and turning it into something!

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