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.

How Green is Blue???

There is no blue bluer than the blue broken heart when first love goes south. Only someone green to life feels that. Other pains are certain to come later, but never that one again.

After that a person might become a painter with a less metaphorical perspective on green and blue.

The most beautiful blue (historically) is Ultramarine blue. I’ve written about it at length here but in case you don’t want to go read that, the color comes from Lapis Lazuli and, in medieval times was used only on the robes of the most holy people — Jesus and his mom.

The annunciation by Giusto de’ Menabuoi in the Baptistry of the Cathedral, Padova

To my eye, ultramarine is a greenless blue. In fresco — as in the painting above — ultramarine blue (which is made of crystals resulting from lapis lazuli when it’s ground to a powder) magically bonds with the gypsum in the plaster, miraculously reflecting light from the myriad microscopic faces of the crystalline ground. In medieval times ultramarine blue was rare so, naturally, extremely expensive. Even now, the real ultramarine blue made from lapis is $35 for a 3 ml tube. I bought one a couple years ago. I also bought real gypsum painting ground for oil paint. It needs to be mixed and cooked, and so far, that’s the hold up.

We now have synthetic ultramarine blue which is as ultramarine blue as the real deal.

“Knight” stand (a piece of furniture) the sky is pure ultramarine blue acrylic

The oil paints I use are made in Portland by Robert Gamblin’s company. Gamblin himself began as a restorer of painting. His beautiful ode to ultramarine blue says everything: In Praise of Ultramarine Blue

“Memorial” by Robert Gamblin — it seems to me to be Ultramarine, white, Cerulean with Alizarin Crimson touching the clouds

Ultramarine blue is one of the most versatile blues. It mixes well with most other colors and gives greens and sky that are as natural as morning. It’s usually the blue included in beginning painting sets.

Other blues tend more to green. Cerulean blue — another useful blue, one that emerge in the 19th century with the development of synthetic colors — is, to my eye, not as pure as ultramarine. It seems to have a black cast to it and a tinge of green. On a canvas, it looks like the sky with a bit of haze.

Cerulean blue

A couple of years ago I started a large painting. I was so determined to start it that I wasn’t thinking and, in fact, got the underpainting colors of the mountains and sky reversed. It doesn’t matter. This painting is a LONG way from finished, but you can see ultramarine (sky) and cerulean (mountains) together. Though the cerulean is reduced to a thin tint, the difference is still clear. I don’t know when I’ll actually DO this painting. It’s immense. 4′ x 6′ I think…

Sangre de Cristos in Saquache County

Another popular blue is Cobalt Blue, a very vivid blue, made of cobalt and aluminum. I don’t use it at all, though I have in the past. I don’t know why I don’t use it, but I think it’s because, to my eye, it’s a bit too black and green for me. I don’t remember how it mixes, either. The two colors I look for when mixing something into blue are green and purple, so my guess is that it just didn’t give me what I wanted.

Another popular blue is indigo — beautiful color, blue with a tinge of black. If you want to see it, just look at your jeans. They are most likely dyed with some version of indigo. Back in the day, indigo came from India and was pretty expensive, but medieval people discovered the woad plant gave a similar blue. The problem with woad is that growing it depleted the soil so severely that nothing would grow where the woad had grown. But, woad made people rich.

Recently a new blue was discovered — the first new blue in 200 years. It’s beautiful. I have no idea how it works in paint or if it’s even available. It doesn’t even have a real name yet, just a bunch of letters.

“Well, I asked my graduate student to mix three components. One is yttrium oxide, which is white; indium oxide, which is yellow; and manganese oxide, which is black. So the next morning I was in the lab, and he pulled the sample of the furnace, 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit, and I was shocked because all the samples came out vivid blue. In the beginning, I thought he made a mistake. I thought it would be like brown or black. Then I asked him to repeat the experiment and we could again get the blue. Blue is the most difficult color to make, and we found it extremely stable, so that made me really excited, and we find this to be the first new blue pigment in 200 years.”


These days we have the Pantone Chart which seems to be a catalog of every color its tints (mixed with white) and shades (maybe mixed with black, maybe mixed with their complimentary color). Until today I didn’t really know what “Pantone” was other than the chips of paint you find at Home Depot or some other hardware or home improvement shop. Write a blog a day and learn, I say.

From the Pantone chart of blues, you can see for yourself how green is blue. As an artist, I mix a lot of these myself. Seeing color is one of the deep pleasures of painting.

Pantone chart, blue to green

In the painting world, the way to make these colors is by adding blue to yellow. Sounds simple, and it is simple, but just as there is a variety of blue, there is variety of yellow… Another post for another day.

My painting of Cornflowers/Bachelor buttons. I knew I’d gotten the color right when a bee attempted to land on the painting. After this (tedious?) tutorial you can probably name the blues (or have them….)

I’ll stop here. This is probably more about blue than you will ever need to know. πŸ™‚

Here’s an awful song about blue… I really think the color deserves better.