Charlotte's Spectrum

18 Nov

Dealing with change

By Charlotte Champion 

In the fine arts, and particularly in painting, colour has always played an extremely important role. Whether artists finely blend colours to ‘precisely’ imitate nature or use the more expressive colours of emotion and imagination – traditionally these artists each made use of pigments in creating desirable colours. Painters back in the day did not buy ready-made paint as is available in many shops today. Instead they had to prepare their own pigments or have them prepared for them by their apprentices. Only after grinding the pigments by hand, could an artist create the paint itself by mixing the pigments with a binder. This could be a number of things ranging from egg yolk or white (for tempera paintings) and oil to acrylic and gum arabic. But there have been cases in which pure pigment has been used to create drawings such as the 30,000-year-old Palaeolithic horse cave paintings from the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave in southeast France.

There are different types of pigments available that can be categorized in ‘natural’ and ‘synthetic’ pigments. Under the ‘natural’ pigments fall inorganic pigments made of earth such as Yellow ochre (from iron oxide), inorganic pigments made of minerals such as the pricey Ultramarine (lapis lazuli) and lake colours which are dyes made from plants or insects absorbed by colourless inorganic powers such as Caramine (from kermes). The synthetic pigments consist of inorganic pigments (mainly since the 18th century) such as Prussian blue (created in 1704) and organic dyes from coal tar such as indigo (created in 1856). Importantly, there is also a difference in the quality of pigments – usually the higher the price the better the quality. Pigments that have a low quality are more susceptible to discolouring whereas those of high quality tend to stand the test of time. Thus the pigments with the most desirable properties are the pigments that permanence against ageing or fading. The introduction of synthetic pigments to the market did not also mean that these new pigments would better stand the test of time; on the contrary, some of the man-made pigments were found to be more susceptible to sunlight or oxygen and faded as soon as the painting left the studio. This of course proves to be major concern to conservators as well as art lovers.

(All photo's: Sigmar Polke, Farbtafeln, 1986, collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam)


One could say then that a painting is never truly ‘finished’ as a painting is never an image frozen in time. Once the colours of the pigments are exposed to the air, it is quite possible that a chemical reaction will occur that will either fade the colour or change it completely. There are many reported cases of the deep blue of Ultramarine turning black or a vibrant red pigment fading to pink. Whereas some artists and conservators alike find the instability of pigments to be a problem, some artists exploit this very fact in their work. Sigmar Polke (1941-2010) is one such artist and a prime example. Currently on exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam is a collection of works entitled Farbtafeln (colour plates) created in 1986-87 and 1992. Polke, an alchemist by profession, created large canvases covered in monotonous pure pigments that he had mixed with chemicals. Because of this, the colours are expected to change over the years creating a ‘new’ piece of work for every viewer. The artwork then is forever in a perpetual state of flux – as is intended by the artist. 

The tricky nature of pigments can bring about a lot of discussion involving many different disciplines. But what I find most interesting is to stand in front of any of Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ and ask whether they were supposed to be even brighter.

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Color Objects encourages you to get a better eye and appreciation for colors and characters. To get a special selection of pics and info for you, we find designers and artists that make colorful work from all over the world. There's a lot of character in colors, and having a closer look will change your view of the world and people around you. So we share a host of pics and info from design, art, cultures and the natural world. All about colors.

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