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Cinnabar, as Theophrastus notes, occurred naturally in certain mountain cliffs in Spain, from which trained archers could dislodge lumps of it with their arrows. It was highly prized although inferior to vermilion. But it is not known whether cinnabar behaves as peculiarly as vermilion — which occasionally turns black in time due to atmospheric exposure.
For this reason, and for its poisonous nature, vermilion is not used in the printing or paint industry. In the fine artist's palette it has been replaced by cadmium red (arguably just as toxic, but more reliable) and in commercial work by the modern synthetic pigments that are produced in the petroleum and plastics industries such as tolidine red or quinacridine red, first synthesized in the 1930s.
THE ESSENTIALS OF VERMILION, CADMIUM RED AND SYNTHETIC REDS
Commercially available as:
Vermilionette, cadmium red, and synthetic red such as quinacridone; red universal stain.
Vermilion — mercuric sulphide. Cadmium red — cadmium sulphide with cadmium selenide.
Vermilion — Moderate by skin contact; high by ingestion and inhalation possibly resulting in mercury poisoning and damage to the liver and nervous system.
Cadmium red — Insignificant by skin contact but high byingestion or inhalation. Cadmium in chronic exposure is carcinogenic and can cause other illnesses such as liver damage and anemia. Synthetic reds — Although pigments from similar groups (such as phthalo blues and greens) are known carcinogens, these pigments appear much safer. However, as a result of chronic ingestion or inhalation as powders, it is suspected that they may contribute to the likelihood of cancer.
* For bright detail work in period decoration covering Greek styles to the nineteenth century. Particularly evocative if used in conjunction with medieval dull greens and earth colors.
Just as a bright red is useful in the decorative painter's palette for brightening other colors such as red ochre, so a bright yellow is indispensable for cheering up greens and yellow ochres. King's yellow, known as orpiment to the ancients, was mined by the earliest civilizations and prized for its brilliance, opacity, and warmth. The name derived from auripigmentum, literally meaning golden pigment. However, it would not work when mixed with either copper- or lead-based pigments which precluded it from the painting of houses inside and out. Also, Cennini mentions that even when used alone in wall paints, orpiment was likely to turn black once applied. Its rarity coupled with these strange handling properties means that there is little evidence for its early use in decoration.
As early as the fifteenth century this bright yellow was being artificially manufactured for use by artists, and by the early 1700s was in use as a decorative color and known as king's yellow. However, since the pigment consists of highly poisonous arsenic trisulphide, its use must have been carefully considered. Nevertheless, it was used as a wall painting color throughout the eighteenth century since any color of such brilliancy was bound to attract the interest of fashionable aristocracy, forever in pursuit of the novel.
At that time the choice of pigment was between king's yellow, rather fugitive yellow lakes made from buckthorn berries, safflower or fustic, and the politely named Indian yellow, made from the urine of cows fed on mango leaves: some choice. Today, the warmth and opacity of king's yellow is best imitated by chrome and cadmium yellow pigments and paints (both of which are also highly toxic and should be used only in the artist's palette). Synthetic yellows such as hansa yellow or a permanent yellow such as barium yellow, are not as opaque as either king's or cadmium yellows, but are considered safer to handle in paint form. Only cobalt yellow should ever be handled in powder form (unlike all the other yellows, cobalt is not a known carcinogen) and even then under strict conditions of safety and hygiene.
THE ESSENTIALS OF KING'S YELLOW
Commercially available as:
Cobalt yellow, chrome yellow, hansa yellow; yellow universal stain.
Arsenic trisulphide (in king's yellow).
King's yellow is fatally poisonous. Modern equivalent yellows have their own problems. Zinc yellow, strontium yellow, barium yellow, and cadmium yellow are known carcinogens and should never be handled in powder form or used outside the easel artist's palette. Chrome yellow is also a teratogen and mutagen, and hansa yellow is also a suspected carcinogen. Use the latter only in liquid form and exercise extreme caution.
* Tinting white paints to produce fresh bright yellow wall colors, as used in the eighteenth century for small rooms and print rooms.
* For brightening yellow ochre.
* In heraldic work and detail work in decoration from medieval times onwards.
By looking at the essential 13 colors on the preceding pages, you can see that they belong to an obvious historical palette as well as forming the basic vocabulary of many regional color schemes. Those of Mediterranean countries spring to mind particularly, because it is there that many of the listed pigments are employed full-strength and unmixed. However, the more subtle colors and delicate tints associated with northern climes were missing from these pages and it is these that are illustrated here and overleaf. As much as single pigment colors are used by themselves, they are also blended to form a variety of secondary and subtle primary colors. These 13 swatches each display a simple two-color blend on the left-hand side. Each subsequent paint dab has then been made using the color shown on the left mixed with increasing quantities of white paint to produce a series of tints.
The great advantage of this layout of swatches is that it shows just what a wide range of mixes are available by intermixing just a few pigments. Gratifyingly, most of these colors, such as putty, stone, pearl, pea green, grass green, and drab, have come to be recognized as correct for buildings put up in the last two to three centuries. All are usually a mix of two colors from the traditional palette, plus white.
The series demonstrates, then, that it is easy to mix your own blends for authentic decoration, and that a fantastically wide range of decorative colors can be produced from the core of essential colors. Moreover, only a total of 8 of the 13 essential colors were used here, and so these swatches are by no means an exhaustive survey of the colors that can be mixed. To gain a true understanding of the potential of the basic palette it is a good idea to buy 13 tubes of acrylic or gouache paint, plus white and experiment yourself.
Most importantly, these blends are excellent decorating colors for a reason other than historical accuracy. The fact that they contain true pigments in simple, uncomplicated and unmuddied blends means that when on the wall, or furniture, they appear much more lively and interesting than shop-bought blends containing synthetic pigments. In short, they look good, regardless of the exact quantity of white paint added, or of the exact blend of the two pigments.
Copyright © 1996 by Ebury Press
Part One: COLOR
A history of paint color
Part Two: PAINT
Essential materials and brushes
The secret life of media in this book
Blending pigments and paints
Preparation and finishing
1 Traditional paints & techniques
2 Decorative techniques
3 Reflective techniques
4 Textural techniques
5 Aging techniques
6 Patterning techniques
Part Three: REFERENCE
Paint color and light theories