We’ve all dreamed of being a painter during one of the great historical art movements: Impressionism, Post Impressionism, Romanticism, Modernism, even the Renaissance. What would it have been like to have been a guest at the Medici estate during the Italian Renaissance, to sit around a table sharing conversation over a glass of absinthe with the likes of Manet, Pissarro, Renoir, Monet and Degas or to have attended a party in Gertrude Stein’s Paris apartment, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Picasso and Matisse?
As artists working in the 21st Century we’ve come to take for granted all the art conveniences we avail ourselves of each day. Painters of the past didn’t have it as good!
Take, for example, our box of paints. Not only are they highly portable (up until the middle 19th century they were traditionally stored in ram’s bladders), but the variety of available colors and the pigment’s permanence makes this a great time to be an artist.
Take a look at the mineral color palette to which artists of the Classic period (through the first half of the 19th Century) were limited (thanks to Gamblin Artists Oil Color for all these palette graphics).
Driven by a need for pigments in commercial industry, the Industrial Revolution developed abilities to fuse inorganic materials, such as cadmium, cobalt, and chromium together at high heat, greatly widening the spectrum of available colors for artist. The permanence of these new highly intense colors was not always great. Here’s a comment from Vincent Van Gogh about the problem, in one of his letters to his brother Theo, “All the colours that Impressionism has made fashionable are unstable. […] all the more reason boldly to use them too raw, time will only soften them too much.”*
Organic chemistry, in the 20th Century brought new pigments into existence (Hansa Yellow, Phthalo Blues and Greens, Napthol and Perylene Reds, Quinaquidones, Dioxazine Violet, Hue and Permanent versions). The new colors may look similar to those from the industrial revolution, but many boast better permanence and the new colors retain their chroma when changed in value, through mixing with white or other colors, which is not the case with older ones, they lose chroma as their value is changed.
While we’re on the subject of new colors and color substitutes, have you ever wondered what the descriptive “Hue” meant on a tube of paint, such as in Cerulean Blue Hue? The Hue versions are generally much less expensive than the original. This is because Hue versions have substituted multiple, often less expensive pigments to simulate the color, rather than using the traditional pigment. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as often the Hue version will use more permanent or less toxic pigments in this simulation. Read the available information about the color, understand the details before you buy.
All things considered, we’re living in a great time to be a painter!
* This emphasizes the importance, today, of understanding the permanence of the pigments you’re using. That information is usually available on painting manufacturer’s websites, is available behind the “pigment info” tab accessed by clicking the paint color identifying number on the Dick Blick website and if all else fails, at the end of a Google search. More stable substitutes are available today for many of the less permanent colors, such as Alizarin Crimson Permanent in place of Alizarin Crimson.