A Few Pigments That Interest Me

At least right now, these are pigments that have my attention.

1.  Prussian Blue

Prussian Blue, PB27

Prussian Blue, PB27

Code: PB27
Source:  Sennelier, almost any pigment source
Staining: medium
Transparency: yes
Permanence/Lightfastness: Excellent
Granulation: extreme
Weight: heavy

Prussian Blue is interesting for many reasons.  First, the extreme fatness of the pigment grain.  While it is possible to grind and grind and grind by hand, or to just buy Prussian Blue already ground by commercial grinders from the big paintmakers, it is actually the heavy graining of this pigment that is so appealing to me.  If applied liberally to a very wet paper, the grain size becomes almost sculptural on the surface of the paper.  In fact, to keep these weighty little grains from coming off the paper requires a lot of tree gum — or a final once over with some godawful petroleum derived product.

But Prussian Blue is interesting for other reasons.  It’s been around for a long time — and has been used without much comment.  It’s only been the last couple of decades that it has been associated with radioactivity — or rather, associated with preparedness for radiation.  What was once purely an artists pigment is now stockpiled in secure locations throughout the world as a just-in-case measure.  However — since so few people know about the stockpiles, and they are so few and far between, it is doubtful that the (original) little blue pills could make it into the hands of those who would benefit from them in the window of hours where they could be of use.

But if it came to it, and the distribution actually worked — it would be a wide-spread case of Blue Flu.  Or maybe Blue-Man Group measles.

I’m not sure what just eating the un-refined pigment would do, but I guess a little honey, gum arabic and glycerin would make a fine wash soup.  A little salt, perhaps.


2.  Naples Yellow

Naples Yellow Italian, PBr24

Naples Yellow, PBr24

Code: PBr24
Source:  ask me
Staining: no
Transparency: fully opaque
Permanence/Lightfastness: Excellent
Granulation: very very slight
Weight: lightweight earth

First, let’s be clear.  Naples Yellow and Antimony are not the same thing.  Somebody (we won’t name names) working on their dissertation or some other such academic research project named them as equal, put it on the internet, and now, like Leonard Cohen’s amazing Hallelujah falsely attributed to some third-rate cover artist on youtube; or like the mythological story of the 37 words for snow in the Eskimo language; the error has become ifact.

Naples yellow is both the name of the color — a warm, pale, creamed-egg yolk color — and the dirt it was made from — earth and minerals and clay and dreams.

According to those who know such things, the vein of original Naples Yellow was used up by the early Renaissance.  Since then, every Tom, Dick and Harry of a paintman has been trying to reproduce it.  Creamy, custard yellow.  Pure earth and a pure, smooth paint whether emulsified with oils or with casein for fresco.  For centuries it was everywhere — a fossil fuel of a pigment — an unrivaled feast for the eyes, and freedom for the spirit.  But like most easily available commodities, Naple’s own yellow was taken for granted.  Used by every beginning painter and every idiot with a brush.

And then it was gone.

And so, for about 500 years, it’s been reproduced by mixing other pigments/paints together.  Many contemporary paintmakers and painters recreate it out of a mix of unbleached titanium combined with tiny bits of airylide yellow (don’t do it if you’re making watercolor — the airylides are fugitive) and alizarin crimson (the dirty dog of fugitive organic pigments.)  Or maybe a little yellow ochre from Provence mixed in for a fluffier body than the heavy titanium provides.

If you leave the not-lightfast pigments and the heavy metals behind, however, it gets difficult.  Even worse — the ochres that do come close in color to real Naples Yellow don’t have the same weight or grain — and certainly not that buttery texture.

What to do?  Well, if you’re working in oils or (!) petroleum by products, then the texture and the weight are not so important.  But if you’re working in water media — any mixture has the potential to separate within the film of water.

But there is a pigment –a bitch to find, and harder to buy — that seems to have all the magical properties required.  It’s designated PBr24.

Most of the time when you find a source that claims to have it, it’s an acidic orange-yellow color, closer to the color associated with Indian Yellow than the softness of Naples.  The grain can also be harder, with more of a manganese feel than butter-clay. The real thing is still from Italy — but I don’t have a clue where in Italy.  Nobody I’ve ever bought it from would tell.  It’s like a secret stash.  I suppose you’d have to go foraging, or find some talkative Italian who knows his paint….

But if you ever do find a source — buy it by the kilo.


3.  Irgazine Red, Ruby (or Deep)

Irgazine ruby

Irgazine ruby

Code: PR 264.561300
Source: Kremer
Staining: yes
Transparency: med transparency
Permanence/Lightfastness:  Excellent
Granulation: none
Weight: aerosol/airborne

Irgazine (pick from any one of 4 or 5 spellings) is a treat.  Especially this ruby.  You grind it with watercolor medium components and it takes for-bloody-ever because the particle size is sooooo small.  It wafts and billows like smoke.  Masking up is absolutely necessary (and long sleeves, medical gloves, bandanas, socks, jeans, shoes, hard hat and goggles….)  In fact — you can expect to be wiping traces of ruby red off the windows in other rooms, and out of your armpits for weeks.

What you get for all that red fluffing puffery is the most permanent, unforgiving, transparent and beautiful pure blue shadowed red on the market.  This is the red cadmium red extra dark dreamed of being and then became poisonous to get revenge.

Diluted, it looks like a sharp red ink.  In mass, it looks like dried blood that has no intention of oxidizing.  It’s a shocking color.  Dangerous.  Gutsy.  Wonderful.


4.  Minnesota Pipestone (Catlinite)

Minnesota Pipestone pipes

Minnesota Pipestone pipes

Minnesota Pipestone, raw

Minnesota Pipestone, raw

Code:  — natural stone —
Source:  tribal permission required/ tribal sales, though more available these days; Catlinite also available in Kansas
Staining: No
Transparency: semi-transparent
Permanence/Lightfastness:  Excellent
Granulation:  Yes
Weight: Moderately heavy

This is a color that I think of as purely North American.  There may be veins of catlinite other places in the world, but this is the color of peace pipes and ritual — it’s what they’re carved from.  Because it is fairly soft to grind, it became a pigment almost as soon as artists found it — and it became the color used to paint North American Indians for the folks back home on the East Coast when the explorers and g-men went tromping across the plains.

In contemporary use, it has only recently been incorporated into the artist’s palette because its source, a small area of land in Minnesota, belonged to the tribe of Indians there, and nobody asked.  You could always buy little pipestone carving kits from the tourist shops — carve your own peace pipe and all that.  Now, however, the tribe has figured out what the artists had forgotten, and started selling it by the pound to both individual artists and paintmen from all over the world.

In other media, it produces a rich, nearly salmon color red.  But in water, it varies from the deep cinnabar color that comes from polishing and use, to a soft, pomegranate marble wash, that leaves all the veins of variegated marble in tact, and the grainy texture as well.


5.  Slate Gray/Slate Black

Slate Black, PBlk18

Slate Black, PBlk18

Slate Black/Gray, PBlk19

Slate Black/Gray, PBlk19

Code: PBlk18, or PBlk19
Source: Arizona
Staining: none
Transparency:  completely opaque
Permanence/Lightfastness: Excellent
Granulation: yes
Weight: light mineral

I have to admit that these pigments are included here because I love their subtlety.  While any of the iron oxide blacks are thick and irregularly grainy; graphite is smooth, microcrystalline and uniformly a gray velvet; ivory black doesn’t exist; bone black breaks in water; perylene black is green, and pure carbon soot floats across any film of water like oil across the Gulf of Mexico, dirtying-up everything in its path… these black/grays (neither is the pitch black of carbon, but then what is?) provide shadow that can be either warmed or cooled easily, a grain that can be given the lay of fine fur, and a richness that manages to NOT dominate color in proximity.


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