Composition of Paint
If you think of paint as a two-part material, with the oil being the glue that binds the pigment particles into place, it is the pigment that is responsible for delivering the colour. The pigment must therefore have the following qualities:
- it must be light-fast to a reasonable level (i.e. far more light-fast than would be acceptable for house-paint)
- it must not be soluble in oil or in thinners like turpentine
- it must have the right pH balance (i.e. acid to alkaline) with the linseed oil or other oil into which it is ground, otherwise the pigment might have little resistance to the bleaching effect of an acidic oil (which would cause a marked colour shift)
- it must not, in normal circumstances, react chemically with other pigments in the range
So paint manufacturers choose pigments which have these properties, or rather the ability to resist these forms of attack. Broadly speaking we divide pigments into two groups: inorganic and organic.
These are pigments not made from the tissues or chemical residues of animals or plants. They can be further divided into those which are natural and those which are man-made. The natural are a simple matter to discuss. All our predecessors did was to dig them out of the ground or from rock faces. In most instances these were dry ground with a pestle and mortar until they made a fine powder. In the case of Lapis Lazuli (the original version of Ultramarine Blue) excessive grinding simply causes the blue colour to disappear! There are many books which tell romantic stories of the mystique which, sometimes inappropriately, surrounds these pigments. Vermilion, for instance, in its natural form was called Cinnabar, a granular terra-cotta-like mineral which was gathered by shooting arrows at seams exposed in cliff faces.
We live in a modern world where the word ”natural” is normally associated with superior quality. Yes, you could take a natural earth as did the colour makers of the Renaissance and laboriously grind it, but the result, unromantically, may well be unstable physically, and contain such impurities as to make it colorifically impermanent. To be honest, as an artist’s colourman, I find the natural earth pigments a nightmare to use in making paint, and if possible I avoid them! But for Terre Verte and Raw Sienna there are no manufactured substitutes. Both have been micronised to give them consistency. I find that Terre Verte is very stable, in that adverse changes in consistency can be avoided after a few days. But Raw Sienna is a different matter: not only does it contain “free radicals” (other elements) which are wild cards awaiting something to react with, but it has a tendency sometimes to flocculate, which means that particles, once evenly dispersed, might later regroup like miniature magnets and form lumps. You have been warned!
Unsurprisingly, paint makers, over thousands of years, have attempted to regularize supplies of stable pigments by initiating chemical processes (until quite recently, without fully understanding them) which create more reliable versions of such “found” materials. A good example of this is Lead Carbonate, which is a naturally occurring chemical, but which has been made for centuries by the “stack” process, and is of course the constituent pigment of the uniquely handling Lead Whites. Most of the earth colours are in fact mixtures of Iron Oxide and Manganese or Magnesium salts, and modern chemistry allows these to be manufactured to the highest standards of consistency and purity. As such chemical knowledge developed, other metal compounds were found to be useful. Between 1780 and 1900 chemists progressively discovered that Zinc, Chrome, Cobalt, Manganese, Titanium and above all Cadmium based compounds provided the basis for some of the most brilliant and durable colours you will find on your palette today. I find that man-made inorganic pigments are a dream to make paint from – and to paint with. The only disappointment was the Lead Chromates (not to be confused with Chromium Oxide) which have been abandoned due to their tendency to darken and to react with other colours. The rest have been unqualified successes.
As I said, organic pigments are constituted of what was, at some time, plant or animal matter. And again they divide into the natural and those resulting from sophisticated manufacture. The natural ones were made simply by crushing up insect or vegetable tissue (e.g. Cochineal, Gamboge, Indigo, Madder).As you might expect, these were hardly a safe bet for reliability, and except for restoration purposes they have long since been replaced by more stable compounds. I suppose that the one survivor into widespread modern use is Ivory Black, now made from charred animal bones, originally from ivory scraps.
The story is different with the manufactured or synthetic versions. The basis for these pigments is the residue of plants compressed in strata of rock millions of years ago – the hydrocarbon compounds we know as crude oil. In the 18th century chemists were starting to experiment with “coal tar” in order to make lake pigments, that is, coloured liquids which have to be given body with inert powder so as to be used as paint. The results were usually disastrously impermanent, as some portraits by Joshua Reynolds demonstrate. Throughout the 19th century manufacturers produced many “coal-tar” or aniline dyes for industrial purposes but lacked the means to test their permanence. Often, artists would use these brilliant lakes, only to find they would fade in 5-10 years. As a result, by the 1930’s their reputation stood very low. Twenty years later, three synthetic organic lake pigments were regarded as stable enough for artistic purposes: Alizarin Crimson, and Phthalo Blue and Green. The big change came with the adoption of uniform rigorous lightfastness tests by the American Society of Testing and Manufactures (i.e. the AMTS ratings you might be familiar with), the huge expansion of the plastics and chemicals industries in the 1950’s, and the demand for pigments lightfast enough to stand up to, say, tropical sunshine on a car body. Consequently the last fifty years have seen the development of brilliant and very lightfast organic pigments, many with names I find difficult to pronounce.
The quality of pigment that I, as a colourman, can obtain, has never been higher. And as I aim to produce what Chris Ofili has described as “beautifully honest” paint I intend to take advantage of all the advantages of modern paint chemistry. I am not in the business of making twee “old master” colour which will disappoint. Unfortunately, for many large paint manufacturers, the incentives have never been stronger to counter these advances in raw materials by favouring their own cost-benefit at the expense of the ultimate quality of the product. I aim to benefit artists, and not my accountants. Just thinking about making Burnt Umber on a three roll mill excites me. Perhaps I’ll just stop for the day, go home and start painting!
The Paints, Past and Present
(Unless otherwise stated, all paints are bound with Refined Cold-Pressed Linseed Oil)