Surprising Ingredients in Paints Used By Famous Artists

Surprising Ingredients in Paints Used By Famous Artists

What you may not know about some of the world's most famous and recognisable paintings is that they were created with paint made from some very special ingredients. In this blog post, we will take a look at some of the more interesting paints used by artists of the past and find out what makes them so special.
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What you may not know about some of the world's most famous and recognisable paintings is that they were created with paint made from some very special ingredients. In this blog post, we will take a look at some of the more interesting (and dangerous!) paints used by artists of the past and find out what makes them so special.

 Girl with a Pearl Earring Painting by Johannes VermeerGirl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer

 Why Was Ultramarine Paint So Precious?

One of the most famous colours used by Renaissance painters is Ultramarine. It is a magnificent deep blue colour made from ground Lapis Lazuli; a semiprecious stone mined in Afghanistan. 
Artists prized the intense blue shade of Ultramarine paint throughout history. It was used by some of the most famous painters in the world, including Vermeer, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. The early use of Lapis Lazuli as a pigment comes from 6th and 7th-century cave paintings in Afghanistani Zoroastrian and Buddhist temples. This beautiful shade symbolised holiness and humility during the middle ages and renaissance. Artists used it to paint the robes of the Christ Child and the Virgin Mary in religious paintings, such as Sassoferrato's painting, The Virgin in Prayer, belowUltramarine paint was highly prized as it was more expensive than gold. Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer was noted for his use of Ultramarine, and we have included an image of his work, Girl with a Pearl Earring above. Ultramarine paint was used on her headscarf as a blue, and mixed to create the shadows on her jacket. Read more about this painting here. In 1826, a synthetic version of the shade was invented and made accessible to the masses; this colour is known as French Ultramarine and is slightly more vibrant than the original colour. 

What Is Vermillion Paint?

 Vermilion is a rich, orange-red colour made from cinnabar, a form of mercury sulfide. Cinnabar is a naturally occurring mineral in several parts of the world, including China and Spain. Mining this material is very dangerous and challenging, as mercury is poisonous, and it's dangers were known as far back as ancient Rome, where mining cinnabar was known to be a lethal occupation. Wealthy Romans used the resulting paint to paint luxurious buildings. Archaeologist and ethnologist Anne Varichon's book, Colours, includes a report from Pliny stating that the painters of Villa Dei Misteri stole lots of the expensive pigment by frequently washing their brushes and saving the wash water. Due to its toxic nature, alternatives to Vermillion have been used since fourth century China. Today we can enjoy the safe option of cadmium red, a synthetic shade invented in 1919. An interesting property of Vermilion is that it changes colour over time; you can see this in the painting, Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello. The horse's bridle was painted with Vermillion and is now dark brown, where it was originally red. 

 Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano
Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano (detail)
Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano
 by Paolo Uccello

 How Is White Lead Paint Made?

White lead paint was a popular choice for artists, but due to restrictions surrounding its sale because of its toxic content (poisonous lead), titanium white is now the preferred shade.
How was white lead paint made? It's a chemical process that begins with thin strips or buckles of metallic lead placed in earthen pots over vinager. These pots are stacked and covered with fermenting manure or tanner's bark to produce heat and CO2. After twelve to fourteen weeks, a chemical reaction has taken place, transforming the grey lead into white, which is then scraped, dried, and ground into a paste.

Did The Colour Of Napoleon's Walls Play A Role In His Death?

Scheele's Green and Paris Green are two vibrant green colours popular in the Victorian era. You can find examples of Paris Green in works by famous artists including J.M.W Turner, Monet, Renoir, Gaugin, Cézanne and Van Gough. Manufacturers used these shades in wallpaper, toys, candles, bed linen and even foods. Unfortunately, they were made of arsenic, which is toxic and has carcinogenic effects. Arsenic exposure can lead to seizures, coma, and death, and even low exposure levels can cause skin and lung irritation.
Why was exposure to Scheele's Green and Paris Green wallpaper so dangerous? Experts theorise two causes - dust particles caused by pigment and paper flaking and toxic gas production. Over time, minuscule fragments of pigment can flake off the walls into the air in the room to be inhaled. Toxic arsine gas can be released from the dye if the room is damp or mouldy. Napoleon was exiled to St Helena island, a tropical island with a humid climate. The house he lived in had rooms decorated in green - reportedly his favourite colour. He is thought to have died from stomach cancer; exposure to arsenic increases the risk of stomach cancer, and his hair's analysis also revealed high arsenic levels. 
 
 

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