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Piles of powdered colors

The Beautiful and Tempting Names of Rare Colors


Lead white, ultramarine, mauve, vermillion, Tyrian purple, cinnabar… where do all these names come from and how were the colors invented?

There are words in language that recreate the world so vividly, but above all so visually, like the impression that the “mood” of the absent object originally left in us. But there are words that even sharpen that absent object, honing its physical nature. These words are rare and fictional animals within the zoology of language. The names of colors are a magnificent example: words so seductive they “bring before our eyes”, together with a meticulous crown on their heads, the color they refer to.

Lead white, ultramarine, mauve, vermillion, Tyrian purple: names that in themselves are details of a greater or more “comprehensive” name. Because if the words that name primary colors already have the vocation of mirrors (and are scientifically sensual), those that name more complex and elaborated colors are the privileged mirrors that paint before our eyes an entire section of Art History. Finding out where some of them come from is as delicious as pronouncing them. Where do Van Gogh’s Irises come from, or Turner’s hues in Modern Rome?

The Brilliant History of Color in Art, by Victoria Finlay makes a beautiful dissertation about the history and the provenance of art’s most unique and emblematic colors. Below are some of them:

Lead White

In 18th century London, a white makeup made of lead was used to give women a “waiflike” appearance. It was extremely toxic, and eventually resulted in mental and physical illnesses. This pigment’s making process is equally disturbing: workers used to pile buckets of vinegar and lead on top of each other and covered them with manure for months. This method would then transform lead acetate into basic lead carbonate, and, in time, it would create white lead flakes. The color can be seen in many Dutch and French paintings of the 17th century: the pigment gave an ethereal halo or a luminous feel to women’s faces. (See: Burial of Atala, 1808, Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy).

Chrome Yellow

Chromed colors, created when chrome interacts with acid and alkali, were used in the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century to embellish traffic signals. When he saw these all over his city, Vincent van Gogh became infatuated with them and began to use acid induced yellows and alkali induced oranges to create contrasts in his Irises. A disturbing fact about this is that, after one of his psychotic breakdowns, he was found with a tube of chrome yellow in his mouth (this color is filled with lead). (See Irises, Vincent van Gogh, 1889).

Patent Blue

The Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, are responsible for patent blue. Towards the end of the 19th century, they used potato starch granules to create some of the first color filters used in Autochrome. The filters needed to be extremely saturated to avoid becoming blurry during the exhibition, and the results were patent blue (used in Curacao blue), tartrazine (yellow) and Bengal rose (pink). (See: Emir of Bukhara, Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, 1911.)

Tyrian Purple

When the Romans conquered the Greeks, they imported tons of pigments and paintings to Rome. Their favorite was a pigment made from the macerated enzymes of small sea shells that became a high fashion and foundation for art: purple. For some time, this type of purple was reserved solely for Roman governors and the upper classes. “Tyrian” comes from the Roman city which carries the name, located in what today is Lebanon. (See Engraved Portrait of Aurelian, anonymous, circa 260-280)

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