Monday, August 25, 2014

Exotic Recipes from Artists' Apothecaries

Run by the Quakers until it closed in 1933, the Stabler-Leadbetter Apothecary Museum is a step back in time.

Wherever I go, I collect samples of local earth. I scrape ancient statues into old film canisters with a pocketknife and keep them for my collection; the rainbow-colored sandstone of Petra is a particular favorite. I keep it in a box under my bed next to the bald eagle eggs. Relax, I'm joking. I ate those eggs ages ago. 

Swirls of color in sandstone, Petra, Jordan [Ed Trayes, photographer]
But pigment has always had a colorful history; explorers travelled to the four corners for centuries specifically to plunder color, until chemists in the 18th century wrested the practice from the hands of alchemists and their hired goons and took it indoors to the laboratory. But to this day, certain colors retain hints of their exotic past. Red ocher, for example, is a constant reminder of our stellar origins. Iron oxide is forged in the belly of dying stars that explode and scatter their contents across the galaxy. In fact, Mars still sends a kilo of it to us every day. (I wrote a whole post about it, here)

Companies like De Mairo Pigments still sell natural lapis lazuli pigment
Not content with simply smearing our canvases with dirt, we've forever ranged across the earth to uncover ever more exotic pigments. As with any modern luxury item, the rarest pigment conferred a whiff of superiority upon anyone rich enough to afford it. The expensive pigment cinnabar was conspicuously splashed all over the walls of Pompeii. We assume that they just liked the color red, or were colorblind, but in the same way that we line up to buy the latest designer excrescence, perhaps they simply had to have it because it was new and exotic. Ancient Egyptians wore lapis from Afghanistan and iron beads from Mars. Venice, by the late fifteenth century, had developed an offshoot of the apothecary specifically for artists, called vendecolori, which sold pigments like the exotic oltremare da venezia – lapis lazuli imported from the mines of Badakshan, and first described by none other than Marco Polo.(1) 

The deep saturation of "Pompeiian Red" is due to the addition of fine granules to the pigment.
Wax was applied to preserve and protect the finish.

Before this time, it was perfectly natural for artists to run down to their local Apothecary for the ingredients of their craft, but these were closer in spirit to shaman's huts than laboratories. Records of Apothecaries dating as far back as 1,500 BCE in ancient Egypt show over 800 recipes and 700 different drugs.(2) Not all of the ingredients were exotic in a "strange and alluring" way, some of them were just plain weird: By the time the Renaissance rolled around, these ingredients naturally expanded to include all sorts of herbs and ground minerals of every kind and color, soaps, cosmetics, gems such as amethyst and emeralds, oddities like “ground unicorn horn” (rhinoceros horn that came through Spain from Africa), tobacco (also through Spain in the fifteenth century), sulfur, mercury, the skin of roasted vipers, dried earthworms and human faeces (most prized being those of young children), bizarre elixirs and, of course, illegal poisons like arsenic and hemlock: Shakespeare’s Romeo picked up the poison he used to kill himself from an apothecary. 

Victorian Medicine Case [source]

Combine this with the practice (for certain illustrators of Islamic illuminated texts) of making the finest brushes from hairs gathered from the inside throats of kittens, and it's easy to see why artists were traditionally looked at sideways. As for me, I'll stick to ordering from the catalog.

Recommended reading:
"Color," Victoria Finlay, Random House
"Colors: The Story of Dyes and Pigments," Abrams Discoveries

(1) Vendecolori a Venezia: the reconstruction of a Profession,” ­Louisa C. Matthew, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 144, No. 1196 (Nov., 2002), pp. 680-686
(2) A History of Pharmaceutical Compounding. Secundum Artem ,” Allen, Jr, Lloyd, Volume 11 Number 3.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Q: Why is the Sky Brighter over the Sea when it's Windy?

Breezing Up, Winslow Homer
A: Ask a sailor. 

There was a time when reading the weather meant more than just clicking an app on your smartphone. Seafaring Greeks, Vikings or Moors weren't concerned about choosing appropriate footwear for the long walk to the car, or remembering to pack a sweater to brave frigid air conditioners in corporate HQ; they needed to learn to read natural signs of approaching weather because their lives depended on it.

Becalmed mariners have long known when a stiff wind is approaching because the sky over the sea gets brighter in that direction. Why? It was a mystery for years until Galileo Galilei came along and applied his massive brain to the problem. The famed mathematician and astronomer was known to take long walks on the beach while contemplating the heavens, and while sitting on a hill overlooking the ocean one day, it suddenly occurred to him.

He had been pondering the question of the texture of the moon: Since the moon appeared so bright in the night sky, did that mean that its surface was mirror-like? Was it so smooth that it reflected the sun's rays directly towards the eyes of this earth-bound observer? Or was it rough and rocky?

His Eureka moment came while witnessing the effect of approaching wind on the water. As the wind picked up, it would roughen the surface of the water. If the sun was shining at the time, and the air being dense with moisture, the now fractured surface of the water would bounce the reflection of the light source (the sun) in all directions, where it would be scattered by the humid atmosphere and appear bright:

"From such waves, as from many mirrors spread over a wide area, there would originate a much brighter reflection of the sun than would exist if the sea were calm. Then that part of the vapor-laden air may be made brighter by this new light and by the diffusion of that reflection.  
This air, being high, sends also some reflection of light to the eyes of the sailors, while they, being low and far off would not be able to receive the primary reflection from that part of the sea which is already being ruffled by the wind twenty or thirty miles away. And that is how they perceive and predict a wind from afar."
Galileo's theory that rougher surfaces appear brighter than smooth surfaces led him to claim that the surface of the moon must be rocky and not glass-like; a theory that would be proven correct many centuries later when we finally stood on it. I say "we": I had nothing to do with it. 

He proposed a thought experiment to illustrate his point: Imagine that the sun is shining on a bright white-washed stone wall. Now, imagine hanging a mirror on that wall and stepping across the courtyard. Which looks brighter; the mirror or the wall? Spoiler alert: it's the wall.

Man in Armour, Rembrandt van Rijn

What's this got to do with painting? 

Medieval illuminators knew to think of gold-leafed areas of their panels as dark compositional elements, even though symbolically they represented the effulgent light of the Lord. It was obvious to them that while the applied gold surface may have been reflective, it was not shiny: it was physically dark under normal lighting conditions

Basically my point is this: paint shiny surfaces dark except for their specular highlights.

You should also look at this post regarding the technique for painting reflective surfaces like gold.