There was a time when every painter grinded his pigments from minerals and earths and other elements, and it was a long and laborious process. This was before the invention of colors-in-tubes.
Azurite was the most popular blue pigment. It was made by grinding the mineral with the same name, which occurred in and around silver veins, on a porphyry slab with a muller and water, until it became a creamy paste. Then it was put in a little jar which was filled with water and covered. Azurite tended to deteriorate if ground too much. But often, the more a pigment was ground, the better the color it yielded.
Here’s what Cennino Cennini, who wrote The Craftsman Handbook around 1400, says:
‘Then put vermilion on the slab, and grind it with clear water as much as ever you can; for if you were to grind it every day for twenty years it would still be better and more perfect.’
When the time for painting came, the jar with azurite was fetched, and some of the soupy pigment was put again on the porphyry slab and and mixed with egg yolk, the binder that made it stick to the ground of the panel, and river water, and ground some more.
Good pigments were hard to find. Ultramarine, the bluest of blues, was the most precious. It was ground from lapis lazuli, which did not occur in Europe and was imported from the east.
Oliver Colors the Moonbeamed Painter, whose biography I am writing at present, and from whom I have learned all these things about colors, cannot afford ultramarine. Yet he is determined to procure it, for he is fond of colors, and wants to use the best ones for the masterpiece he is painting in his shadowy attic. Recently I heard him say something that startled me:
‘I shall go without eating today, and from now on I shall eat only every other day, to save money to buy ultramarine. In three years I will afford a pinch.’
In our time and age, making colors is no longer an art. Technology has taken care of that. Today the intrinsic value of the pigments no longer matters. The painting is judged based on the skill of the painter. This is why ultramarine has been substituted by cheaper alternatives made in labs.
Now there’s something I want to ask you, because soon I will join Oliver Colors in his shadowy attic again.
Do you think I should bring him a tube of that cheap ultramarine? Or should I encourage his dietary changes?