Tag Archives: pigments

Got The Blues

20 May

Hello. Here’s my fourth podcast. It’s about the colour blue and again is mostly based on the book Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay It’s under 10 minutes long – just about bearable 😀

Hiya. Rosie Scribblah here with another of my podcasts. I keep meaning to do them more often but I’m so slack! It’s about 10 minutes long so you don’t have to listen to me blabbing on and on and this one is about the colour Blue, which I read about in Victoria Finlay’s book “Colour: Travels Through The Paintbox” easily one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Now the thing is, before the Victorians sort of invented chemistry in the 19th century, all pigments and dyes were made from nature and there are some amazing stories about how colours were made. So here are some of the stories about Blue.


One of the most expensive paints of all time is ultramarine blue. Ultramarine means “from beyond the seas” so it wasn’t something that you could find knocking around in Europe and it cost so much that in the Renaissance it was kept for paintings of the most important figures, like the Virgin Mary. It’s a brilliant, rich blue which doesn’t fade – there are paintings half a millennium old which are just as bright as when the paint was new.

If you go to the national gallery in London there is an unfinished Michelangelo painting. The bit that he didn’t finish is the Virgin Mary’s clothes, because the rich bloke who commissioned it ran out of money and it was unthinkable that she would have to wear clothes painted with a cheaper colour. So Michaelangelo never finished it.

Ultramarine pigment is made from a blue gemstone called lapis lazuli, which is also popular for jewellery and back in Michaelangelo’s day, about 500 years ago, it came from just one area of mines in Afghanistan, which was a heck of a long and difficult journey along the silk route. The place is called Sar-e-sang which means the place of the stone and goes back about 7,000 years. These stone mines sent lapis lazuli to the ancient Egyptians for jewellery, and paint for the Buddhas of Bamiyan 15 hundred years ago. They’ve provided Ultramarine for medieval European illuminated manuscripts and for paintings into modern times.

But it wasn’t just expensive to get supplies of it to Europe. Getting the colour out of the stone is very difficult because it’s got a lot of other minerals in it, which makes it very pretty and sparkly for jewellery, but these are no good in paint.  

Companies that make artist’s paints have to smash the stones up into a powder and then mix it with resins and gums and oils to make a dough which is smushed around for days before it’s dumped into water and smushed some more, for hours and hours, until the vivid blue leaches out into the water. This blue liquid is left to evaporate and then we get pure powdered lapis lazuli which is then converted into very expensive paint. 

The paint makers repeat the process with the same ball of dough to get more blue out of it, but this is lower quality. Bit like olive oil.

Some companies still make ultramarine this way and you’re talking about thousands of pounds for a kilo.

But eventually science caught up with colours and in 1828 a synthetic version of ultramarine was discovered in France and it’s been called French ultramarine ever since.

I was lucky enough to do an artist residency in Pakistan a few years ago, fabulous place by the way, and I bought some pieces of lapis lazuli, some in it’s natural rocky state and a few polished pieces. It would have cost hundreds of pounds here but I got change out of twenty quid.


There’s another mineral that was used to make blue in the past and that’s cobalt, which is named after the German word Kobald, and that’s an evil goblin that lives in the earth and hates intruders. It’s found in silver mines but European miners threw it away because it’s poisonous, it’s got arsenic in it.

There’s also cobalt in Iran and the Persians, instead of chucking it away, were the first to use it for colour, glazing exquisite blue pottery tiles in mosques. It was exported as Mohamedan blue.

In Europe, from the 1500s, cobalt was an ingredient of a paint called Smalt, which was ground-up blue glass but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that science was advanced enough to make it into a pure pigment.

Here’s an interesting bit of history that shows how vastly different life was before the Industrial Revolution.

Cobalt was used to make medieval stained glass like the incredibly beautiful and intense blue glass in Chartres cathedral in France. The way that glass was made back then was almost like alchemy. It wasn’t imported from far away, it was made on site by experienced Journeymen, artisans who travelled across Europe from job to job. Cathedral sites were chosen in or very close to thick forests because glass making took up huge amounts of wood.

The Journeymen camped on the edge of the forest, which was a strange and symbolic place; the border between civilisation and nature. It was widely believed that forests were dark places full of dangerous spirits where ordinary people shouldn’t go. This border between two worlds was where the Journeyman glass makers did their transformational magic, using fire to turn wood ash, sand and minerals into beautiful jewel-like coloured glass.

But huge amounts of trees were used up and forests around cathedral sites were flattened to make the glass. The wood was needed for the intense heat in the furnaces that melted all the ingredients together which included wood ash. These were different times and there’s no way we could allow so much environmental destruction now.  Plus there are better ways of making stained glass industrially.


The third blue I want to talk about is Prussian blue. It was discovered by accident in Germany at the beginning of the 18th century by a paint-maker called Diesbach. He was making red like he always did but ran out of one of his usual ingredients and used a substitute, thinking it wouldn’t matter. Instead of the lush carmine red he was expecting, he ended up with a vivid brilliant blue, iron ferrocyanide which is a bit of a mouthful to say so it was renamed as Prussian Blue.

It was a popular pigment and dye for almost a century and a half but in 1842, the British astronomer Sir John Herschel used it to invent the very earliest form of photography, cyanotype which is also called blueprints. Better photographic methods came along and replaced the blueprints but Prussian Blue is still a very popular colour for painters and cyanotype photography is making a bit of a comeback at the moment.

I love the way that science and art are so linked together. The technology of art is fascinating.

International Klein Blue

Let’s fast forward to the 20th century, the 1950s when the French artist Yves Klein worked with a professional paintmaker Eduard Adam to invent International Klein Blue, or IKB. It’s one of the most intense blue paints ever, it’s juicy with blueness, and it’s made from mixing ultramarine – from lapis lazuli – with a very modern artificial resin.  

You can buy a kit to make your own IKB and there’s a YouTube video showing you how.

Okay, that’s enough about the colour blue. If you like what you’ve heard and want to read a bit more, I really recommend Victoria Finlay’s book, the details are on the podcast page.

Next time, I think I’ll do something about Green, probably my favourite colour.

‘Til then, Hwyl Fawr, bye…

A Chance To Own One Of My Artworks

I have some small screenprints for sale, inspired by my drawings of the taxidermy collection at Swansea Museum. I have given these antique artifacts a modern twist by combining them with images of rubbish – old fruit nets, bubble wrap and plastic – highlighting the problem of human pollution and how it affects wildlife.

To buy my work on the Swansea Print Workshop site please click the image to the left and to see the complete image.

20 percent of the cost of each screenprint sold goes to support Swansea Print Workshop, which receives no public funding.

Talking About Red

27 Jan
A linocut Sparta Puss in red

Here’s my second podcast. It’s about the colour red and is mostly based on the book Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay

I hope you enjoy listening to it but if you’d prefer to read, here’s a transcript of the podcast.

Hello, Rosie Scribblah here. Welcome to my second Podcast. It’s been a while since my first one but there’s a pandemic going on so things go a bit pear shaped sometimes. I’ve been having a think about what to podcast about and I fancied doing something about Red. That’s the colour Red.

I read this amazing book a while back by Victoria Finlay, called Colour: Travels Through The Paintbox. She’s a really good storyteller so I thought I’d share some of her adventures. 


Sooo – Red. Well, it’s a fundamental colour.  It’s the colour of blood.  It’s the colour of lust and rage and love and power and any kind of heightened emotion. In the Comanche language the same word is used for colour, circle and red, which shows how important it is to them. And of course it’s the colour of the dragon of Wales. 

But making red for paints and dyes isn’t an easy business. Blood is obviously red but once spilled it quickly turns to a murky brown so it’s no use as a permanent dye.  The search for something which matches the richness of blood that can also be used for painting pictures and dying fabrics is almost as old as history itself.

Chemical pigments

Before chemical pigments were invented by the Victorians, colours came from nature, from animals, plants and minerals and elements.

And for thousands of years the most popular red in what we now call the Western world came from an insect called the Kermes, which comes from the Mediterranean and lives on the Kermes oak trees. They were crushed up and used by the ancient Greeks and Romans as a very expensive red dye. And from this Kermes we get the words crimson and carmine, which are both types of red. 

Another very expensive red was vermilion, which the Ancients called cinnabar. The Roman author Pliny wrote that is was the blood spilled from battles between elephants and dragons. But it’s a deadly mixture of sulphur and mercury, which is really poisonous. The Romans loved it so much that they used it in paintings, in frescos on their walls and in lipstick even though they knew it was so dangerous. But then these days people have Botox, a well-known deadly toxin injected into their faces, so who are we to judge?

The cochineal bug

Meanwhile, in the Americas they had a much richer red. The cochineal bug grows on prickly pear plants. Cultivating it is a delicate balance because left to their own devices the cochineal bugs will completely destroy the cacti.

To get at the pigment, cacti plants are infected with the bugs for 5 months at a time and then they leave the plants to rest for a few months. The insects are harvested by blowing them off the plants into bags using compressed air tipping them into massive steel vats and pulping them.  There’s no nice way of saying it. Trillions of insects die to make your chicken tikka masala look like it does. Because, cochineal is the common name for the permitted food colouring E120 and it’s in most foods that are red and pink, like processed ham and also in cosmetics like lipstick.

The deep red you get from cochineal bugs has always been very valuable.  Cardinals in the Catholic Church used to have hats dyed with it and Mary Queen of Scots wore a dress dyed with cochineal when she was beheaded. 

The ancient Incas

The ancient Incas had a very sophisticated symbolic colour system. Black was time, yellow was gold, blue was the sky and they used red to represent themselves.  Different types of red would mean different aspects of their empire. They used a sophisticated system of knotted cords to communicate across great distances.  A red cord tied with knots at the top would mean a great battle and blood red knots at the top would show how many of their own people had died. 

When Europeans stumbled across the Americas, gold wasn’t the only thing they wanted.  They were amazed by the red they found there.  It was richer than the ones they were used to and they didn’t waste any time, muscling in on the trade in cochineal and very quickly this new, brighter version of red totally swamped the European world.  Everybody wanted it for clothes and cosmetics.  At the time only the Spanish knew how the red was made and they guarded the secret fiercely.  The colour was imported into Europe as a reddish brown powder, so no one knew it was bugs, and the Spaniards tried to stop any other nation from travelling to the source of their supplies in the New World. 

Thiéry de Menonville

By the 18th Century, other nations wanted in on the Red action. The French sent Thiéry de Menonville to South America to find out.  The Spanish were suspicious of him and tried to send him home but he escaped and headed into the interior of Mexico.  Once he had discovered the secret, he then had to get the insects home to France. Because they would not settle on a plant once they had been removed, the plants complete with insects would have to be kidnapped and kept alive all the way back across to Europe. And, if he’d been caught the Spanish customs officers would have burnt him at the stake. That was their penalty for industrial espionage back then.

After months of searching and risking death from the Spanish, from bandits, disease and wild animals he got back to the French controlled island of Haiti where he lived. And then he found the cactus and bugs growing just round the corner from his house. Which must have been annoying. But it broke the Spanish monopoly of the cochineal trade.

The red produced by cochineal is so gorgeous that the 19th century British painter Turner used it despite being told time and again by his fellow artists, customers and even the manufacturers of his paints that it would fade.  And it did. And because of this many of the great Turner paintings that we see in museums are literally shadows of their former selves, because the reds have faded so much.


But he wasn’t that bothered. Turner was well known for not caring about his finished work and left a lot of his paintings in terrible conditions. He even ripped a tear in one painting to make a catflap for his seven Manx cats.  He was such a passionate, spontaneous artist that he wanted the reddest red at the moment he was painting and didn’t think of anything else. 

But he also used another popular red at that time, red lead. The proper name for it in its natural state is Minium but it can be made by heating up white lead, which is also really poisonous. It’s quite an orangey red and it was so widely used by Persian and Mughal artists that their work became known as miniatures.  The fact that the paintings are also usually very small is just a coincidence.

So what other reds did Turner get to use? In one of his most famous paintings, of the ship The Fighting Temeraire, he used iodine scarlet, which was developed by the inventor Humphrey Davey from the mineral iodine.  But like the others, it fades and the painting is now it’s just a pale reflection of when it was created. 

Post boxes

Finding a red that didn’t fade was also a problem for the Post office in the 1800s. Post boxes were originally painted green, but people complained that they kept bumping into them, so the Post Office painted their pillar boxes red. Unfortunately, they quickly faded to pink and had to keep being repainted until a good, colour fast synthetic red paint was invented.

So there we are, the colour Red – I hope you enjoyed hearing about colour as much as I do. Like I said, I got most of this from the book Colour: Travels Through The Paintbox by Victoria Finlay. Net time I’ll podcast about another colour – black maybe …. Or purple …. So many to choose from. Hwyl fawr, Bye….

A Chance To Own One Of My Artworks

I have some small screenprints for sale, inspired by my drawings of the taxidermy collection at Swansea Museum. I have given these antique artifacts a modern twist by combining them with images of rubbish – old fruit nets, bubble wrap and plastic – highlighting the problem of human pollution and how it affects wildlife.

To buy my work on the Swansea Print Workshop site please click the image to the left and to see the complete image.

Inspired by drawings of the taxidermy collection at Swansea Museum. I have given these antique artefacts a modern twist by combining them with images of rubbish – old fruit nets, bubble wrap and plastic – highlighting the problem of human pollution and how it affects wildlife.

20 percent of the cost of each screenprint sold goes to support Swansea Print Workshop, which receives no public funding.


25 Mar


Here’s something else I’m about to experiment with at the moment. Nori paste, magnesium carbonate and powdered pigments. oooohhhhh!!!!!!

Invitation to End Frame

The End Frame events are free entry but please book tickets for ‘Big Eyes’ from Cinema & Co.


I have put my series of drawings of ancient Welsh monuments on Artfinder.  If you want to see more, please click on the image below or the Artfinder link at the top right of this page.

St Elvis

Bideford Black

14 Nov


I was with a group of artists working with the 15 Hundred Lives collective at Creative Bubble today. We have the artspace for a couple of days every month to work together and to let the public come in and see how art is created. I’ve been working on a very big drawing in charcoal and chalky pastels, based on an original life drawing, and I’ve been trying out an old traditional pigment, Bideford Black, which is a naturally occurring black clay-like pigment from Devon.

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I found it very interesting to use. It feels like a lump of crumbly clay but when you start to rub it on the paper, it quickly acquires a smooth surface and feels oily as it moves across the paper. I thought it would be hard to overlay it with other media, like carbon and chalky pastels, but they went on beautifully.

DSC08171It made me feel a connection to ancient artists, those who drew on the caves in Paleolithic times, using ochres, chalks and clays they found on and in the earth around them. Primeval. I like it. I’m at Creative Bubble for another day tomorrow so will finish the drawing then.

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