8 Aug 2020

Paint-maker David Coles: the colourful history of pigments

From Saturday Morning, 9:05 am on 8 August 2020

Melbourne-based David Coles is one of very few master paint-makers in the world.

His latest book Chromatopia: An Illustrated History of Colour documents the extraordinary lengths we have gone to bring colour to the world.

Prior to modern industrial chemistry colour was derived from natural materials, Coles says.

Black was one of the first colours to be made for pigments, ink and dyes, he says.  

Lamp black is made from soot mixed with an oil.

“Carbon black, or lamp black, is a very important colour because it is ridiculously intense, very, very strong, very rich and especially in oil colours a very saturated colour that allows artists to get deep receding shadows in paintings where they are painting an interior or a portrait of an artist in an interior.”

A company in Nara, Japan till makes lamp black the traditional way, Coles says.

Kobaien, Japan’s oldest ink manufacturer, has been in the one family for fourteen generations.

They make lamp black the same way they did almost five centuries ago, which is ceramic bowls filled with different types of oils because the oil will change the nature of the black and then they hand make the wicks and     then they collect the soot.

“You walk into this room with rows of shelves and 200 of these lamps burning away, it’s almost a spiritual experience walking in.”

Vine black is a charcoal black, derived from grape vines.

“When that’s charcoaled, it has a very slight blue undertone which is very noticeable when you mix a white with it. The most famous for doing this would have been van Dyck the Dutch artist who worked for the British royal court. He would create blues, very subdued blues, by mixing vine black with some white, just using the blue undertone to create these referred blues.”   

Vantablack is the most modern and darkest black ever created he says. 

“Vantablack is a pigment only in the sense it is a colouring material that is indivisible, it’s insoluble, dyes are soluble.

“This is a pigment, through a system called vapour deposition in a very controlled environment, they literally grow these nanotubes … we can fit a million of these tubes that are sort of sticking up like a little forest on a surface, into one square centimetre.

“They are very pure black, but the real function of the way that it works is that light goes into the surface and then is trapped by bouncing around between the spaces of the nanotubes and it never escapes, so that 99.9996 percent of all visible light that enters the surface that’s got vantablack on it never comes back to the eye.”

David Coles

David Coles Photo: supplied / c. Adrian Lander

Blue was the most expensive colour to produce throughout history, he says, because it occurs so rarely in nature.

“It’s one of those universals in that it denotes the sky, the celestial and of course by that generally the gods. So, it’s always been seen as a spiritual colour, and was obviously very much sought after, but there aren’t many blues naturally occurring in nature.

“The most famous and used throughout the renaissance when the artist could afford it, or probably more likely when the commissioning agent which would have mostly been the Catholic Church, would have been lapis lazuli, which is an extraordinary blue, a deep blue rock with a light red tint to it, moving very, very much towards violet without being too violet.

“And it’s dug from these mines in northern Afghanistan the Sar-e-Sang mines, which we are still using, and my company and other companies are still getting our lapis from this one mine in operation for at least 4000 - maybe 6000 years.”

Another traditional source of blue is the indigo family of plants, Coles says.

There are many varieties of indigo plant around the world, but the most famous comes from India - indigofera tinctoria – which India made grew in vast quantities to supply the world with blue dye, he says.

Denim blue jeans, used to be dyed with it, and there is now a resurgence, using natural indigo dyes.

“It comes from the leaves and the leaves are green and we soak them in water to ferment them and the dye comes out over 24 hours. The water is stained with the dye, but the dye is green, it is not until the dye comes into contact with oxygen and then it turns a beautiful deep blue.

With the invention of modern colours with modern synthetic chemistry in the mid to late 19th century, synthetic dyes took over. They were cheaper and didn’t fade, he says.

“But there has been an enormous resurgence in the last 40 years.

“A lot of Indian growers are moving back to using indigo because the synthetic dyes poison the water table.”

Cochineal, derived from beetles, is still an important source of deep crimson colours, Coles says. This despite the colour being synthesised in the late 19th century as alizeran.

“The problem with synthetic dyes, especially reds, is they are used heavily in cosmetics, in particular lipsticks, and it was found a lot of these chemicals were very dangerous to soft and sensitive skin in the epidermal.”

Cochineal, however, is completely safe.

“That’s why cochineal has made a resurgence, it’s used as a colourant in so many foods and drinks in particular your back current juice drinks are nearly always coloured with cochineal to give you that fabulous deep purple.”

The beetles come from central and north South America and the biggest producer in the world now on a vast scale is Peru. But it was the Aztecs in Mexico who first developed this technique, he says.

Another source of reds, yellows and orange is the madder plant, rubia tincarorum, which has been used for thousands of years for dyes and pigments, he says.

“It comes from the roots, these roots are dug up when the plant is three years old and cut, dried, washed and then ground down and there are series of little dye components within this root.

“We draw the dye out using a very weak alkali chemical and we can turn it into a dye for making reds and crimsons, though we can also extract oranges and yellows as well.”

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Photo: Supplied

Tyrian purple is perhaps the most bizarre naturally occurring pigment derived from the mucus of a predatory sea snail.  

“It was used throughout classical Antiquity as a deep purple. A blood red towards purple dye, it was the dye used for emperors’ and senators’ robes - their togas.

“It’s a natural dye coming from a small little gland, the sea snail gives up just one drop, and this drop has to be collected.”

It would have taken hundreds of thousands of snails to make tiny quantities of the dye, Coles says.  It was so rare ordinary citizens were banned from wearing the colour purple – if found, even at home, you could be executed, he says.

Indian yellow was another bizarre method of making colour, he says. It is a yellow derived from the urine of cows who have exclusively been fed on mango leaves.

“It’s horribly bad for the cows because there’s no nutrition from these leaves.

“They had trained the cows to pee on demand by sticking their finger up the cow’s backside, and they would collect the urine in pots which would then be put over a fire to reduce down to a thick paste.

“Then it would be moulded into balls and allowed to dry - this was the way it was transported across the globe to create the Indian yellow colour.”