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A Page from my notebook on Colour

wrestlers F066  wrestlers D064 When I first started painting the selection of colour choice was overwhelming. So I went back to the book Dear Theo – and on page 147 found the list of colours Vincent Van Gogh purchased when he first embarked on painting after much time spent drawing using only black/white. The time around the 1870-80’s.

It was a short list and I did my best to copy it:


But the colours had changed a great deal since Van Gogh’s time. Particularly their chemical make-up.

  • Sepia is no longer made from the ink sack of the cuttle fish – now a combination of umber (an earth pigment) and carbon black.
  • Vermillion – once made from 16 parts sulphur to 100 parts mercury is no longer available. This brilliant red-orange is now substituted with a Cadmium mixture.
  • Carmine – founded a whole industry in Mexico. The key component is a female beetle that feeds on a cactus plant, which was cultivated long before first contact with Europeans. Why not the male too? Because they have wings! 70,000 dried bugs equals a pound of crimson pigment. And was once Mexico’s most important export.
  • Gamboge was made from the sap of a tree from Cambodia, a transparent yellow.
  • Naples Yellow – a fine yellow pigment,  ‘It has long been prepared in Italy by a secret process’.  Chambers Encyclopaedia 1893 – it was originally lead antimoniate.
  • Prussian Blue was the first of the new synthetic inorganic pigments. Discovered by Diesbach in 1704.
  • Cobalt, also a synthetic inorganic pigment. Discovered by Thenard 100 yrs. later, 1804.
  • Terra Sienna and the Ochre’s are still made from earth pigments. (Iron oxides)
  • And sadly, Ultra Marine is no longer made from lapis lazuli but a chemical equal, invented by Guimet in 1826 according to the Historical Notes published by Windsor & Newton.
  • But Chambers Encyclopaedia of 1893 states ‘it is a beautiful and desirable sky blue, a colour formed of the mineral called lapis lazuli.
  • Lamp Black- the oldest pigment made by man was the soot collected from burning oils, which seems very obvious as does Zinc White – made from oxidized zinc and/or lead carbonate, also called flake white.
  • White was also made from lime. A wash used to give a ground surface for the painting of frescos, but that is a whole other story.



So, the bigger question is:

After 3 years of art schools and 4 years of a studio practice, why did I need guidance to figure out what colour paint to buy?

Not sure that we had a colour theory class at Sheridan College (Art Fundamentals).

If we did I expect I slept through it as I did through much of art history. The only art history class I remember with any enthusiasm was a student presentation.

She brilliantly paired American quilts with contemporary American painting equivalents. The quilts pre-dating them by as many as 50 years – too sweet!

After Sheridan a 2 year continental search for an art program that taught thinking – not technique – found close to home – Environmental Art at Fanshawe College. Ironic I heard about the program while attending an educational workshop in BC, this back in the late 1970’s.

So, my next jump to art history class lands me with an instructor who said – “There were no great woman artists”.  This from a man who saw Martha Graham dance to Isamu Noguchi’s set designs.

How do I know that? He attended one of my openings years later and likened my installation/sculptures to that experience!

So why did I need guidance in choosing colours? Unfortunately my note book doesn’t say. I have no idea.

After all this time, I still consider painters as painters and the rest of the art world as artists. They are a tribe within a country, painters! There are exceptions to be sure, but I haven’t met many.

I do know that those paints (acrylics) were used to make a body of work called Jacob Wrestling the Angel.

Why did I choose that image to explore for a year of my life?

It was an attempt to give visual expression to a physical experience, best resolved by using the biblical quotation as my spring board.

Genesis 32: 24-30

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day….for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.


Jacob wrestling the angel

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