Saturday, April 26, 2008

Fresh Out of Mummies

Maybe it’s just as well that some traditional pigments are no longer made from their original sources.

Sepia brown was once made from the ink sac of the cuttlefish. There’s a chemical substitute now, thank goodness for the little cephalopods.

Indian yellow *allegedly came from the concentrated urine of cows fed on mango leaves. It was outlawed in 1908, because it was hard on the cows.

And mummy brown derived from the ground-up remains of Egyptian mummies. They stopped in the twentieth century when the supply of mummies ran out.

*More on the Indian yellow mystery, link and link.
Tomorrow: Sky Blue


Victor said...

I've read that bistre ink was sometimes made from children's urine. I'm not sure if it's true or not.

Anonymous said...

Hi James,

How about Bitumen brown, or Asphaltum, Ive read that William Adolphe Bouguereau used Bitumen or Asphaltum as a glazing color or for superficial retouching. He also listed Mummy Brown in his sketch book among a huge list of pigments. Im asuming that all three are in the same ballpark.

Heres a line from Mark Walker's,Bouguereau at Work:

To convince people of the sturdiness of bitumen, Bouguereau used to repeat: "They make sidewalks with it.

jeff said...

Asphaltum and bitumen are the reason a lot of 18 and 19 century paintings are in bad condition. Asphaltum is basically coal tar. Bouguereau maybe use it but being that his work is very good shape I doubt he used much.

It caused paintings to crack a lot, and turn darker. Some used it as a glaze and this is where the problem with cracking came up.

It's not made anymore which is a good thing.

Paolo Rivera said...

I saw Girl with the Pearl Earring recently, which mentioned that particular process for Indian Yellow. It makes for a funny line in the film, but I was wondering about the veracity of the claim.

jeff said...

bistre ink was made from wood soot.

K_tigress said...

Interesting and disgusting at the same time.
One of things I love to experiment on new uses for things not normally used in painting mediums.
So far I found coffee ink to be really great for that. I have yet to try beets, burnt grape vines, the juice from young green walnuts and some others things.

James Gurney said...

Coffee ink? Sounds delicious. How do you make it?

jeff said...

For those interested this book has a lot of recipes on how to make inks.

The Craft of Old-Master Drawings (Paperback)
by James Watrous

Sarah Stevenson said...

Hmm, never heard of mummy brown! I'll have to beg to differ with the commenter who said asphaltum isn't made anymore--it's still widely used in printmaking, particularly stone lithography, where it's used undiluted, and in etching, where it's diluted with liquid hard ground. I'll agree it's pretty goopy and icky, though!

Matthew Scheuerman said...

It's amazing to see where color and archeology meet. Now, if only I could find some Mu Green.

Don Cox said...

DNA analysis of some original Indian Yellow would settle the cow story.

Philly M said...

I know the answer to the cattle pee question, but I'm not telling.

instead, you must read Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay. it is one of the most engaging books I've read in a long time.

Finlay travelled around the world examining the origins of every traditional paint and pigment in every colour of the visible spectrum including those (reputed to be) made from cattle pee and mummy dust. the stories she follows date back 40,000 years and are brought forward into the 20th century.

a fantastic read...

Allison Dollar said...

I second the book. Very fun read, and very informative as well. My favorite was the story of Isabella Brown.