Colour: A natural history of the palette

Sometimes, we miss the forest for the trees. And sometimes, we miss the trees for the forest. Let me give you an illustration. Take a look at the painting below (click on the picture to see a larger view).

Source: The National Gallery, London

The painting is called “Bacchus and Ariadne”. It was painted by Titian sometime between 1520 and 1523. It depicts a tale from Roman  mythology where Bacchus (the God of Wine) sees the mortal Ariadne and falls in love with her at first sight. He is so smitten that he jumps out of his cheetah-drawn chariot towards her. The painting has captured Bacchus in mid-leap as Ariadne shies away from him in alarm.

I saw this painting at London’s National Gallery in 2009. I duly noted the story that the painting conveyed, the various characters in it, the lovingly painted animals, Titian’s trademark use of bright colours… and moved on to the next artwork. It was a nice painting, but not particularly impressive. Or so I thought. Today, I bitterly regret at only looking at the painting, but not seeing it closely enough. In only looking at the painting, I had completely failed to see the colours themselves, particularly the brilliant blue of the sky — a blue which came from the ultramarine paint made from the semi-precious lapis lazuli mined hundreds of miles away in the Sar-e-Sang valley (in present day Afghanistan).

The lapis lazuli from these mines would have travelled through ancient trade routes to the colour maker in Italy, who then transformed it into the very expensive ultramarine paint through a laborious process. First, the lapis lazuli would have been finely powdered and kneaded into a dough along with resin, wax, gum and linseed oil for 3 days, after which it would have been put in a mixture of lye and water. This mixture would have been kneaded again, this time with sticks, to draw out the blue of the lapis lazuli into the liquid. The blue-coloured liquid would have been be collected in bowls and allowed to dry, leaving behind a powdery blue pigment, the ultramarine blue. The process would have been repeated with the “dough” to get different qualities and shades of blue (pg.290-291). These days making the ultramarine paint is not so laborious as it is made synthetically.

I read about all this and much more in Colour: A Natural History of the Palette (2004, Random House, pp.448) by Victoria Finlay. The book can be considered as a travelogue; it can also be considered as a book on art history. But for me, it is a book on the micro-history of colour as explored through an artist’s paintbox holding the colours of the rainbow and then some more — violet (or purple), indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, ochre, white, black and brown.

In her attempt to trace and draw out the stories of how natural dyes, paints and colours were made for a European artist’s paintbox, Finlay travelled to Australia, England, China, Chile, Italy, India, Iran, Spain, Afghanistan and Lebanon. As each story, myth, legend of the colours come into life, we realise that:

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When paintings came to life… A visit to Constable Country

Every place that I have travelled to has been memorable for different reasons. Some of the places have had a mythological significance attached to them, others have had historical reasons and still others have been memorable for literary reasons. Each of these visits have been memorable as they saw my imagination of the written word I had read or the oral narratives heard about these places come alive. Then there have been places that have made an impact on me visually through photographs, paintings and movies. And again, seeing them come to life when I visited some of the places has been memorable. But none have been as memorable as a visit to Constable Country, the place that inspired one of the greatest painters of English landscapes—John Constable.

John Constable (1776-1837) was born in East Bergholt in the Suffolk region of England. He was brought up in the countryside and his deep love for the local landscape led him to record its beauty, its light, its atmosphere, its colours and its textures in his paintings. Though Constable’s genius is acknowledged throughout the world today, in his own lifetime he struggled for recognition as landscape painting was considered unfashionable. He was more acclaimed in France and sold more paintings there than in England, whose rural landscape he loved so much. Indeed, he had this to say to a friend:

I should paint my own places best, painting is but another word for feeling.

He received recognition in England only about 8 years before his death and the countryside that he made so famous through his paintings came to be known as Constable Country.  Every stile, every tree, the fields, the river Stour, the watermills, the cornfields… found an expression in his paintings.

The Hay Wain (1821) by John Constable

I saw a John Constable painting for the first time on the cover of a book on the life and times of the artist. The painting was a detail from The Hay Wain (see picture on the left), which is considered to be Constable’s masterpiece. What attracted me to painting was the detail and the different textures visible in spite of the scaled down size of the painting in the book. I bought the book, read it from cover to cover, feasted on the paintings and added Constable Country to the list of places I wanted to visit. This was in 1994 and I had to wait for 15 years for that wish to realise.

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