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Artists used to grind mummies to make brown paint

Paint is made up of many different components, each of which performs a different function. There is the medium or binder, which alters the properties of the paint by making it thicker or thinner or by lengthening its drying time. There is solvent, which can be added to prevent lumps and lumps from forming. Last but not least, there are the pigments, which give the paint its opacity and, above all, the color.

Nowadays, most artists use synthetic pigments. These are mass-produced and made with acids, petroleum or other chemicals. This is only a recent development, however. For most of the history of art, artists have had to use biological pigments derived from minerals or clay.

In general, biological pigments are much more difficult to obtain than synthetic ones. A great example is the color blue, which has long been coveted because it rarely appears in nature. Another example is Tyrian purple, a textile dye once used to color the robes of Roman emperors. Its only source was the mucus secreted by the species of Murex crustaceans living off the coast of Tire. For every 1.5 grams of dye, 12,000 crustaceans had to be crushed.

Most art lovers are not interested in learning about pigments, which, like easels, brushes or canvases, are just tools and not as significant as the masterpieces they helped create. In reality, however, pigments have had a huge influence on the course of art history. The discovery of new pigments dictated the way painters arranged their palette, as well as the eventual loss of other pigments. The color itself was also highly symbolic, often in ways related to its manufacturing process.

“It is important not to overlook this material aspect of painting,” said Lola Sanchez-Jauregui, researcher at Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge. Hyperallergic in an article on the color blue called lapis lazuli. He added that “the visualization of these tools will help people to approach the paintings from a new point of view”.

Lapis Lazuli: a pigment based on precious stones

Lapis lazuli, also known as ultramarine blue, is a deep blue pigment made by grinding the eponymous gemstone into a soft powder. Human interest in stone dates back thousands of years. As early as 7570 BC, members of the Indus Valley Civilization incorporated lapis lazuli into their bracelets and arrowheads.

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It didn’t take long before people started using lapis lazuli in painting as well. In 2006, microscopic analysis of a Bronze Age wall painting from the Mycenaean city of Gla revealed that the pigment was mixed with red iron to create an equally deep purple. Lapis lazuli became particularly popular during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when it was used to paint the robes of religious figures.

Limited supply and growing demand meant that, for a long time, the blue pigment was more valuable than gold. The vast majority of lapis lazuli was mined in one place: the valley of the Kockha River in Badakhshan province, located in northeastern Afghanistan. Even today, the stone plays an important role in the local economy and politics, with illegal mining operations contributing to the rise of the Taliban in the late 1990s.

lapis lazuli Virgin Mary

The Virgin in prayer shows ultramarine blue at its maximum potential. (Credit: National Gallery / Wikipedia)

European painters valued the pigment for its color, which is stronger and deeper than any other shade of blue on the market. Its inclusion could make a mediocre painting good and a good one large. Many attribute Johannes Vermeer’s enduring success The girl with the Pearl Earring to the titular pearl, but the girl’s lapis lazuli turban, accentuated by the yellow of her dress, is just as charming. The use of lapis lazuli also compares the unnamed model to the Virgin Mary.

Vermeer diluted his pigment so as not to overwhelm the portrait. The same cannot be said for the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato, whose painting The Virgin in prayer shows lapis lazuli at its maximum potential. As Walter Benjamin argues in his essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, ultramarine has a quality that must be experienced in person and cannot be adequately communicated through copies.

Grind the mummies to brown them

Mummy brown is a brown pigment produced not by the grinding of precious stones but by Egyptian mummies. The pigment became popular during the 16th century, when traders had built a well-oiled network for the trafficking of mummies in Europe. Human mummies produced the best pigment, although in their absence the artists were also content with the mummified cats buried along with their Egyptian owners.

The pigment was popular with Renaissance painters and the Pre-Raphaelites, a reactionary movement that rejected the idealization of classical art in favor of a more naturalistic approach. Despite their differences, both groups liked mummy brown for the same reason: it was a highly transparent pigment that worked wonders when enamelling canvases and painting shadows and complexions.

In the 19th century, painters slowly fell in love with the brown mummy. This development was spurred by two developments, one financial and the other cultural. According to British chemist and painter Arthur Church, an Egyptian mummy could produce 20 years of painting. Despite this, centuries of greedy painting had caused the number of mummies on the market to plummet, raising the price to the point that most painters could no longer afford the pigment. Furthermore, the more artists learned of the origins of the brown mummy, the less they became willing to use it, as they saw the practice as the destruction of another country’s cultural heritage and the desecration of an individual human life.

brown mummy

Eugène Delacroix is ​​thought to have used the brown mummy in his Liberty Leading the People. (Credit: Louvre / Wikipedia)

For these reasons, painter Edward Burne-Jones, who had long used pigment to coat his paintings in a warm and fantastic haze, is said to have buried his brown mummy tube in the yard, never using it again. Painters can still purchase the brown mummy in the shop today, although it is now synthetically made and is just a mummy named.

Another type of expensive paint

Some people paid for their pigments with their life instead of money. Painting was a dangerous profession, as we now know that many of the paints contained toxic substances, such as heavy metals. Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh died shooting himself in the chest with a revolver while painting in a field. His tragic suicide was brought about by a lifelong battle against a mental illness which, according to some historians, may have been exacerbated by lead poisoning, a condition whose symptoms – anemia, abdominal pain and seizures – the painter exhibited. frequently.

Van Gogh’s mental illness may have been aggravated by lead poisoning contracted from his paintings. (Credit: Kroller-Muller Museum / Wikipedia)

Like other artists of his time, van Gogh used paints containing high amounts of lead, including lead carbonate and lead chromate. Unlike other artists of his time, van Gogh used this paint in extremely large quantities, smearing the color onto his canvas to create the vibrant images we know him for today. It is also believed that Van Gogh routinely licked his brushes, making it likely that at some point in his life he contracted lead poisoning.

You don’t have to be a painter to get sick with pigments. Just being in close proximity is often enough to do the trick. This, according to historians, may have been the case with the French conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte, who, while confined to the island of Saint Helena, used to take long hot baths in a room covered in Scheele’s green pigmented wallpaper.

Scheele green, as one might suspect, is no longer used today because it presents a health hazard. The pigment contains arsenic, which can be inhaled when the particles fall apart. Furthermore, when exposed to moisture, for example inside a bathroom, it can promote the growth of a mold that produces the toxic and carcinogenic gas arsine (which also contains arsenic). Napoleon died of stomach cancer and a toxicology report later found that his hair follicles contained high levels of arsenic. Perhaps one of the greatest military leaders in the world was shot down from the wallpaper.

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