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  • Writer's pictureSusan Fellows

How the Cavemen Got It Right

In this high-tech world of accelerating science, most of us would be hard pressed to come up with any technology that has remained relatively unchanged throughout the History of Man. In fact, many manufacturers of today don't even need to turn to organic sources anymore, as the chem lab has replaced them. Brewing writing ink from oak galls is no longer done in most places, although there are always a few hold-outs.

It is we ourselves who haven't changed in the essence of who we are. From the beginning, the creative impulse has always been with us. This became obvious when the first cave paintings were discovered in France. These stone age artists, working by the feeblest of light sources, still managed to cover cave walls with hundreds of the large animals that inhabited their world. One of the most famous of these animal portraits is a prehistoric horse, painted in earthy tones of white, yellow, brown, and black. These colors were made by mixing animal fat as a binder with ground up chalk, minerals, and burned bones. What makes this such a profound link for artists of today with the past, is the fact that all these colors are still available today, as calcium carbonate white, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, and bone black!

Since then, the hunt for pigments to expand this limited palette has taken a number of interesting twists and turns. Woad was a blue dye from the leaves of a member of the cabbage family. Cochineal, also a dye, was from a parasitic scale insect that lives on prickly pear cactus. It took 14,000 insects to make only 100 grams of carmine pigment!

Ultramarine blue, a favorite pigment of artists, was once as expensive as gold. It was extracted from lapis lazuli, a mineral from Afghanistan. Ever wonder why old paintings of the Virgin Mary so often showed her with an ultramarine robe? It's because the Catholic Church spent the big bucks here in their art commissions.

Malachite, another ground up mineral, was an important green during the Renaissance. The difficulty for artists in obtaining bright pigments, especially color fast ones, explains so much of the muted tones seen in old paintings. Another factor is the yellowing process of old varnish used to protect the surface.

There's no doubt that art owes much to alchemist experimentation. Today, we know the danger of combining mercury with sulphur and roasting them together, but it produced a vibrant red. A mix of sand, lime, and copper ore, with heat applied, created Egyptian Blue.

Imagine making white by sealing strips of lead in earthenware pots with vinegar and covering them with manure.

Some pigments may leave us asking why? Mummy Brown was, you guessed it, ground up Egyptian mummies. A famous pigment color, Indian Yellow, was cow urine from cows fed only mango leaves.

The innovation continues today. In 2009, a grad student discovered YInMn Blue while investigating new materials for electronics. The world's blackest black, Vantablack, was created in 2014. It's made of microscopic vertical tubes, and absorbs 99.96% of visible light.

All it takes is a trip to the art supply store to get inspired by the fabulous range of what's available these days--paint colors that the old masters never knew. There's even metallic, iridescent, and fluorescent hues, just begging for exploration. Of course, the old standbys are still with us. We have the prehistoric along with the new. There's a real symmetry to that. I also think it's so cool to know that the same stone age horse, now called Przewalski's horse, still roams the steppes of Central Asia.


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