The Color Theory of Stardust

“Thou canst not stir a flower, without troubling of a star.”  – Francis Thompson

The most common pigment on earth is red ochre. It is also the oldest known natural pigment. We see it along with carbon from charcoal in the cave paintings of the late stone age, like those at Lascaux. Unlike colors made from animal or vegetable sources that would have faded over time, red ochre remains in the cave drawings done by our prehistoric relatives. This sedimentary color, rich in iron and taken from the earth serves to remind us of our interconnectedness with the stars.

 supernova photograph
Supernova photographed by NASA.

When we paint with sedimentary ochres, we can say that we are painting with stardust. The element of iron in our soils is the result of the lives and deaths of many stars. Stars run on nuclear fusion – fusing heavier and heavier elements together as they burn through each element formed. Each time they exhaust an element, such as hydrogen or helium, they contract, driving up the gravity pressure to form a new, heavier element and new source of fuel.

Eventually, after billions of years and under terrific gravitational pressure, a star may exhaust its nuclear fuel as it contracts, leaving only iron, with an atomic weight of 56. When that happens, the star can contract violently, creating a massive shock wave as it heads for a cataclysmic supernova explosion. The resulting pressures may form the valuable elements of aluminum, gold, zinc, silver, copper. Finally, as the star dies in a spectacular supernova, the explosion scatters the elements across the universe, some of which get captured in the gravity wells of planets and wind up in the planetary crust.

Nocturne in Black and Gold by Whistler, 1874, oil painting.
Nocturne in Black and Gold by Whistler, 1874, oil painting.

When the iron in the soil combines with the oxygen in our atmosphere, it can form iron oxides (red ochre). It is that red ochre that primitive man mined for the earliest known forms of art. Synthetic red iron oxide pigments began being manufactured in laboratories in the 18th century and are called Mars Red. However, whenever we visit the little Provencal town of Roussillon, where ochre was mined, we stop to buy bags of the raw ochres from a shop there. Back in our studios we can mix them with either oil, acrylic or watercolor binders to make our own “cave paints”. In doing so, we are reminded that we aren’t just using an abstract material called “paint” – we are painting with the light of a thousand stars.

(Victoria Finlay’s wonderful new book, The Brilliant History of Color in Art, offers many fascinating stories about the origins of color.)

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–John and Ann



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John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.