The Fugitive Color

We are big admirers of J. M. W. Turner's work in oil and watercolor, especially his magnificent, ethereal watercolor paintings. Unfortunately many of his paintings are much less vivid today than they were when he painted them. We know this from written descriptions of the paintings that were written when the works were just created. But Turner was notoriously indifferent to the permanence of his art colors. He just did not care. In a famous exchange between Turner and William Winsor, of Winsor & Newton, on the topic of color permanence of the pigments he was buying, Turner is said to have told Mr. Winsor to mind his own business. The fading nature of his pigments is especially striking in the reds the artist would use. Although there were some permanent reds available to the artist, the brilliant, vivid reds that Turner loved to use in his sunsets have almost all turned fugitive, significantly losing richness over time.

San Giorgio Maggiore at Dawn by J.M.W. Turner, watercolor painting, 1819.
San Giorgio Maggiore at Dawn by J.M.W. Turner, watercolor painting, 1819.

Before the invention of aniline dyes derived from coal tar in 1859 and cadmium red in 1907 to expand this section of the color wheel, there were only a handful of red pigments available to artists. Red ochre is probably the oldest of those, and is the red commonly found in cave art. (See The Color of Provence.) The ancient world also had red madder lake, artificially made red lead, and vermilion (natural mineral cinnabar). Cinnabar is a type of red mercury ore (still mined today) that was mixed with an equal amount of burning sulphur to create an expensive red paint that was very popular with the Romans as a cosmetic and for decorations. Today, a safer, polymer resin-based pigment is used instead of the toxic cinnabar.

The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up, 1838 by J.M.W. Turner, oil on canvas, 36 x 48, 1839.
The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth
to be broken up, 1838
by J.M.W. Turner, oil on canvas, 36 x 48, 1839.

As for the reds in Turner's color schemes, ochre, madder, vermilion and carmine lake were the ones he was most fond of. There are two varieties of carmine lake (cochineal lake and kermes lake), both produced from the bodies of insects. Cochineal lake comes from the blood of the cochineal beetle, which is native to the Americas and was discovered by the Aztecs. The beetle feeds on prickly pear cacti, eventually covering the plant with a wooly white mass that the Aztecs harvested and processed into dyes and paints. The Spanish Conquistadors brought this new color to Europe in the 16th century and maintained a monopoly on the secret source and supply of the pigment for centuries. Carmine lake, from cochineal blood, is still used today in cosmetics and foods, notably the red color for Cherry Coke. Kermes lake also comes from an insect that lives on certain species of European oaks. Workers scraped off the insects, which are then processed into a powerful scarlet dye.

Turner's most notable and tragic selection of a red pigment was made during the oil painting of The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up, 1838. In this, perhaps his most famous painting, which he referred to as "my darling," he used a relatively new, but very fugitive, iodine scarlet to create the vivid, moody sky. Why? It had been known for at least 23 years prior that this same color fades drastically when exposed to light, yet Turner persisted in using it to get immediate effects at the sacrifice of longevity. By 1859, the staff at the National Gallery in London noted that the red sky of the painting was fading away, and today we are left to imagine what once was. Was he right to satisfy himself at the risk of permanence in his work? Leave a comment and let us know what you think.

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–John & Ann

Sources:  Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay;

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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.

6 thoughts on “The Fugitive Color

  1. The artist’s only obligation is to satisfy his or her creative vision. ALL art is impermanent anyway, and the fact that it will eventually be dust is part of it’s value, just as the value of each day is more in the experience of it than in recording it for posterity. We have largely forgotten that today in our zeal to document our lives in favor of experiencing them in the moment. I applaud Turner for his choice–he owed nothing to the future where his painting was concerned. By the way if Winsor cared so much about permanence, why did he even sell inferior colors?

  2. Had Turner chosen more permanent color for his paintings, the colors and effects he envisioned may not have been realized on canvas. If he was so compelled by his vision, certainly he felt strongly about getting it just right. What better reason could an artist have?

  3. Turner’s only obligation is to himself. His art should reflect his reaction to the moment. Hind-sight is a great tool, but inovation and experiment is what makes originallity.

  4. Turner’s only obligation is to himself. His art should reflect his reaction to the moment. Hind-sight is a great tool, but inovation and experiment is what makes originallity.

  5. Art is communication, a palpable link between individuals and across spans of time. If if fleeting in existence, an image becomes no more than a grocery list or an after dinner bit of gossip — not a thing to draw together human imaginations across the generations. If created but never shown, even the finest painting or sculpture becomes nothing more than an oration to an empty room, a solitary vice.

    The peculiar concept that art works increase in their sincerity in direct proportion to their physical frailty is, I am guessing, the result of an age where a snowstorm of disposable images badgers us from waking to sleeping. But, for a serious artist to embrace that idea about their own work when permanent media (i.e. good for hundreds or even thousands of years) are easily available, strikes me as a weird, neo-monastic and suicidal kind of scourging. Whoever is teaching that, I wish they would stop.

  6. Given that Turner bequeathed his works to the National Gallery – specifying not only how they were to be displayed but his wish that there be a ‘Turner Gallery’ – he himself explicitly wished his work to endure beyond his lifetime and be preserved for posterity.

    After a legal settlement regarding his will, the total amount of the bequest consisted of some 300 sketchbooks, 300 oil paintings, and 30,000 sketches.

    The TATE gallery has an example of how extreme the discoloration of some of his works are:

    However irresponsible he was, he still had an ego!