We are big admirers of J. M. W. Turner's work in oil and
watercolor, especially his magnificent, ethereal watercolor paintings.
many of his paintings are much less vivid today than they were when he
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
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.
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.
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
kermes lake), both produced from the bodies of insects. Cochineal lake
from the blood of the cochineal beetle, which is native to the Americas
was discovered by the Aztecs. The beetle feeds on prickly pear cacti,
covering the plant with a wooly white mass that the Aztecs harvested and
processed into dyes and paints. The Spanish Conquistadors brought this
color to Europe in the 16th century and maintained a monopoly on the
source and supply of the pigment for centuries. Carmine lake, from
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
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; WebExhibits.org