The Fugitive Color

28 May 2012

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.

For more interesting in-depth articles, demonstrations and valuable information, please join us on The Artist's Road.

--John & Ann

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


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Comments

on 2 Jun 2012 7:25 AM

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?

on 2 Jun 2012 8:48 AM

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?

on 3 Jun 2012 5:56 PM

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.

on 3 Jun 2012 5:56 PM

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.