Frequently asked questions
And a few answers
Were old master
paints better than modern paint?
This is a hard question to answer simply.
Overall I would say that the longevity of old master pictures is more
about sound painting techniques than the quality of the paint itself.
Also our paints today exhibit a great range of qualities from poor and
overloaded with fillers to excellent. A look at the list of
historic pigments on this site shows that a high portion of the
available pigments of earlier years were either impermanent or
poisonous or both. On the other side of the ledger they were
masters at making miracles with poor materials. And the hand made
paints they used tended to be fresh and pure. There might not have been
many good color choices but they made up for that by maximizing the
beauty of the colors they did have. It seems likely that a modern
artist using old master materials would make work of far less
durability and beauty than the old masters did. I also suspect that
masters using the best of our paints would make work of even greater
durability and beauty than the work done with their Renaissance paints.
What is the easiest
paint to make in the studio?
Its a toss up between Egg Tempera and Gouache although factoring in
making traditional chalk ground then Gouache would take first prize.
Generally paint making is fairly straight forward in most media,
although Acrylics and Watercolors are not so easy as the rest.
Should I avoid
paint because of all the poisons involved?
No. On a site like this I have to give you all the information that you
need to make informed decisions. Yes some paint ingredients can be
hazardous if handled foolishly. In reality normal care and attention by
the artist means that these materials can be used with confidence
unless you choose to use the older very poisonous pigments and I do not
recommend that. Modern materials are safe for you to use so long as
you use the sensible precautions described on the safety page. Most pigments require little more
than a simple dust mask to be worn and adequate ventilation.
Can I save money by making paint?
Yes, but it varies according to media and pigment. Pastels probably
provide the largest cost saving and gouache always gives exceptional
the other hand by the time you factor in your time and cost of tubes
etc. a well made Watercolor may cost a similar amount to the
manufactured item. I would suggest that the reason for making paint is
more about the quality of materials rather than the outright cost
Why would I go to
the trouble of making paint?
(1) You can make pure paints free of adulterants, (2) The colors are
likely to be stronger and more brilliant, (3) You can customize the
paint to suit your needs, (4) It can save money, (5) You can make
colors that are not available from artist's paint manufacturers, (6)
You can collect and use beautiful earth colors you see in nature, (7)
It puts you in touch with your artist heritage, (8) By making paint you
learn to understand more about paint and can get more out of it, (9) It
Will I really see a
difference in hand made paint compared to the commercial product?
Not only will the colors be noticeably brighter and stronger but the
paint will also feel different on the brush. Some colors will exhibit
more obvious differences than others naturally. Ultramarine for example
is likely to surprise you with the extra brilliance of the color
whereas a dark opaque red iron oxide will have a more subtle
Is it possible to
make the same paint as the old masters including their colors?
Yes, but with the knowledge that our understanding of many old master
art materials is limited. Virtually all the pigments used back then are
available, at least from specialist artist's pigment suppliers, and the
few that are not can generally be made by the artist from basic
materials. Even the old style windmill cold pressed Linseed Oil is
still available. Early writers have left us with a working knowledge of
the grinding of colors as practiced then and there is much scholarly
opinion that fills in the gaps. The bigger question is is it wise to
work with highly poisonous substances that are in many cases much less
permanent than safer more pure and dependable modern materials? It is
not my role to dictate artistic explorations by any artist, but to
point out the realities involved including safety problems and also
possible government controls over toxic materials in many countries
today. I should add that there is a real need in the field of
conservation and restoration of old works of art and architecture for
old ways, old materials, and old skills to continue in use.
How do I find
genuine Lapis Lazuli?
Lapis Lazuli has always remained available through wars and
Taliban extremism. The price and quantity of supply have varied
however. It does seem to be more affordable now than any time in the
last couple of decades. This is for two reasons. Firstly the years of
intense fighting in Afghanistan are not as bad as they once were. And
secondly new supplies have come on the market from South America and
Russia which are much more reasonably priced. I would start my search for Lapis Lazuli (also called Lazuline Blue)
with any of the specialist artist's pigment suppliers listed in the 'Historic Pigments' section of the links page. Or simply look on the internet using the
search term lapis lazuli pigment.
Can I find the same
Earth pigments that Renaissance masters used?
Sadly many mines have been worked out. This is especially true of the
special Green Earths that were once available. On the other hand some
rich red deposits that are too small for large commercial exploitation
still produce pigment in small quantity for artist's. Specialist
pigment suppliers will usually specify the origins of Earth pigments as
particular regions were often associated with particular shades of
yellow and red of great quality.
How can I be certain
that the paint I make is as good as I think it is?
You can't except to know the ingredients you used. Light fastness can
variable according to the source and batch of pigments so it is
advisable to make your own light fastness tests. The good news is that
it is possible to do simple tests in the studio environment that can
yield useful information. More info...
Have any Old Master paintings faded?
Fortunately the Old Masters tended to use colors that were permanent as much as possible but there are notable exceptions. Reynolds for example, who loved Carmine, was criticised during his lifetime for the extent of fading in many of his pictures. He wasn't the only one that this occurred to.
There is an incorrect modern view that assumes that the colors seen in Old Master pictures are the same as those seen by the artist as he or she painted. All we can be really certain of is that certain Earth colors and minerals are likely to be within a few percent of the color appearance when painted if used pure. Mixtures can change levels of permanence makedly. The addition of a lake color to 'brighten' a mixture, say Arzica added to Yellow Ochre to make the colour more golden or Red Lake to Red Earth to make a more fleshy color will have changed significantly as will the use of unreliable mineral colors like Verdisgris (which sometimes proved permanent, and sometimes went brown.).
Where lakes made from plant sources were used, the color, (whether on its own or in mixture), is likely to be long gone and to have changed the appearance of paintings significantly. Ever wonder why so many old paintings show sallow or overly pale skin? It is often because the lakes used in the mixtures with white faded. Likewise you may have noticed the prevalence of pinkish or ochrey skies in many English watercolors, That is because of the widespread use of Indigo which has long departed leaving only the ochre mixed with the Indigo originally for the blue of the sky that was the artist's true intent.
Even Cennini writing in the 15th century observed that certain lake colors "...will do you no honor." meaning that they will fade if used for permanent paintings and therefore should be avoided.
What are the most permanent colors known?
This has more than one answer. Many artist's assume that the criteria for permanence is 'never changing'. Unfortunately there has never been a color that fulfills this entirely, however Yellow Ochre, Titanium White, Cobalt Blue, pure Red Oxides, Siennas and Umbers, Naple Yellow (genuine), Viridian, and Chromium Green Oxide come close. Scientific testing concludes that these colors exhibit 10% or less change after 200 years exposure to light. Realistically a far greater time span can be reasonably assumed. A change of say 5% may well be measurable scientifically, but will be undedectable to the human eye without an unfaded comparison card. A color in this class may well still appear vibrant in a 1000 years or more, but don't forget that the prehistoric artworks we see today and marvel at the brilliance of their colors after so much time were protected from light for Millenia in darkness. Some of these artworks are now exhibiting measurable changes after a century or less of exposure to light and humidity.
If permanence is expanded to mean 10% or less change in 100 years of exposure the group is far larger and includes the Pthalocyanines, Pyrrole Red, and Quinacridones. Some, like the Quinacridones will exhibit more change than the others. However this group generally is likely to be visible in paintings 500 years after use with only minimal change.
The less permanent of the 'permanent' colors often used by artist's such as the Hansa Yellows, Napthol Red, and Alizarin Crimson are likely to be significantly faded or gone completely (especially in tints) in time periods like 500 years.
There are some colors not mentioned here like White Lead, Ultramarine Blue, Prussian Blue, Vermillion, and Cadmium Yellow and Red. This is because they generally have very high resistance to light but have other problems. Ultramarine is sensitve to weak acids and can fade in the presence of an acidic substance mixed into the paint or in the environment. It is rare, but it happens. Prussian Blue is susceptible to Alkalis, and differences in manufacturing processes mean some samples turn brown and some can fade, while others are extremely permanent. Cadmium fades in the presence of moisture. In Oil Paint it has a certain protection, but a watercolor hung on a damp wall is highly likely to suffer from Cadmium Yellow degradation. White Lead has the unusual property of darkening in the absence of light, and then lightening again with exposure to bright light. Vermillion can turn black in certain (rare) circumstances. Pigments like these highlight the fact that permanence is not just about lightfastness.
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