I am fascinated and delighted by color. I can lose myself for hours in a grocery store looking at the different colors of eggplants, tomatoes, carrots and zucchinis. The shift of light into the pastels of early evening has been known to stop me in my tracks. It thrills me to look at the intense vibrancy of spices such as turmeric, paprika and chili.
So, as I deepen my practice of printmaking, and fold color techniques into my established area of black-and-white art prints, I find myself wanting to know more about the colors I am using. What does the “cobalt” in blue refer to? I know umber is an earth-based color, but where did it originate, and why does it come in “burnt” and “raw” variations? What is the difference between lamp black and mars black?
In the beautiful way these things work, around the time I began to seriously create with color printmaking, a book was recommended to me by an artist who creates monoprints, Karen Gimbel, who is also one of the owners of Bluerock Gallery in Black Diamond.
The book is called “Color: A Natural History of the Palette” and is written by Victoria Finlay. It’s a gorgeous walk through the origins of color, both the sources of the pigments and each color’s historic and social significance.
Throughout the book there are fascinating stories about where some of our most commonly used colors (ochre, red, black, white, indigo) come from and their various uses and progressions from natural to synthetic.
As I am a bit of a history junkie, too, this book fed both my curiosity about color and also delighted me with stories about where our artist pigments originated. Did you know lamp black began when someone scraped the black crud off the insides of kerosene lamps and used it for writing material?
Bone black at one time contained real animal bones, charred in a fire until they could be used to draw with. Lead white was named because it contained (you guessed it) the chemical element lead, which unfortunately could kill those who inhaled it, or wore it on their faces as make up. Although it’s not commonly used now because of its toxic nature, some artists who know how to work with its unique properties do continue to paint with it.
The book is an incredible look at how color has been used for traditional ceremonies, sacred portraits, dyeing clothes and making works of art. It’s a lovely trip deep into the exploration of color.
Although my artistic exploration of color is through the medium of ink on paper, one of the yummy places I love to explore for their color materials is Maiwa in Vancouver, BC. In their store on Granville Island, you will be drawn in by the sheer volume of voluptuous color, patterns, cloth and artisan clothing. But, there is a deeper Maiwa, too. One that educates, informs and uses its store to source and support traditional artisans around the globe through their passion for ethical business practices. (I also wrote a blog about the store here.)
If you are not close to Vancouver, BC, visit their website (www.maiwa.com) and check out the section that showcases their documentaries, books, podcasts and blog. It’s clear when you visit their store and see their website that they are also enamored with the rich traditional and cultural uses of color, and creating beauty out of the natural world.