Throughout history, lapis lazuli and the blue pigment that is extracted from it have have occupied a special place in the fine and decorative arts: an expensive, semi-precious stone that for centuries was exclusively sourced fron the rather inaccessible mountains of Badakhshan (today’s Afghanistan). Brought to Europe through the main trading port of Venice, the extracted pigment was known to Europeans as ultramarine (from ‘beyond the sea’). Ultramarine was the most expensive pigment on artists palettes, and long reserved for special passages in a painting such as Mary’s robes.
The Anunciation (1435)
Fra Angelico, Prado Madrid
Ultramarine, intensely blue and fine, had no equal as a pigment. When they couldn’t afford this paint, artists used alternatives such as smalt: cobalt-containing ground glass which was a by-product from the ceramics industry. However, smalt was very transparent, coarse and could be prone to fading. Another alternative was copper ore mined in northern Europe, from which azurite (a copper carbonate) was extracted. The best grade azurite was obtained from the largest particles, however this meant that the paint was coarse. The supreme ultramarine was therefore viewed as an extremely luxurious choice and would take paintings to an entirely different level.
The cost of ultramarine was not only due to the cost of mining and transportation into Europe, but also due to a laborious and precise production process by specialised manufacturers, before it was bought by artists. ‘Raw’ lapis lazuli was first separated from other minerals (calcite, quartz and pyrite) by crushing the stones, followed by grinding this to a fine powder and mixing with a paste of wax, pine resin and linseed oil. The resulting waxy dough was kneaded in a lye solution (typically potassim hydroxide) which caused the ultramarine particles to settle in the alkaline water. The first extraction yielded the finest and purest grade of azurite. Subsequent ‘washes’ caused the unwanted minerals to enter the solution, resulting in a less pure azurite. The last and least pure extract was known as ultramarine ash which had a grey colour. Artists did use all grades; some contemporary paint mix recipes mention ‘ash’, for example in Beurs’s “De groote waereld in ‘t kleen geschildert” published in 1692. The price of good quality ultramarine comes to no surprise when it comprises less than 1% of the weight of the original material. Ultramarine was therefore by far the most expensive pigment on the palette of Medieval, Renaissance and post-Renaissance painters.
Left: for centuries lapis lazuli was exclusively sourced from Badakhshan.
Right: Lapis lazuli in its natural state (Wikipedia).
Some painters fully exploited this luxury status of ultamarine. Willem van Aelst (1627-1683), one of the most influential painters of the Dutch Golden Age, had many wealthy patrons and customers. Knowing the value and perceived value of fine ultramarine, he used it to paint significant areas of his paintings and even the preparatory layers of the painting which would be overpainted (underpainting). This approach ensured a huge intrinsic value that would be understood and appreciated by a wealthy 17th century audience.
Hunting still life with a velvet bag on a marble ledge (1665)
Willem van Aelst
Fine ultramarine, sourced from Afghanistan, is also part of my own palette. Still expensive today, it is a truly amazing colour. Next time you see one of my paintings, look out for this beautiful blue!
References and continued reading:
Still Lifes: Techniques and Style. A Wallert (ed.) Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 1999.
Elegance and Refinement, the still-life paintings of Willem van Aelst. T. Paul et al., 2012.
De groote waereld in ‘t kleen geschildert. W. Beurs, 1692.
On the Easel
Detail: Wood pigeon, in progress
Classical painting technique
Traditional pigments: raw and burnt umbers, lapis lazuli, lead white, bone black, Cassel earth, burnt sienna, malachite.
My paint box:
My paint box is one of my favourite things: I’ve managed to exclude any paint developed after 1700, so no cadmiums or synthetic ultramarine for me. I guess that makes me a purist – it’s interesting how you learn things about yourself after a number of decades. So, I have ended up with a palette containing colours 17th century Dutch painters had access to:
Lead white and chalk-containing lead white, lead-tin yellow, stil de grain/schietgeel, vermilion, madder lake, lapis lazuli, blue verditer/bice, smalt, malachite, raw and burnt siennas, raw and burnt umbers, Cassel earth and bone black.
These colours are from a variety of sources: man-made (such as Lead white, Smalt), mineral/deposit (such as Lapis lazuli, Malachite and earth colours) and organic (made from berries such as Stil de grain, or sourced from ancient peat-containing soil such as Cassel Earth). Madder Lake is organic in origin and produced from the root of the madder plant (Rubia tinctorum). It is a beautiful, deep ruby-red.
Use throughout history
Madder lake has been in use since antiquity, as a textile dye and as a paint. It was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb and as a paint was especially popular in 15th and 16th century Holland, where it was one of the few bright paints available to painters. Examples can be seen in paintings by for example El Greco, Velazquez and Vermeer. It had to be used with caution though as the purpurin pigment in this paint (rather than the pseudo-purpurin and alizarin), is prone to fading if not used in a careful way: exposure to excessive light was to be avoided. This was achieved by using Madder lake as a glaze or as a thick layer in relatively dark areas of a painting – and definitely no heavy mixing with white. Using this approach, madder lake is fairly permanent.
As a transparent paint madder lake is ideal for glazing. It was traditionally paired with vermillion: brushed over this as an unbroken glaze results in a brilliant deepened red. Vermeer was known to use this technique, and we can see this today in his paintings Girl with a Red Hat, Girl with a Wine Glass and, famously, Girl with a Pearl Earring where he used madder lake to paint those lips:
Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665/1666
The Dutch Tulip: heritage cultivars
From my garden:
Dutch tulip, 1760
One of the latest Dutch heritage tulips to surface in my garden is also one of my favourites: the Zilver Standaard, a Dutch tulip which hails from 1760. It is part of my heritage tulip collection spanning the 16th to the 19th centuries – all sourced from the friendly conservation team at the Hortus Bulborum in Limmen, Holland.
It is a relatively strong tulip; stronger than the earlier 17th century cultivars. It has a yellow base and white petals which show red flames. Some tulips have more red flames, some fewer, so there is quite a variety within the same cultivar. While very beautiful, this cultivar should not be confused with the flamed tulips of the 1600s, which only showed the famous and popular ‘broken’ colour due to a mosaic virus. This, unknown at the time, weakened the tulip plant and eventually pushed it to extinction.
Only one broken 17th century Dutch tulip cultivar remains today: the Zomerschoon (1620). This tulip appears to have developed tolerance. I was able to get hold of a few Zomerschoon bulbs last year – the buds are now showing and I’ll show you a photo when, after 4 years of waiting for this tulip, I can finally paint it.
See what’s on the easel this month!
One of my paintings on the easel this March is a fruit still life. This painting is all about grapes, the old way: using the techniques painters used in 1600’s Holland. I’m also using the pigments that were available to the 17th century Dutch painter, starting with umber and lead white.
Grapes (in progress). Traditional oils on poplar, 30x30cm
Cyprus umber and Lead white
After preparing the wood panel, which was typically made of Baltic oak (I use poplar from Italy), 17th century painters would apply a layer of lead white followed by a toned layer. The toned layer typically included lead white and an earth pigment such as umber and often a little bone black, to create a warm grey ground to start painting from. Once this was dry they set up the composition, often in charcoal (although some painters started without a drawing). I have used ordinary pencil for this painting.
Underpainting: the first couple of layers were reserved for the monochrome underpainting, also called dead layer due to the ‘absence’ of colour. This was for example just an umber and lead white, although many painters (especially flower painters) completed the underpainting of each element in their design in its local colour, ending up with a jigsaw effect. The underpainting, which confirms aspects such as the composition and the value landscape, serves as a map for the subsequent colour layers. The underpainting was excecuted to varying levels of detail: some painters moved on to colour quite soon, some painters finished this layer in high detail.
And this is where this painting is now- after two layers, I’d like it to be even more detailed so I’ll use another session to achieve that. Once this is dry, I’ll move on to colour.
Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden – Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
inv./cat. no. 1562; Image credit: The Rembrandt Database.
Old pigments painting blog: Vandyke Brown
(Cassel Earth, Cologne Earth)
I exclusively use pigments that were available to the 17th century Dutch painter – something that fascinates me and also keeps me tied to my roots now I’m living abroad. I use 17th century techniques and my subject matter is a nod to the interests of that time, including heritage tulips, fruit and produce still life, and bird still life. In this old pigments painting blog you’ll read more about one of the pigments I use: Vandyke Brown, also known as Cassel Earth and Cologne Earth. It has featured on artists’ palettes since 1600 and most likely earlier.
The pigment Vandyke Brown / Cassel Earth / Cologne Earth has an interesting and centuries’ old history. It was used to create deep, dark, rich backgrounds. When we think of Dutch paintings of that time, these typical backgrounds immediately come to mind.
Old pigments, in contrast to most modern ones (meaning paint developed from the 19th century onwards, such as synthetic ultramarine), need to be used with extra caution. Some are toxic (such as lead white and vermillion), some react with other pigments (e.g., lead white and orpiment) or painting medium, and some are fugitive / not lightfast (such as the organic lakes). There are many other things to consider, and throughout the centuries artists and craftsmen were aware of these (and if not, extensive modern research has revealed a lot!). Contemporary manuscripts and published handbooks by artists, potters and glass craftsmen have been a valuable source for artists since the mid-1500s. Some, for example “De Groote Waereld in ‘t kleen geschildert” by Willem Beurs (1692), survive today and are accessible thanks to digitisation.
De groote waereld in’t kleen geschildert, of Schilderagtig tafereel van ‘s weerelds schilderyen
Without conducting a thorough literature review, some of the information for the short essay below has been lifted from manuscripts by Beurs 1692, Feller and Johnston-Feller 1997 (National Gallery of Art, Washington), Van Eikema et al. 1999 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), the Pigment Database (artiscreation.com) and ColourLex (colourlex.com).
Old pigments: what is Vandyke Brown?
Vandyke Brown, now synonymous with Cassel Earth and Cologne Earth, is comprised of the humic/lignitic substances found in soil, peat and brow coal; as an ancient deposit it contains microfossils and angiosperm pollen. Chemically, iron is most abundant followed by calcium and some manganese. Throughout history the main deposits were found in the west-German regions of Cologne and Kassel (today the material is sourced from Kassel). The pigment was prepared by drying and grinding the raw material, and then mixing with linseed, walnut or poppyseed oil for oil painting. It has a beautiful, deep black-brown colour and depending on the thickness of the painted layer, can have violet undertones.
My Vandyke Brown and Cassel Earth (both NBr8)
The dry pigment. Image credit: ColourLex
Cassel / Cologne Earth is thought to have been in use since the Renaissance period and mainly in Holland and England. Unfortunately, due to the difficulty identifying organic materials using modern analytical methods, the use of this pigment can only be suspected in a number of paintings. The earliest date Cassel / Cologne Earth may have been used is during the early 1500s: an organic brown pigment was found in two paintings of 1500 to 1511 attributed to Gerard David (circa 1460-1523). Organic brown pigment was also found in paintings by Velazquez (1465-1524).
Handbooks and literature of the 17th century include recommendations for its use, confirming that it was part of painters’ palettes in that century. Karel van Mander, in his Het Schilder-Boeck (1604) recommends Cologne Earth for the shadows ‘of the flesh’ and Willem Beurs mentions Cologne Earth in his De Groote Waereld in ‘t kleen geschildert (1692).
How was Cassel / Cologne Earth used and how do I use it?
The pigment was used in oil painting, mainly as a glaze over dark areas, and in later centuries in watercolour. It was not restricted to fine art: it was used on sculptures, walls, wall and decorative papers, in woodworking and even put in snuff!
A recipe by the celebrated painter Jan Davidsz. de Heem (1606-1683/4) survives, in which he recommends a mixture of lead white, lake, bice and earth of “colon” for painting the yeast residue on grapes and other fruit:
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Image credit: Rijksmuseum
Rubens (1577-1640) is known to have included the pigment on his palette: he mixed it with ochre, creating a warm transparent brown which ‘held up well, particularly in resin varnish’. Van Dyck was Rubens’s pupil and collaborated on a number of paintings with him, so Cassel / Cologne Earth may have entered his palette at that time.
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) used Cassel / Cologne Earth to create the dark backgrounds we know him so well for. In his painting Saskia van Uylenburgh as Flora (see below), Rembrandt used a mixture of yellow ochre, bone black, a small amount of lead white, and Cassel / Cologne Earth for the background areas. Cassel / Cologne Earth was most likely used as a glaze.
Now I’ve added Cassel Earth to my own palette, I’ve been using it in my backgrounds as well. Below is a painting of a Cornish shell; the background, a layer of Cyprus umber, was glazed with Cassel / Cologne Earth to create a deep and dark background bringing out the shell.
Rembrandt used Cassel Earth / Cologne Earth in a number of paintings to create rich, dark backgrounds.
Centuries of confusion
Today, due to the moderate lightfastness of NBr8, genuine NBr8 paint is sadly no longer widely available to artists, except via the fine art materials manufacturer Vasari (USA). Instead, most manufacturers use PBr8: an inorganic pigment that mainly contains manganic hydroxide and is mostly synthetic. Unfortunately, they all claim to be genuine Vandyke Brown – suggesting that the centuries’ old confusion between organic and inorganic Vandyke Brown may be alive and kicking today.One modern study on the lightfastness of NBr8 supported by The National Gallery of Art, Washington, has shown that discolouration of NBr8 may occur after an equivalent of 20-100 years exposure to museum lighting, confirming that the pigment is of intermediate light stability (Feller and Johnston-Feller, 1997). In this experiment NBr8 was glazed directly onto a bright background before exposure to light, thereby allowing more light reflection than would have been the case if NBr8 was glazed onto a dark background – the traditional 17th century method of working with this pigment. This modern conclusion of lightfastness may therefore not reflect the fate of this pigment used in the 1600s. Unfortunately this does not change anyone’s mind and most artists don’t look further than PBr8. This is a shame as the depth of colour and magic of this early pigment, and the other old pigments, is unparalleled in modern colours.
Disasters and joy
Beurs 1692. De groote waereld in’t kleen geschildert, of Schilderagtig tafereel van ‘s weerelds schilderyen. Amsterdam.
Feller, Johnston-Feller 1997. Artists’ Pigments, A Handbook of Their History and Characteristics. National Gallery of Art, Washington.
The Pigment Database (www.artiscreation.com).
Van Eikema Hommes, De Bruijn, Hermens, Wallert 1999. Still Lifes: Techniques and Style. The examination of paintings from the Rijskmuseum. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.