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Today, we are on part III of IV of our series of paints or pigments that are no longer used by artists. We are posting this information for the nerdy folks we know who can't get enough of facts and useless knowledge. We thank the online Hyperallergic, who originally published these earlier this month in their online magazine.
Detail of Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s “Festoon with Flowers and Fruit” (1660s), oil on panel, said to have been painted with orpiment (via Wikimedia)
Made from arsenic and sulphide, orpiment was naturally very toxic. According to New Scientist, the vivid “King’s Yellow” as it was known was very popular with 17th century Dutch masters, sometimes mixed with blue to make their landscapes green. Yet not only were the fumes poisonous, it also apparently smelled horrid. Furthermore, it would react with the then-common lead pigments. As John Emsley’s The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison describes, “not all artists were so enamoured because it caused other pigments to turn black if it was painted over, and this was especially so if they were using white lead, which slowly reacted with the sulphur in the orpiment to form black lead sulphide.”
One pigment that could mix with the above mentioned orpiment was Hartshorn. Yet the rustic-feeling white got its natural color from calcined deer antlers, which are hard to keep in abundant supply.
Rembrandt, “Old Man with a Gold Chain” (1631), oil on panel (via Wikimedia)
3. Ivory Black
Hartshorn, however, is not the only bone-based pigment that was once popular. Ivory Black, which was made from singed elephant tusks and other ivory, and bone char, were also used, and were particularly fond of artists like Rembrandt who would paint swathes of black on their work. According to Art in the Making: Rembrandt by David Bomford, the blacks the artist used were “almost always provided by bone or ivory black, prepared, as the name suggests, from animal bones or waste ivory by charring in a closed crucible.”
4. Paris Green
To go along with those infamously poisonous pigments is the notorious Paris Green. The incredibly toxic pigment was an effort to improve Scheele's Green a copper arsenite, with Paris Green involving arsenic and verdigris (see below). It gets its name from being used to kill rats in the sewers of Paris, and it was also used as an insecticide, but that was all after it had already been used as a pigment in art and other uses, including, most hazardously, wallpaper where when combined with moisture it released an arsine gas.
5. Iris Green
For a less deadly green, illuminated medieval manuscripts were frequently colored with the iris flower in a color called Iris Green. As the Pigment Compendium by Valentine Walsh and Tracey Chaplin describes, the juice from petals of plants such as parsley, nightshade, rue, and honeysuckle were frequently used, but it was the iris that gave a nice color from its blue and purple petals. Yet it was a time consuming process and required a whole heap of flowers to have enough juice to pull out the pigment (sourced from chlorophyl) with scraps of linen.