Palettes in Reproductions – Rembrandt

What do we see when we look at our screens?

 

 

 

 Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), De roof van Proserpina,ca. 1632, oil-paint on panel,
84,5 x 79,9 cm., Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

The above are three images, of many more, that pop up in my browser when searching for Rembrandt’s Proserpina.

Their differences are huge and what makes it even more confusing is the strong blue in the lower image. 
So which one of these three images represents the original painting? The palette used in it’s creation? How to choose? 
Unlike Vermeer, Rembrandt is not known for an abundant use of blue pigments. The blue sky is probably a mistake and the image can be discarded.

Picturing Rembrandt’s body of work, we see brown as the leading colour, followed by reds and yellows. 

In pigments this would be:
red & yellow earth (ochre and sienna)
umber (burnt & raw)
black (ivory, lamp, bone)
vermillion
lead tin yellow
lead white
madder & other red lakes

A palette that dominated painted art from the 16th up to the 18th century.

Following this reasoning, one of the two other  images should be the one resembling the original.

The middle one shows the familiar warm browns, but is extremely yellow. Even with many layers of an oily varnish, it’s unlikely this would be the result. 

Leaves us with the top image. Yes, this one certainly has it’s points. The brown hues and the subtle grey of the sky, both part of a convincing 17th century old master’s palette. It  brings to mind other landscapes painted by Rembrandt.

 

 

Rembrandt, Landscape with a stone bridge, ca. 1638, oil-paint on panel, 29.5 x 42.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

A landscape like this one with the stone bridge, which I have seen many times in the museum. I have always been impressed how it appears to have been painted with ease , the beautiful umbers and browns and the golden light. The efficient use of middle-tones, creating deep and lively shades.
This painting has been my reference point for landscape painting by Rembrandt.
It still was when I visited Berlin and the Gemaeldegalerie.
I was not prepared for the confrontation with a  brighter, apparently different palette.
When I saw the Proserpina painting  on the wall in the museum, I had to read the attribution twice to be convinced it really was a Rembrandt.
The painting in situ in Berlin, daylight conditions. Photo monica rotgans

Like his colleagues, Rembrandt did use strong blues and greens, but most of these pigments  have turned brown or disappeared. However, in this particular painting the blue is still as stunning and overpowering as it was when it was painted, which sets it apart from his other works.

According to the colour-temperature the blue is probably made from lapis lazuli, natural ultramarine (I haven’t read the conservationist’s report yet) and it shines. Applying the extremely expensive natural ultramarine had to be done with care. The use of a non-oily binder is the reason why it still stands out in it’s bright hues.

The sky was originally in harmony with the greens of the full green foliage, and the strong colouring of the clothing of the main characters: reds, purples, blue (other), violet, and yellow. However, the greens based on copper-pigments and a warm lake yellow, have fallen away, as have the purples and reds, and the other, cheaper blues.

What we see is what time has left us of the original palette, helped along by the instability of some of the pigments and the negative effect of an abundant use of oils.
This detail shows clearly the loss of greens, purples, and blue.

 

The conclusion is that of the three images presented the lower one is the closest to the original. Also brown pigments were not the dominating colour in Dutch baroque painting, but the instability of pigments, the ageing of oils, in combination with layers of yellowed varnishes, have for a long time clouded our view and set the standard.

Fortunately, the revolution in conservation science enables us to be more aware of how art-works were originally intended, to recreate their colour-schemes in our mind when looking at painted art. Both in old and modern art.

The abundance and availability of (digital) images and reproductions are no guarantee, as long as there is no international standard or reference checkpoint, for a better understanding of the painter’s materials.

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Rembrandt’s faded colours

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) ‘De Staalmeesters’, 1662, 191 x 279 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

 Watching Time at Work

 Paint is an unreliable partner as Primo Levi remarked to the point in his book The Monkey’s wrench (1978). However, we  painters have to work with it and hope it will not play tricks on our work too quickly. 


With the developments in modern art and the focus on concept, combined with the avalanche of new pigments and binders like acrylics, it is still uncertain what the next generations will be able to see from what has been made since the 1960’s. Those years in which tradition and craft were condemned to be irrelevant and even a hindrance for the creative process.
But the times, and our thinking, are changing.
Crafts are being rediscovered and with them the historical materials and techniques. The ‘Old Masters’ are studied anew: their painting practice, thinking and works.
Masters like Rembrandt, whose once revolutionary and wilful artworks became icons in art, like his famous painting ‘De Staalmeesters’ (Syndics of Draper’s Guild).

‘ It is an old saying that rules are meant to be broken. No one did this more successfully than Rembrandt. For instance, the rich red in the table cloth in the Syndics is obtained by glazing a translucent red over brown, instead of over a brighter red. Rules are meant to be broken, but it is necessary to know first what the rules are. ‘

The above quotation is an example of the re-appreciation of the grumpy Dutchman’s craft. I encountered this quote in an instructional post offering advice on painting materials and techniques.
Indeed, you have to know the rules before you can break them. But you need to know all the rules involved. In this case the rules of time and colour need to be taken into account.
The author was not familiar with Primo Levi’s observation, which applies to most old art:  paint  is unreliable, ages, deteriorates, changes or even vanishes as a colour. All of these factors are visible in this still brilliant painting, which was radiant when it left the painter’s easel.

Yes, Rembrandt did paint a translucent red lake, but no, not over brown, which would have produced a dull, uninteresting red-brown. Most likely the glaze (some thickly applied parts are still visible) was used to intensify and darken a warm red. originally probably a purplish red, a combination of blue smalt and red lake(s), intended as a darker hue of the bright part of the cloth. This way the deeper and cooler red enhances the light falling through the high window. It opens up and accentuates the space in which the action is taking place. However, both pigments are famously unstable and can loose practically all their original colour.

Obviously my simple photo-shop tool can’t mimic the richness of the original paints, the rich glazes, the  lakes, blues and umbers, the hand of the painter. However, with a partial reconstruction you can get an  idea of the effect this richly coloured, costly, and exotic rug would have had in the composition. 

Nowadays we do not realise how extremely precious, special, and sought after these rugs once were.
In the picture it is a loud, clear, visual social statement, like today’s designer fashions and watches. The  Amsterdam Syndics belonged to the very wealthy and influential of the 17th century Dutch Republic. Expensive housing, furniture, cutlery, clothes, art-collections, and the status of the commissioned artists, were all vehicles to underline the social position of the portrayed.

Looking at the painting in it’s present condition, it is obvious how much the original paint-layers have suffered, losing colour due to the properties of the pigments, Rembrandt’s technique, and the impact of time. Losing an essential part of it’s symbolic meaning.

An antique Persian rug

Using what we know, the familiar, can be very helpful when we are studying a work of art. In this case, we know these rugs. They are commonly available as carpets. Often in red’s with blue, yellow and green decorations. Colourful pieces, so why does the painting show an undefined brown example of textile? 
Combining the practical knowledge of why and how these carpets are made with the awareness of the properties of historical pigments, binders and techniques, we can imagine the painting’s original colour-system.

The two Dutchmen below were portrayed during the same period as the Staalmeesters. And like the ‘Syndics’ these men are displaying who and what they are, using the commonly known symbols of their time to do so. 
These paintings share with Rembrandt’s the similar effects which time has on painted colour, though less obvious. Both have lost their blues, again this tricky smalt-blue and perhaps some indigo, and the red lakes. 
The landscape on the left has transformed into a dull grey background, as has the blue in the man’s costly clothing and that of his servant. The vanished lakes flatten the reds and blacks.

As a result of the tricks of time, Dutch oil-painting of the 16th, 17th and 18th century, seems to be dominated by the stable and sturdy red, brown, and yellow earth-pigments, vermilion, lead-white and blacks.

  It is unstoppable time at work.

Freshly finished rugs.

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Abstract?

There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all traces of reality.
 Pablo Picasso
Picasso’s words seem to not correspond with his drawing which, in this case, looks disconnected from reality. PP has used the lay-out of the newspaper as a background for a number of mathematical forms.
I have turned the image above upside-down so that we automatically focus on the printed words. Picasso originally made his drawing on the inverted newspaper to give the blocks of printed words an ‘abstract’ function and to remove their distracting effect. Below is the drawing as it was actually meant to be viewed… the head of a man with a moustache.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Head of a man with a moustache, 1913, 55,6 x 37,5 cm
mixed media on paper
In our efforts to visually make sense when viewing this drawing, our conditioning is such that once we are given a title the subject matter becomes recognisable.

Picasso touches on another aspect concerning ‘abstract art’: the start. The women and men we consider to be the masters of Abstract Art have developed their abstract forms based on a thorough knowledge and mastering of their craft. They did not start by creating abstract art. Their works are the result of schooling and lifelong study; working and wrestling with colour and form to create their envisaged results.

After abstract art became fashionable the term ‘abstract’ has been used as an excuse to camouflage a lack of craftsmanship and/or talent.

Eugene Dodeigne (1923-2015) Study,  c. 60 x 84 cm, charcoal.
During my training at the (original) Rijksacademie, in Amsterdam, drawing was considered the foundation of all visual art. The first years of study were spent with long days of drawing after nature, which we then naively considered as mastering the skills of copying nature. Later, I realised that apart from transforming eye and hand into a new tool, repeated drawing was also a training in abstraction, getting at the essence of forms.
It dawned on me what the total energy should be of a work of art. A portrait is not a remake of a head, a landscape not a picturesque copy of sky and land. Both are an interaction between all of the selected forms and colours, metamorphosed into a two-dimensional frame. In a sculpture it is the sum of the positive (touchable) and negative (untouchable) forms.
The abstract energy of a work of art, sometimes referred to in sculpture as the arabesque.
It is what makes a painting or sculpture ‘work’, or not ‘work’.

Antoni Tapies drawing

Abstract can be designated as unrecognisable, also as non-concrete or an idea. But when is something unrecognisable? Tapies work, as shown above, could be called ‘abstract’, non-realistic. However, for the trained eye it can be experienced as described by Picasso; removed reality, scrubbed down to it’s essence, the arabesque. Just as familiar and concrete as the monumental painting by Van der Weijden with it’s similar energies and composition.

Rogier van der Weijden (c. 1400-1464), Descent from the Cross, c. 1435,
oil on oak panel, 220 x 262 cm, Prado, Madrid.
Van der Weijdens composition is built upon the strong lines of an abstract, diagonal frame, on which he modelled the various characters needed to visualise the event. Turning the image upside down makes it easier to detect the basic structure, which I marked out on the image below.

Therefore, we can ask ourselves: what is abstract art? Is it removal of reality? or is it more a case of, for some onlookers, unrecognisable images and forms, like the prehistoric painting below?

This red earth rock painting from the mountains of Cantabria, Spain, was discovered in 1903. It is probably around 40,000 years old. It has been labelled an ‘abstract painting’ by modern western man, because we have no idea of it’s meaning. However, it does not follow that it was intended to be ‘abstract’. These images could have been quite clear and logical for it’s creators and their public, as easy to read for them as is a newspaper for us.

Perhaps we could be a little more aware, and cautious, when using  the term ‘abstract’ and better appreciate our sometimes limited mind-frame.

monicaR all rights reserved

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Light and the Painter’s Studio

The studio of Francis Bacon
When we think of a  painter’s studio we imagine a space filled with an abundance of all kinds of materials: essential tools for the creative mind. Paints and brushes, easels, canvasses, sketches, computers, curiosities and much more, all arranged to suit the painter’s needs and method.
Of the same importance is the studio’s lighting.
I clearly remember from my study at the State Academy in Amsterdam (in it’s original building) the huge difference in light-temperature between the class-rooms. My first year was in warm sunshine flooding in through big windows situated in a south-west wall. Moving on further with my studies meant moving up into the professional studios situated in the northern part of the building. The years spent here are dominated by the cool, grey light coming in through huge windows. Flat northern light causing flat colours, colouring our palettes, painting(s) and energy.
The available light in which art works are created has a profound and underestimated effect on every painter’s work.

Bacon’s studio, or rather his cage as depicted above, receives concentrated light from a high and narrow roof window fixed overhead in brown wood.

Johannes Vermeer ( 1632 – 1675)

A huge difference with the organised and richly decorated studio depicted by Vermeer around 1667, lighted by a window to the painter’s left side. For a right handed person the ideal position to avoid the disturbance of casting shadows while working the canvas. When we observe the intensity of the entering light it is clear that the lower part of the window is covered by a panel to enhance contrasts of the model and the scene. The situation is comparable with the studio painted by Jan Miense Molenaar around the same period, where only the top of the window, on the left, is uncovered.

Jan Miense Molenaar ( ca 1610 – 1668)
 
Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) France
The photo with Picasso posing in his studio next to a newly finished painting resembles Vermeer’s, with the controlled daylight entering from the left.
Picasso has used the powerful, abstract effects of the strong sunlight of a French summer in his work, creating bright squares in shady rooms.
Reliable light is essential when painting indoors. Overcast skies and the position of the sun alter the quality of daylight and make it, at various times, impossible to continue painting. Just as happened today, when I started writing this blog, heavy overcast skies turned my studio into a gloomy space.

In the past, artificial light like candles and oil-lamps were not a solution because the yellowish light distorts the original colours of paints. With the 20th century invention of the so called daylight fluorescent tube lighting, and the modern LED, lamps could be used to replace natural daylight.
Personally, and for many of my colleagues, no lamp can replace the vividness of natural light.

Out of doors

Willem Roelofsz (1822-1879) painting  a cool Dutch summer
The ultimate daylight painting method is, of course, done outdoors. 
Each landscape presents it’s specific energies, light, and colour-temperature. 
Confronted by an ever changing atmosphere enforces intense observation and quick, direct work. A passing cloud, the slow but steady movement of the sun, constantly alter the subject. This is ‘no bullshit’ painting at its finest. 
Struggling with winds, heat or cold, with aching shoulders and back, and limited tools; or sore eyes and so called snow blindness caused by looking too long at a sun blazed white canvas. Exactly as happened to Van Gogh during his outdoors painting sessions. 

John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925) painting the Alps
David Roberts (1796 – 18640), painting ruins in Egypt
Based on this richness and variation in light a painter makes a choice of the colours and paints she or he thinks will be the best to translate an image, an idea into two-dimensions. It is an essential part of the finished work of art.

Thus, when visiting a museum where the atmosphere is strictly controlled to protect the art on show, we don’t see and  experience the works as intended by their creators. Sunlight is banned, the light, the colouring of the walls, the height of the ceiling, the size of the room, are all different than the artist’s studio and the original place for hanging.
Another factor, especially in popular museums, is that you are never on your own.

 Rembrandt’s ‘Nightwatch’ in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Works of art in museums are always out of context. They have lost their intended function, and meaning, and are mixed together with other works of the same period or other eras, according to the opinions and preferences of the curators.

Reconstruction of Rembrandt’s studio in the Rembrandt-house in Amsterdam

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Colour and Theories


Colour Theory  versus  Painting Practice

 

www.7coloursproject.com

 

What is colour? 

A simple question that is so very difficult to answer. Colour is light, colour is mood, structure, matter, elusive…..many theories  offer a range of explanations. This range of explanations are the cause of deep misunderstandings when it comes to colour as matter.
I remember vividly an incomprehensible event during drawing lessons when I was at Primary School. The teacher had told us about light, the rainbow, about colours,  their names and how to mix them to create new ones. And, a miracle, how a mixture of all the bright colours turned into white! Well, I tried hard but after an hour working my colour-pencils I never got anything other then a drab brown. And no explanation from my teacher.

Here we encounter one of the big pitfalls in the thinking about colour: colour is light but paint is matter. White light is the sum of 7 bright colours but white paint is not made by mixing these 7 colours. Nevertheless, this unworkable theory for painting is still taught at schools and universities today as an integral part of colour in art. But the artist’s colour systems and schemes are based on other principles and characteristics. On opaque versus transparent, warm versus cool, dark versus light, complemented with the interactions of various groups of colours. In western thinking known as primary and secondary colours.

Isaac Newton’s (1642-1727) prism on top of his manuscript on the properties of light.
Photo Lessing Images
Therefore, using colour as paint requires a different approach.
Firstly, the three so-called primary colours don’t exist as such. These colours offered in basic sets of paint are also not the base for mixing ‘all’ colours, as suggested. More than once I have heard a customer in an art supply shop inquire about these basic sets, whether they would provide the whole range of mixed colours. They would get the answer ‘yes’ ……………….this scenario takes me back to my fruitless struggles with the colour pencils.
A basic set like the one below is a nightmare to work with because these colours don’t work together. The only possible mixture to be made with this particular set is a rather opaque orange. Other combinations will turn out dull or brownish.
The reason is it’s lack of cool colours, which leads us to the often underestimated effect of the Temperature of Colour.
Basic paint set, with mostly warm and too opaque colours

 

Warm Blue and Cool Red

 Knowing the temperature of colour is an essential part in the handling of one’s palette. 

 

The art-historic interpretation of a colour-wheel, however, useless in painting

For anyone working with paints and inks, a workable set of primary colours contains a warm and cool variety of each colour. The colour wheel above is used on a website by a blogging art-historian explaining it’s use in painting to create perspective by using cold colours, the blues, in the back-ground. Hence it’s division in cold and warm colours. This highly popular theory is based on the misunderstanding that blue is cold and red and yellow are warm.  Anyone familiar with paint knows differently.  The vibrant warm ultramarines, the cold reds and  yellows, and warm and cool emeralds do not fit into this theoretical thinking. Ergo, this colour wheel is useless as a tool to understand the temperature of colour in paint, in matter.

Talking paint the wheel is divided  as seen below, with warm and cool (cold)  distributed in both sections. I prefer to add the neutral colours which are neither specifically warm or cool(cold), like the original cobalt blue or a regular yellow ochre.
In colour wheels like this one the broad range of natural earth-colours is absent, although they are the backbone of painting.

As well are black and white, which for a painter are not the simple two (non-)colours as generally presented, but who in itself cover a wide range from warm to cool.    

   

The colour-wheel as seen by painters.
To make the matter even more complicated, each colour is defined by surrounding colours. Thus a cold blue indigo seems warmer when it’s neighbour is the even colder Prussian blue. This effect is called the relative colour temperature.

 

  Temperature and Meaning 

Colour temperature in it’s original historic sense plays an essential part in the use of pigments and dyes throughout history.
The temperature of a colour had (and still has)  a symbolic value and played an important role in signalling the good or the evil.
As an example we can look at the temperatures of two historic blue pigments, lapis lazuli ultramarine and indigo which were both available in southern Eurasia. The first is in it’s purest form a brilliant, vibrating warm blue, the second a deep, cold night-blue. Both were associated with the powers beyond, ultramarine with the heavenly powers, indigo with those connected to the darkness of after-life and the underworld, with grieve. Each was used in this specific way to emphasize the role and meaning of the deities depicted.

Dürer’s (1471-1528) unfinished Christ and the slightly older 14th century Tibetan Buddha share the  warm blue as the symbol of divine, positive power. The Tibetan creator of the Buddha lived much closer to the source of the rare and extremely expensive lapis lazuli then Dürer, which explains why Dürer modelled Christ’s tunic first with the slightly cooler, more available and cheaper, azurite before he would finish with a glacis of lazurite, the purest ultramarine.

These two works of art show us as well that the availability of  pigments determines the possibilities of it’s creators. Uncountable are the Buddha’s and Christ’s which have to do with lesser or substitute colours and pigments. Or even completely lack colour due to the poverty of the community they were made for.

Summarizing, understanding the temperature of colours in painting is much more complicated than cutting a colour-wheel in half.      
monicaR  all rights reserved

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Painting with Broken Glass

a Reconstruction

www.monicarotgans.nl

Since prehistory man has attempted to reproduce the deep blue colour of a clear summer sky. The heavenly blue that is thought to house and represent the unpredictable, divine powers.
Blue is a rare colour in our earth’s colour-scheme which is dominated by floral greens and the many hues of ochres. Easy to find ochres used in colouring the earliest art, supplemented with the whites of lime and charcoal blacks.

Blue and green pigments and paints, and the words used to name them, appeared much later.
As usable pigments and stable colours they were hard to come by, they were either hidden in ore, like cobalt and copper, or embedded in enclosing rock, like lapis lazuli.
Azurite is the oldest source for blue pigment, first used in the ancient cultures of the Middle East. It is a member of the copper-family, hence it’s blue is tinted with a green hue, making it less suitable to imitate the warm blue of the heavens.

For about 6000 years the only  genuine alternative was the pigment made from the deep blue variety of lapis lazuli. However, it’s scarcity meant that for most people it was unavailable or unobtainable. For the whole of Eurasia and Africa the only known sources were from the remote mines of the hostile Kokchan-valley in Badakshan, modern Afghanistan.
A very welcome alternative became available around 5000 years ago as a product of the expanding Middle-Eastern glass-industries. Red, green, yellow and blue glass grew to be the man-made alternative for colourful but rare gemstones, easily manipulated in moulds of various sizes.
The blue variety of glass, the imitation lapis, was made by adding cobalt to the basic glass-ingredients.

The famous funeral mask of Tutankhamen is a beautiful example of the use of  blue cobalt glass and enamel in combination with genuine lapis lazuli.

Christianity established as the main religion on the European continent during the Middle Ages. With it’s increasing power, the need for representative and dominating symbols grew, culminating in the extraordinary piece of architecture: the cathedral.

the intense blue of the Saint Denis Cathedral stained-glass Rose window

The abbot of Saint Denis, Suger (ca. 1081-1151) is considered to be the initiator of the first grand stained-glass windows. They were commissioned for the far-reaching expansion of the monastery’s church, turning it into the first known cathedral. For his church, Suger wanted the windows to represent ‘.. the inaccessible light where God lives’. Light which could only be of the most intense, enveloping blue.
And thus were they created.

Cobalt, the raw material used in colouring blue glass was a by-product from the mining of silver and other ores. It was used to produce the so called saffer, after sapphire. Not the gemstone we know under that name, but the lazuli-stone, then considered far more precious than gold and sapphire. Somewhere  the idea was had by someone to turn Saffer into smalt by grinding the  blue lumps of molten glass into a pigment. A pigment resembling lapis, but readily available and far less costly.

a piece of smalt/saffer, as sold by Kremer Pigmente

 Painters and decorators welcomed the solution which put an end to the constant scarcity of genuine ultramarine and the unsatisfying hues of azurite. Despite it’s caprices smalt became one of the regular pigments. However,  to maintain it’s colour it had to be used rather coarsely: the finer the grain, the paler the colour.

Coarsely ground smalt, so called strooiblauw. Collection of author

Smalt, as a warm blue, raised considerably the colour-temperature of the painter’s palette. Beautiful examples are the skies in Dutch landscape paintings, as in the ‘River-scene’ by Jan van Goyen (1596-1656).

http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/jan-van-goyen-a-river-scene-with-a-hut-on-an-island

Kobold (hence ‘cobalt’) the little blue ghost, believed by the miners to inhabit the ore, continued to play it’s games. Painters knew of the problems ill treated smalt could give; I wonder whether they could really imagine the enormous impact of discoloured smalt on their work. 
Old smalt-blue can still be enjoyed today, as seen in Van Goyen’s painting, but it can also have lost it’s colour completely. Changed into a dull brown, deforming the composition and, importantly, changing the meaning of a painting. Actually diminishing all of the painter’s hard work.

http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/jan-jansz-treck-still-life-with-a-pewter-flagon-and-two-ming-bowls

The above still-life by Jan Jansz. Treck (1605-1652) is, unfortunately, a fine example. It seems an old  painting displaying the golden-brown glow of age. However, we may ask ourselves does this kind of greenish china-ware exist? Does it make sense?
What we are in fact looking at is a coat of yellowed varnish in combination with a vanished blue. Linseed-oil and smalt don’t really like each other. The colour of the tiny glass-particles is eventually swallowed by the oil when not applied properly, or when the smalt is not of the right quality. What Treck originally painted was a fine blue tablecloth with a blueish background, and on the table a still-life of the most exquisite blue-white china and an expensive crystal glass. Symbols of wealth as the Dutch liked to display.

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The Paint under our Feet

 RED

Ochre Point Soth Australia, where land meets the ocean

Standing on reds, yellows, whites, and purple by simply taking a walk, effectively walking on pigments, is a strange experience for someone like me; I was raised in Holland, a rather colourless country below sea-level, dominated by the greys of clay and clouds.
Other countries offer quite a different palette, full of flamboyant oxides in a range of hues from deep red to brilliant yellow.
Colours which are the Cradle of Art.

The colours of the earth were the first pigments handled by humans to recreate and create. Recreating the game they hunted and creating symbols which still hold their hidden meanings from us. The impressive wisents, wild horses and sheep, lions, rhinos and even elephants in the prehistoric European paintings we know today, were painted with the effective limited palette based on earth-pigments. It is a palette uniting mankind. 

http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2014/10/09/4102672.htm

http://archeologie.culture.fr/chauvet/frThe hand stencils depicted here were found on three different continents: Europe, America and Asia. The oldest have been created around 40.000 years ago. They are evidence of the creative drive of the oldest of what we call humankind. Some may even have been made by Neanderthals, as more scientists are now willing to conclude. 
These images were all made using the same technique: by spitting a mouthful of a watery mix with red earth over the hand. The oldest form of spray-painting. 

The dominant role of red in all of them is no coincidence, and is not connected to an abundance of the pigment in the surroundings of the caves. Red was, and still is in some ways, synonymous to blood, to life. A sacred colour connecting man with ancestors and the after-life.

Blood varies in colour. Fresh blood coming directly  from the body, is a light red, bubbling with energy. Dead blood is dark, almost black, and in thin layers brown. 
Red ochres come in a richer variety of hues: from a light pink, to a full tomato red, a shy brown, and modest violet. 
The pigment-box below is a collection of ochres  (and at the right some charcoal) which I gathered on the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia, complemented with one warm Outback ochre (centre).

 Paint, the Story of Art

Despite this range of hues, the reds commonly used in prehistoric painting are of a similar tone, a strong, often bright, red earth.
Research on the reds in various caves showed they were rarely locally found, but brought in from specific, often distant deposits. Hues which must therefore have had a special, symbolic function in the palette used to decorate the caves and sacred objects. 

The tradition of selecting  pigments for their specific colour and attributing a symbolic meaning to them, is universal. In this case of red earth, the seemingly archaic tradition has survived unchanged into 21st-century Australia. 
For more then 40.000 years the Australian Aborigines have been mining ochre deposits such as those of Wilga Mia, ochres of a particularly high quality. High quality meaning a strong, brilliant red, distinctly different from the red earth covering most of the continent.  
Ochres, red and yellow, were and are a vital ingredient in Aboriginal religious practices. The higher the quality of the red earth, the greater the distance it was traded. The mining of the quarries was restricted to a small group of experts of the tribe on whose land the ochres were found.
Red earth was traded with other clans and transported over distances of more then a 1500 kilometres to serve in rituals and to be transformed into paint.
 

Ochre Cliffs, SA. an ancient and deserted aboriginal ochre quarry

Unfortunately the aggressive attitude of modern man’s mining companies has little respect for ancient traditions. During the last two centuries many of these prehistoric quarries have been mutilated to extract the ochres and accompanying minerals like copper and gold in large quantities for commercial and industrial purposes. 
The majority of historical pigments used by humans, share a similar history of mining and long-distance transports. With a growing demand, and loss of ancient symbolic values, the impact of mining on the environment has become, and remains, enormous. 
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