Van Gogh Blues

Imagine….a world without blue pigments. Not just blue paints but also dyes, the colourants for textiles and leather, inks and plastics. Leaving the sky above our heads as the only large blue surface in sight, in summer accompanied by the short-lived flowers of fields and mountains.
For thousands of years this was the actual situation.
Strong, warm and bright blue pigments were rare, with lapis lazuli as the ultimate, most revered and exclusive exception.
A painting like Van Gogh’s Dr Gachet from 1890, with its abundant use of blue and red, would have been a phenomenon. Displaying colours and pigments normally reserved for the religious and worldly elite.

The 19th century was an exceptional age having an unprecedented effect on the use and possibilities of colour and paint with France, and in particular Paris, as the driving forces.
Napoleon’s hunger for territory and power resulted in almost endless processions from every corner of the new Empire to it’s capital, Paris, transporting artworks to what later would become the Musée du Louvre.

Napoleon is considering an Egyptian mummy for his collections, ca. 1800.

This art-flood had it’s consequences. Many art-works were damaged during the often long transports and needed restoration before being displayed. To this purpose the French government installed in 1794 a Conservatoire du Muséum des Arts. The demand for historic and rare blue pigments, like lapis lazuli and azurite, gave birth to the development of new pigments that changed the painters palette and finally brought an end to the scarcity of bright blue paints.

Cobalt-blue was developed by Thénard around 1802, followed by ultramarine, the long sought for replacement of lapis lazuli, in 1828 by Guimet.

Cobalt-blue was and still is relatively expensive (cheap cobalt is not the real thing!), but ultramarine turned out to be a rather economic pigment. The cheapest varieties were used as whiteners for laundry, of which Reckitt’s Blue is one of the best known. The latter is an ideal substitute for painters lacking resources to buy proper pigments, like the young Van Gogh, who even used coffee grounds to make his brown paints. 

Van Gogh ‘The poor and the money’, 1882, mixed media on paper

Van Gogh considered cobalt-blue to be une couleur divine, a divine colour, ideal for suggesting space in the restricted two-dimensions of a canvas. The portrait of Dr. Gachet is a beautiful example of his love for an abundant use of cobalt, indirectly made possible thanks to the expeditions of Napoleon.

Le Docteur Paul Gachet, 1890, 68 x 57 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
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Van Gogh’s faded colours

Van Gogh’s Paint

  A lost battle between Colour & Time?

Flowers, wheat-fields, starry nights and colourful portraits, some of the words associated with the famous painter’s work. Paintings with surfaces that reflect the intensity, concentrated haste, and often rising frustration, in which they were  painted.
We know Van Gogh (1853-1890) as a colourist, a painter who took full advantage of the new possibilities  offered in the field of paint and colour by the Industrial Revolution. Innovations that swept like a tsunami first through the western world and then flooded the rest of the globe. The new pigments with strong reds, yellows, greens and blues allowed for a broader and more effective use of colour-theories. Colours which were until then either too rare and expensive, or just not existent, like warm blues, strong, clear greens and solid yellows. A situation which is now difficult to imagine living in a modern world with our daily and unlimited access to thousands of colours.

The interaction of colour is one of van Gogh’s main tools. Strategically placing primary and secondary colours, opposing cool and warm, and using structure to enhance or to break the intensity of a hue. The complexity of this thinking should be visible and give us better understanding of his approach and goal, and writing. How his works were meant to be. Unfortunately many of the newly available pigments Van Gogh (and his colleagues) used, turned out to be unstable. Some drastically unstable. The consequence is that the slow disintegration of the colours is unstoppable, even in the strictly controlled circumstances in the museums.

In 1913, 23 years after Van Gogh’s death, Charles Moreau-Gauthier published the book La peinture. Les divers procédés in which he included examples of discolouration in modern paints. Discolouration caused by exposure to light. The effect on some colours is quite disastrous. Chrome yellows turn brown (the brown dots in the painting at the top)  and some red lakes completely disappear. Unfortunately these were two of van Gogh’s popular paints, playing an important part in his balanced colours-schemes. The impact on how Van Gogh’s work has survived is big. The combination of unstable pigments, destroying varnishes, thin grounds, haste and transports, have altered the canvases irreversibly.
But thanks to the Digital Revolution we can try and undo some of the effects of the Industrial Revolution. Using natural and conservation science and original pigments, in combination with my experience as a painter and colourist, I have developed a method to recreate van Gogh’s palettes. These palettes provide the base of a digital reconstruction of which the Metropolitan’s ‘Irisses’ can be seen here.

The painting in it’s actual state. 
Van Gogh describes the irisses in his letter from May 11, 1890 as

‘…de grands bouquets de fleurs d’Iris violets, les unes contre un fond rose où l’effet est harmonieux et doux par la combinaison des verts, roses, violets….’

  There is no mentioning of white, blue and brown. The result based on the remade palette with violets, red, yellow and warm greens, alters the painting considerably, showing the harmony Van Gogh describes in his letter.
This partial digital reconstruction is an example of the importance of the material side of an art work. How the knowledge and understanding of the colours handled by the artist to transform an idea into matter, changes our perception.

my partial reconstruction of background and bouquet (monicaR all rights reserved 2015)

The reconstructed  paint on a linen surface. It is a clear example of the gap between paint, print and pixels, which can be so misleading when looking at reproductions.
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Paint & Pixels, the battle

Discolouration and the Public Eye


Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) The finding of Moses, 1651, 116 x 175 cm.,
oil on canvas, National Gallery, London.                 Photo by author

An idyllic representation of the finding of baby Moses by the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh. It’s Poussin’s third and last version of the topic, and a painting displaying an abundant use of exclusive pigments, especially the warm blue of natural ultramarine (from lapis lazuli). A rare blue,for many centuries more sought after and more valued than gold. It’s specific colour-temperature in combination with the special way it has to be applied in oil-painting, makes it stand out even more than was intended by the painter.
Poussin would not be pleased at all seeing his work in its present state, with the isolated red, yellow and blues, dominating and dis-balancing the composition.
One of the main colours that went missing is green: the warm, vibrant greens. We see some greenish foliage and a cool blueish green in some of the women’s clothing, they are too cool and too weak to stand their ground. The cause is discolouration. A combination of fading yellow lakes and the browning of copper-greens such as verdigris.
Until the 19th century the painter’s palette was limited to greens that were made by mixing blues and yellows, or the cool, blueish copper-greens (including malachite). These could be turned into warm greens using yellow lakes. Simple, bright, and warm green pigments were unavailable until the 19th century.
The result of the then available limited palette and the tricks of paint, is a not very attractive, unharmonious painting.

However, this problem may be more or less solved by reproducing the painting in pixels or prints.

The Poussin on the website of the National Gallery

To achieve an optical balance, the image on the website of the National Gallery has been markedly darkened, reducing its contrast and brightness. The difference between my photo taken in the museum, and the image from the website, is more than remarkable.
This demonstrates one of the many problems we are confronted with when looking at a painting in reproduction, whether it be in pixels or print.

We may conclude that a confrontation with a real work of art can never be replicated by viewing a reproduction, regardless of the medium.

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Mona Lisa’s hidden colours


A modest painting by the great Leonardo DaVinci (1452-1519) and the icon of the Louvre Museum in Paris. A genuine blockbuster with ca. 20.000 visitors a day. It is one of the worlds most famous works of art, the source of hundreds of theories and books in which authors attempt to explain uncommon aspects in the painting, like the missing eyebrows.
It is difficult, if not impossible to study the ‘Mona Lisa’ in sitio. The partly discoloured paint is hidden under layers of dirt and varnish, and protective glass, a balustrade, endless crowds of admirers (busy taking selfies) and onlookers frustrate any genuine contact.
Fortunately, in Spain’s capital, Madrid, it’s compeer is well accessible: no yellow varnish, less discolouration, no crowds and, very important, no glass or balustrade. Few of the Prado’s visitors are interested in the portrait by a not well-known Italian painter by the name  of Andrea Salai (1480-1524). Even though the painting was on show in the Louvre’s big Leonardo DaVinci exhibition in 2012.

DaVinci and his pupil Salai could have been sitting side by side when they were portraying the woman. Changes made by DaVinci during the painting process (invisible in the top-layers) were followed by Salai. The latter’s palette has survived considerably better and reveals some of the original colour-scheme in the Louvre’s ‘Mona Lisa’. Full red’s, blue, yellow and bright flesh-colours. The difference between the two panels is a shocking confrontation with the caprices of paint and time, and the unreliability of art-historic interpretations when the knowledge of original materials and their properties and meaning, is missing. 
Salai’s panel is an example of the servitude of what we now call Art in times gone by. As in Van Scorel’s painting which I discussed in an earlier blog, the landscape has turned an unrealistic, pale blue. This could very well be caused by the vanishing of the warm yellow glacis, a traditional  solution to create natural greens. The consequence is an optical separation through which the land in the foreground has lost contact with the upper part of the painting.
It might have been this change, including other discolourations, that made a former owner decide to have the painting redone. Drastically.

And this is the result. This way she probably fitted much better in his collection and this is how she has been known for centuries, until the Prado decided on a thorough investigation. The investigation revealed the hidden landscape, confirming the more then superficial likeliness with DaVinci’s panel.
Freed from over-painting, dirt and the yellowing varnish the painting has come back to life. And yes, she has eye-brows, which have not faded like the ones in Paris.

In 2010 the two paintings could have been side by side again, reunited after five centuries. Unfortunately the Louvre decided against the option.

The intriguing question is: how should we appreciate DaVinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’, understanding how little the image we see has to do with the original painting. More important even, with the painters original idea, work and goal.
Lonely Lisa          foto Melcher de Wind
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Azurite, an ancient, universal blue

Linking cultures

A beautifully stylized marble head, in every inch appealing to our modern appreciation of sculpture. A product of the Cycladic civilisation and approximately made somewhere between 2500 and 2000 B.C.  I am combining this little gem with a large one from the 14th century, the Scrovegni Chapel in Italy’s Padua. The walls of the chapel and ceiling have been decorated with luminous paintings by the so-called father of Renaissance, Giotto di Bondone (1266/67-1337).

You are probably wondering why both are featuring in this page on azurite, the ancient blue pigment. It’s exactly that, the presence of azurite.

The intense blue in the fresco’s by Giotto is mainly made from azurite, a mineral mined in mountainous parts all over the world. In Europe some of the historic mines were located in today’s Hungary, France and Germany. Azurite was a main- source for blue, well-known in Mesopotamia, old Egypt, Greece, the Roman Empire, Asia, Africa and pre-Christian America. It is often found together with it’s green twin-brother malachite. See the image below in which the malachite is embracing the azurite.

 So what is the connection bewteen Giotto’s blue and the colourless Cyclade head?

Because we don’t see at first sight what we could see, if we would know about the significance and meaning of colour in old cultures. A colourless sculpture to us is ‘normal’, but that is a relatively recent opinion. Colour was (and still is) language, defining status and meaning of people and objects. Objects that were not produced as a work of art, but as a practical object for religious or profane rituals. Like this head, missing the body it used to be attached to.
An idol.
Thanks to research we now know this head was once decorated with bright blue and red paint. Weather-beaten, cleaned and scrubbed, all traces of that colour seem to have disappeared. What we can observe though, is a difference in structure of the surface. A difference between the pock-pitted head and the smooth lining of eyes, lips and hair. This is how paint can be rediscovered. Investigation showed minuscule remains of azurite and vermilion hidden in the pores of the marble. Time and erosion have marked the soft stone, except where the azurite and vermilion provided a protective layer, showing the original smooth surface.
A reconstruction in 2006 for the ‘Shaping the beginning’ exhibition in Athens, reveals more of the original colour scheme; a vivid decoration in blue and red, which is so very much in contrast with our idea of a colourless, classical past.

Two painters from very different cultures and times, are joined by their pigments and palettes.

For more information read  ‘Bunte Goetter die farbigkeit antiker Skulptur’ SM Berlin, Hirmer

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What do we see?
…a 17th century painting of course. Recognisable by its golden-brown appearance.
A rich table full of desserts and costly glass and earthenware. In short: the typical wealth of a Golden Age Dutch still-life.
Indeed, this work comes from the hand of a renowned painter. His name is Henri Matisse. Yes, really. The famous French modernist, creator of revolutionary and colourful works of art. 
And yes, this is no mistake. The painting is on view in the Musée Matisse in Nice.

What we see, is a product of the classical academic schooling in the arts, which lasted in Europe up to the 1960’s.  A schooling that focused on a thorough training of the eye and hand, and mastering various techniques and styles. In this process copying was considered a very useful tool in learning to understand the basic elements of composition and harmony.
When in 1893, the painter Gustave Moreau sent his pupil Henri Matisse to the Louvre, this large painting looked like it does on Matisse’s copy. A dark yellow-brown, which was then considered to be the original colour scheme of 17th century painting.
If you would visit the Louvre now, looking for the original by Jan Davidsz. De Heem, it’s very likely you will have trouble finding it. Because this is how De Heem’s work looks today. Cleaned from thick layers of yellow varnish and dirt.

Now the original colours are  clearly showing the painter’s lively composition,  the huge purple draperies embracing and accentuating the vibrating colour-scheme in the foreground. Some of the pigments have faded but still, it is clearly a totally different image and atmosphere then when Matisse studied it in 1893. 

We can enjoy this brilliant palette thanks to the revolution in conservation science. New techniques and insights are lifting the brown smog in many art museums around the world.
In the catalogue Matisse, radical invention (Art Institute of Chicago, 2010), the two paintings are  shown in a insightful article on Matisse’s later interpretation of this work, the large Still-life after Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s ‘la Desserte’, 1915. 
What would have been the effect on Matisse’s choice of colours, had he known about the de Heem’s hidden colours-scheme? It’s an intriguing question.
His still-life might have turned out quite differently.

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P.P. Rubens, Desecend of the Cross, oil on panel, 209 x 148 cm., Antwerp Cathedral.

When Rubens painted this large altar-piece in the beginning of the 17th-century, he was using the same blue pigment as his colleagues in Asia and South-America: dried indigo, mixed with a binder. 
Antwerp, Rubens’ home-town, was at the time one of the main-ports in the booming global trade between Eurasia and the America’s. Transshipping anything from spices to gems, from delicate textiles to commodities. The unique position of Antwerp enabled Rubens to use a new, powerful, dark-blue pigment, shipped from today’s Mexico to Europe: indigo. 
Indigo is a cool, blackish blue, which accounts for the rather gloomy appearance of the triptych. Despite the disadvantage of a cool colour-temperature, it became a welcome substitute for the costly lazurite (ultramarine) from lapis lazuli, frequently unobtainable for painters outside Asia. This precious and heavenly stone  was mined in the Afghan mountains of the Hindu Kush, due to  grimm weather conditions only accessible in summer.

 Bonampak, Maya-mural, ca. 650, with Maya-blue, made of indigo and polygorskite. 

Nowadays we know indigo mainly from the multicultural ‘jeans’. Originally a sturdy working outfit for Californian miners, now a globally accepted uni-sex piece of clothing.
The oldest surviving pair of jeans, a Levi’s from ca. 1890. Indigo-dyed cotton.

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