In the very distant past, humans discovered that when combining earth minerals with a water source they could create a colourant to use for painting. The use of pigments has come a long way since – from the time-consuming ancient techniques of grinding rocks into powder to modern synthetic pigments. We explore the inception and development behind some of Winsor & Newton’s most loved pigments, and uncover the lengths artists would go to in order to achieve the very best results.
‘From beyond the sea’
The names of many pigment colours are evocative, none more so than deep-blue Ultramarine. Translating as ‘from beyond the sea’ in Latin, the name is a nod to when the pigment was mined in Asia and packed onto ships that sailed to Europe from the 14th century. Ultramarine is found in rocks containing a tiny proportion of blue colour, only found in the distant mountains of Afghanistan. It took a lot of pounding, grinding, then washing and panning several times, to obtain the beautiful blue that we now know and love. A few more washes gives Ultramarine Ash, which is much greyer and paler. Ultramarine was very expensive, and in the 1870s Ultramarine Ash, sold by Winsor & Newton in a moist watercolour block, cost ten times as much as almost all the other colours on the price list.
Read Winsor & Newton's Ultramarine Colour Story here.
A dubious discovery
In 1824, the Societé d'Encouragement offered a financial reward for the person who could make a lower-cost alternative to Ultramarine. A synthetic Ultramarine was invented in France in 1826 and was, chemically speaking, made up of the same material. In Britain this was sold as French Blue. However, there was a lack of trust in the synthetic alternative for decades, though grateful poorer artists must have used the cheaper version. Throughout the 19th century professional British artists such as J. M. W. Turner continued to purchase genuine Ultramarine at up to 50 or 100 times the cost of the synthetic version. It could be bought in tiny quantities as a dry powder, and younger or struggling artists would buy just enough to complete the painting in hand. Ford Madox Brown kept a diary which implies he and other artists bought quantities of Ultramarine the size of a pinch of salt.
Ultramarine is quite transparent, and paints made from it have the most brilliance when the particles are large. The paleness of Ultramarine Ash is due to its fine particles; artists would never grind down coarse, brilliant Ultramarine that had cost so much as they would spoil it. It is a glassy material, like the traditional pigment smalt, which has a similar reddish-blue colour. Turner used both coarsely-ground natural Ultramarine and smalt in his watercolours.
Considered staples of any artist’s palette, the range of Ochre, Sienna, Umber and Green Earth pigments, known collectively as earth colours, were much easier and cheaper to produce. Prior to the Industrial Revolution the raw materials would have been obtained locally, as they are discovered easily when an ochre-coloured soft rock is jutting up from the ground. They would then be ground using a horse-powered mill, and sold to local decorators or to artists from apothecary (pharmacy) shops. It takes little effort to grind down the raw materials, and they can be prepared as a paint using a kitchen mortar and pestle, by wetting them with water and then adding gum arabic for the grinding. Artists traditionally had a small glass muller (shaped like a traditional doorknob, but flattened) and a ground glass plate in their studio for grinding watercolour pigments, and Winsor & Newton would make paint for artists in their shop using this method. Proper mulling reduced the particle size and ensured there would be no large particles that could give a grainy effect when painted.
Many pigments that today sound traditional to artists – Chrome Yellow, Viridian, Cobalt Blue – had been invented shortly before or at the time of Winsor & Newton’s foundation in 1832. The company researched and developed new production methods, sometimes involving different chemical reactions, to control the particle size and shape, and hence the intensity and tone of these colours. This meant that Winsor & Newton could offer an expanding range of intensely coloured paint, allowing, for example, Chrome Yellow to be joined by a range of pigments including Deep Chrome Yellow, Chrome Orange and, by the late 1840s, Chrome Scarlet. Even pigments that had been in use for centuries such as Vermilion – which is made from crushed rock, and Madder – from extracted plant roots, could be produced with more brilliance and a wider range of tones. As a result there was less of a need to add other materials to tone the colour. This was a success because a ‘pure’ product was more likely to have the resistance to fading that some artists desired.
Winsor & Newton developed and manufactured synthetic versions of the earth colours, also known as Mars colours, from the 19th century through to today. Improvements in technology have provided brighter shades of red, orange and yellow, which had significantly finer particles than the traditional earth pigments. This made the pigments especially suited to watercolour painting. They were sold in watercolour blocks and tube paints from the mid-19th century, and the traditional names of Ochre, Sienna and Umber were kept due to the familiarity that artists had fostered with the tones.
Over the centuries we have witnessed a relentless pursuit to make brighter, purer and more accessible pigments. These stories showcase the ever-evolving journey of human creativity, and the desire to experiment, innovate and expand.
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Colour stories from the Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour range
There is an abundance of history and innovation behind every one of the 109 colour pigments.