The voyage of Iron Oxide

It’s incredible to think that our universe emerged out of nothing and became everything in the blink of an eye. Approximately 13.9 billion years ago, what we now refer to as the Big Bang initiated a rapid expansion of time and space that produced the first sub-atomic particles. These eventually became atoms, the building blocks of all known matter.

Ten billion years after this expansion, our solar system began to form. The idea is so inconceivable, so big, that we need to put science to one side – keeping it in the periphery of our mind’s eye like an ever-present faithful dog – and, rather, listen to the following account as the greatest fairy tale ever told.

Our own planet earth comes into the story a few millennia after the origins of the Milky Way and solar system, about 4.54 billion years ago, as a result of a fantastic galactic collision that lit the cosmos – both metaphorically and literally – as it produced our sun, from which our natural light derives. Meteor and asteroid collisions account for the formation of heavenly bodies such as the moon, to which we owe our ocean’s tide and waves, and the many myths and stories surrounding this brilliant sphere, born from cosmic debris left over after a colossal impact between earth and another considerable sized body, called Theia.

Over time, the earth’s atmosphere formed and our planet’s crust became like a giant mixing bowl of elements, after the repeated collisions that mixed, stirred and eventually settled into the known elements of the periodic table. Gold is thought to have been produced during this time through a supernova galactic collision and the nucleosynthesis of stardust left behind during the origins of the solar system. During this time, gold sank into the planetary core during the earth’s gestational molten-state formation period, and the gold present today in the earth’s crust is likely to have been “displaced” back to the surface by asteroid impacts approximately four billion years ago.

In short, all elements, everything we know and everything we see today or that there ever was and ever will be, was formed from this alchemical orchestra of galaxies and asteroids clashing, stirring and settling – and eventually forming the earth’s core elements of iron (32.1%), oxygen (30.1%), silicon (15.1%), magnesium (13.9%), sulphur (2.9%), nickel (1.8%), calcium (1.5%), and aluminium (1.4%), and 1.2% remaining trace elements.

Now, let’s ignore these mind-boggling facts a little and simplify things. Our earth’s “core” is a huge mass of iron (88%) and our “crust” is a silica compound of 62% (SiO2).

It is these mixtures of iron and silica that produced what we commonly call sand or clay, which accumulate distinctively in parts of the world such as Siena and Umbria, and from which artists’ “earth pigments” derive. Their etymology accounts for their abundance, and earth pigments’ commonality in artists’ palettes from Palaeolithic paintings up to the Renaissance.

Although scientists and early alchemists have been able to synthesise new pigments, it is noteworthy to add that, in a sense, scientists are manipulating matter and elements that have always existed. They are nature’s assistants, harvesting the notes from this rainbow of creation into modern quinacridone and phthalocyanine pigments, or the ancient Egyptian blue (considered to be the first synthetic pigment, and known by the Romans as caeruleum).

Curiously, we tend to forget that the binders from which oil paint or acrylic paint are made also came into being a result of the earth’s evolution. In the case of oil paint it is from flax or linseed seeds, while the accumulation beneath our earth of compressed prehistoric plants and animals that lived hundreds of millions of years ago has resulted in not only fossil fuels, but as a binder otherwise known as acrylic – a “plastic” by-product derived from the refining of petroleum and its syntheses into a copolymer emulsion.

Believe it or not, the iron contained in the haemoglobin that runs through our veins is the same iron that lies deep in the earth’s core. And it’s comparable, if not exactly the same, to the iron oxide used in a tube of Winsor & Newton Professional Acrylic colour. You’ll notice that natural yellow oxides are labelled as PY43 and synthetic are PY42. Natural red oxides are PR102 and synthetic are PR101. It’s important to note, however, that iron is an element and behaves very differently to compounds containing it. Iron oxide is a compound of iron and oxygen, and haemoglobin is a compound of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and iron. Iron oxide is one of the oldest colours used by mankind and is extremely permanent.

Everything we see and everything that there ever will be is, paradoxically, depicted in paintings – from Giotto to Constable to Glenn Brown – using the very elements it is made from. The signifier and the signified are the same. Painting really is a “meta-language”, and the most incredible poetry, when you think about it.