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A Love Story to Make You a better Artist?

November 8, 2014

deep purple Bouganvillea

A Love Story to Make You a better Artist?

Like the lover who stays loyal, long after passion is spent,

colour clasps the painter in an endless embrace of eternal fascination.

Colour surrounds us in the modern world to an extent unthinkable in centuries past.

Artificial dyes resulted from experiments by English and German chemists in 1886. Colour-fast in water, the new dyes transformed dull scenes of village life and the clothes of ordinary folk. Cheap production and superior resistance to fading revolutionised paint-making.

House painters, fine artists and colour-happy kids have benefited ever since.

  • Non-painters may find this article a bit boring but when you're a beginner artist, you need to identify and avoid pigments you can't rely on. It's easy to find a comprehensive list of such pigments online. I'll start you off with a few I knew as a kid, some still available.

I pestered my mother to let me 'colour-in' the line drawings in books of fairy-tales and revelled in the garish colours of crayons clutched in my fingers. Now, I cringe to think of the pages I defaced this way. When good facsimiles of these classic books came on the market years later, I purchased all I could. Their colour illustrations were the kindling that fired my desire to be a painter.

  • Soon, my ambitions spread beyond filling other people's drawings with colour. I wanted to add paint to the drawings I made of family life, pets, insects and flowers in the garden, trees and birds in the bushland. One birthday, my dream present was unwrapped, only to reveal what proved a nightmare to a child who longed to paint.

Inside a big tin box, an array of petite pans of watercolours dazzled in a bewildering range of hues. With them came a thin, single brush of squirrel hair, already starting to shed. I hungered for great gobs of paint to splatter over sketches and wash with sweeping strokes across my drawings.

  • I can only hope I had the good grace to say 'Thank You' to my well-meaning parents for that long-ago gift. For me, it stands as the symbol for everything wrong with a child's introduction to making Art. Thank goodness, those ideas are mostly obsolete.

Many once-popular paint colours are also obsolete. Reasons include more than fashion. Some paints were poisonous, some too unreliable, others priced beyond the pockets of any but the richest artists.

  • Paints avoided because of poisonous composition include those containing lead, such as Chrome Green and Flake White. Cobalt Violet contains arsenic and Paris Green is a toxic compound of copper, once used as a rat poison.
  • Pigments subject to fading include Vermilion – made from insects, Sepia – made from the ink of octopus and Gamboge - extracted from tree bark. My favourite yellow in childhood, Gamboge now replaces expensive saffron to dye robes for Buddhist monks.
  • Ultramarine – the blue reserved by Renaissance artists for painting the Virgin's mantle – derives from lapis lazuli. Refining it was so long a process it made this colour the most expensive of all time. Early in the 19th century, a synthetic compound called 'French Ultramarine' made the precious blue available even to children.©Dorothy Gauvin

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