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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

17 January 2007

Quick and Dirty Guide to Colors in Medieval Art

A heroine in my current work in progress is a painter. In my research, I've come to realize that the medieval painter was a bit of a chemist. This list is by no means extensive, but here are some common colors and their sources.

Black: several types of black were used. Ink could be made with either (1) A suspension of carbon or (2) a suspension of black organic salt iron mixed with salts in solution which became black actor use.

Vine-charcoal black: made from young shoots of grapevines. Nowadays called blue-black.

Brown: introduced later in medieval history.

White: made from lead.

Bone white: made from the wings or legs of fowls. Not as good to paint with as the white made from lead.

Red: made from the deposits formed by the weathering of iron ores or from the choicest red earth from the Pontine city of Sinope.

Minium: a bright red color made from orange lead.

Natural cinnabar: a bright red color.

Azurite: a copper ore of dark blue.

Indigo: a blue dye extracted from plants.

Woad: a shrubby herb which contain the raw material of a blue dyestuff.

Greens: usually made from malachite, green earth, or verdigris, an acetate of copper.

Iris Green: made for the juice of iris flowers

Yellows: usually made from yellow earth or berries. Brighter yellow made from Orpiment (a stone)

Bile yellow: made from the gall of the large fish.

Gold: sometimes actual gold, sometimes imitations like saffron.

Mosaic gold: a yellow sulfite of tin. This color was called aurum musicum.

3 Comments:

Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Very cool, Jessica. I researched the color purple and was surprised to find how often it was it was used in the middle ages and that it was extraordinarily costly because colorists derived the dye from oyster shells . . . thousands and thousands of them!

1:21 PM  
Blogger Maggie Robinson said...

Some years ago I read a fascinating book on colors (originating from ground-up beetles to minerals and everything in-between). The rainbow hues of our clothing we take for granted now were once derived from an agonizing process involving world travel and considerable risk. Artificial dyes haven't even been around 200 years. It was damned hard and expensive to find that ruby-red robe!

Artists had to be scientists to mix up their pigments. Even with care, paints were unstable and much art has been lost. You've given us an interesting post!

5:12 PM  
Blogger Mary said...

Once again, a subject I never thought to research. So, what made you realize this was something that you needed to study? Love the idea of artist as chemist as well.

Regarding unstable color: do you have a guess of the precentage of color lost in the tapestries on display in a museum like the Clositers?

Remembering the still brilliant colors of the illiminated manuscripts of the middle ages -- do you think that the original tapertries and art work were that colroful?

6:33 PM  

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