At some point, I seem to have decided that learning about and using authentically ancient paint pigments and other art materials is more interesting than, say, not poisoning myself so as to have a long, non-Van Gogh-style life. I reason: Go for broke! I won’t have any children to raise and I don’t have to worry about them licking my paint; who can afford retirement, anyway; I’m generally grumpy and irritating and annoyed about life, so live it up. On the other hand, not poisoning myself would give me a little longer to create more, less toxic art. It’s a conundrum.

OK, not really.

I’ll be bunny-sitting next month, and nothing is going to be around the bunnies that I wouldn’t lick or breathe myself, so that will make me behave for a couple of weeks. Mad Scientist Food Experiments will resume for a while. Before bunny-time starts, I want to get in a few more paint experiments.

Mercury Red

Vermilion lives in this sealed jar now.

As I am (well) over 30 (as this article attests), I have many memories of crying as my mother dabbed bright-red Mercurocrhome on my scraped knees (my best friend Christine and I tended to climb big rocks and jump off high things). The memory of its vivid (probably artificial) red very likely influenced my urge to try genuine Cinnabar/Vermilion paint. Mercurocrhome also had a distinct smell, as does the paint, but I’m not going to smell the paint further to compare.

My non-mercury-based Cinnabar-hue paint (pigment PR106) came out the best of my first experiments in making watercolours. It actually looks not that bad in the less successful first tempera recipe–an extremely rich neutral-to-warm red. I think I could get closer to Genuine Vermilion by adding a granulating (grainy) pigment, such as Ultramarine, Burnt Sienna, or Mars Black. I’ll try it.

top row: homemade watercolour; bottom rows: purchased watercolour with genuine pigment


top: first tempera-making try, on off-white paper, no gesso; Egyptian Blue on the right. bottom: detail of Cinnabar tempera (you can see how translucent it is by the pencil lines showing through), on its own and layered with Red Ochre.

I’ve decided to be dramatically afraid of Genuine Vermilion, because I’m a person of extremes and if I don’t handle it with flamboyant caution, I’m likely to swing over to being too cavalier with it. At least I haven’t licked a paint brush in many many years.

Copper Blue and Green

I’ve already drank Egyptian Blue (copper calcium silicate) brush water, but it would have been more worrisome if I’d breathed in the powder. Lapis Lazuli (natural Ultramarine, sodium calcium aluminum silicate sulfate) makes a nice dark blue paint, but I hope to have success eventually with Egyptian Blue–the first known human-made pigment.

For green, I’m saving up for a small jar of slightly threatening Malachite (copper hydroxide carbonate) while in the meantime using nontoxic and economical earth pigments Verona Green and Cyprus Green. Each green earth deposit will have a different composition, which might or might not result in different shades. The supplier claims these are sourced from the same locations used thousands of years ago. I’m happy with the Cyprus green, which gets very dark. The Verona Green is yellower, more spring-like compared to Cyprus Green’s mossier shade. A yellower green is useful in a palette currently lacking an actual bright yellow.

top left pic: Lapis Lazuli made from pigment, and close match Faience Blue from the MaimeriBlu brand.

top right pic: “refined” version of Lapis Lazuli after precipitating out different grades of pigment from the first batch of paint.

bottom pic: Lapis Lazuli sky, and…I think…Lapis Lazuli over French Ultramarine on the cloak, because it sure looks bright blue.

Arsenic Yellow and Orange

I saw a supplier of Orpiment yellow (auripigmentum–“gold colour”; or αρσενικόν–arsenic) and Realgar orange (σανδαράκη/σανδαράχη–also a form of arsenic) powdered pigments and I thought, maybe I can try just a little bit and see what their qualities would have been like to a Roman/Greek/Egyptian painter…. I have respirator masks and special gloves and multiple sets of brushes, but I don’t think I can be trusted with this emperor-killer.

I’m sticking with earth pigments for my yellows: Cyprian Limonite and Jarosite, and dirt-cheap Yellow Ochres (US$4 for so much pigment I’m considering making wall paint from it).

A respirator mask is a good idea with any powdered pigment, of course.

Lead White

If I were really dedicated to living Roman-style I would whip up some lead-and-fat paste and slather it all over myself. Having been raised to be terrified of lead wall paint lurking on the walls of old buildings plotting to chip off and force itself into children’s mouths, I feel absolutely zero urge to work with Lead White paint. I’ll be trying to make some Eggshell or Chalk White tempera soon.