fun with pigments

jim and i have just been given a set of four new pigments to play with.  they’re the famous mayan blue family of pigments, brand new, patented even, and they’re completely nontoxic and lightfast.  they’re made from a special process that duplicates whatever the hell the mayans did to make it 500 years ago, using a mixture of indigo and a fine kaolin-type clay, and now they’re just beginning to make it for use in large-scale processes, like for coloring plastic.  nobody’s manufacturing the paints for artists as yet, the amount anybody would be likely to buy in order to make a line of paints is negligible – a couple of pounds at most, when they want to be selling it by the truckload.  but we are privileged to have samples of these new pigments to play with, and so play we must.

jim has already finished a painting using the mayan pigments, and it is now hanging in his new show, which opens tonight, even tho it’s snowing outside right now and nobody does snow in atlanta.  would have opened tonight, or will but nobody will be driving just out of fear.  including us.  i’m not going to be out on the road when we hit a slick patch and some complete southerner slides on it too – right into us.  i’ll be home making hot chocolate and putting whiskey into it.

yesterday i finished up my preparations for jim’s show (framing and documentation) and decided i wanted to play with the pigments too.  my specialties are oil, watercolor and encaustic, while jim does acrylic, tempera and encaustic.  together we cover the spectrum of media you can mix pigments with to make paint.  i decided to start with watercolor.

there’s a blob of gum arabic in the middle of each of these wells.  i’ve just spooned a knifetip of pigment out into the wells and then added two drops of gum arabic.  our gum arabic is a little old and too amber for my tastes, and alters the yellow slightly, but not enough to make any difference.

the yellow is a wonderful bright orange yellow.  the pigment is strong, meaning i didn’t need to use much.

the orange is the same.  a little went a long way.  a very vivid color that stayed bright after drying.

the red is weaker, a magenta almost, and somewhat like the quinacridones in that you need rather a lot of pigment to make a strong color, compared to the others.

but what the red lacked in strength, the blue more than made up for.  a very strong color, and so indigo.

the blue was the first color i put onto the paper.  i could tell the moment i saw it that this was a pigment that started out as indigo.  it could be nothing else.  i put down a strong line of each of the colors, blue, red, orange and yellow, and then ran a brush of clear water to the right of the lines to soften the edge and let the paint bleed into the clear water.

they are beautifully grainy.  the blue and red especially have lovely sedimentation.  the orange and yellow stay bright and vivid no matter how thick or thin.

it’s funny, it’s been years – 30 at least – since i’ve done anything at all with indigo.  i used to paint with it all the time when i was in ireland – perfect clouds can be made with indigo and yellow ochre, and there’s nothing like indigo for painting blue jeans.

here’s why i don’t do more demonstrations.  with every intention in the world to photograph every step of the way, i take maybe one, maybe two shots of the process, and then i get so into what i’m doing that i just skip over the next four or five processes and rush on to the end.  which doesn’t really show anything because it’s showing too much.

i used a dryer on the first four colors, then turned the sheet sideways and put a heavy line full of paint across all four colors.  so the bottom row above is yellow.  i went back and forth one time with my brush, and saw this as a mistake.  the coming back stroke immediately bled the colors underneath, and you can see blue to the left of the blue column, and red, and orange to the right of those columns.

having learned just how easily the paint would bleed, i was more light handed with the orange paint, but still you can see it bled the blue.  so did the red.  after doing this, i took a little more dilute paint and put a thin line in between.

then i took clear water, and ran a column of clear water thru the original (vertical) stripes, then blotted the water away.  as you can see, none of these are staining pigments.  then i took really thick paint and drew a thin line right at the edge of the first vertical washes.  not really sure why i did that; testing opacity.

i can’t tell from opacity, i’m deficient in my color theory something something.  the yellow looks abolutely opaque to me, the way it shows so heavy when i put it on (extreme left column).  but it doesn’t make a dent in the colors beneath it, so it must be transparent.  jim concurs.  he says these pigments are very transparent.

transparent.  non-staining.  beautifully sedimentary.  lightfast.  nontoxic.  could you ask for more?

at this point, only daniel smith offers the mayan blue and red pigments made up into watercolor.  kremer pigments offers mayan blue pigment itself.  it’s my hope that some small paint manufacturers get hold of these pigments and make some paints out of them, because they’re very nice.

i did a sample painting using only the four mayan pigments – yellow, orange, red, blue.  the blue is a greenish blue, the red is a bluish red, the yellow is an orange yellow and the orange is a red orange.  according to michael wilcox, whom i’ve never met, you combine like-leaning colors for bright mixes, and combine opposite-leaning colors for rich grays.  meaning the greenish blue and the orange yellow blend into a nice rich grayed green.  the bluish red and the greenish blue blend into a dull purple.  the orange yellow and the bluish red blend up into a golden brown.

these are not primary colors.  nor are they high-chroma colors.  but because the trick to good painting is to go with the richness of neutralized colors.  look at those clouds at the top of the picture.  nice and richly purple brown.  better than my old standby cloud colors – indigo and yellow ochre.  the purple is more than adequate, the greens are very rich and varied, and the yellow and orange are as bright as any in my palette.

but the trouble with the painting i’d finished is that it was out of my head, and i don’t do that very well at all.

so i took out a 30-year old photo of valencia island in ireland, and got out all my watercolors, and set about paintings it.  the indigo mayan blue accounts for the deep ocean color, but i had to go in with cobalt blue and that caribbean blue you can see together in the lower right corner of the big palette.  then i had to wash all the water with prussian blue, the second-from-the-right well on the bottom row of wells.  also, the blue in the sky had to be the caribbean because mayan blue is not a light blue, it’s an indigo.  i used mayan yellow on the nearby landforms, a mixed mayan green for the fields and hills, a mixed mayan purple for the clouds, umber and ultramarine for the rocky coastline.

all in all a very useful set of colors in a full palette.  you can see the mayan colors, plus the mixed green and purple, in the little white palette in the middle of the larger palette.  that’s a really bright yellow there.

this isn’t the best painting i’ve ever done, but it’s also 4×7 inches, and i did it in about an hour.  don’t know what i’ll do with it.  i’d send it to my friend francis for his birthday, but he thinks my work is twee, so he probably wouldn’t like it, even tho he was with me when i shot the reference photos.

mayan pigments – if you can find them, you’ll like using them.


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