Monday, May 27, 2013

Random thoughts about paint and pigment

Me and my teachers in Jaipur, India in 2009.
Here I'm shown with my teachers of miniature painting in Jaipur, India, in 2009, holding my interpretation of the goddess Saraswati. There were only three students in the class and the others left after an hour or so but I stayed all day and my teachers said I was the best non-Indian student they'd ever had. (I'm not sure if they admired my ability or my persistence!) We made our paints by mixing powdered pigment (similar to that in the photos below) with water. One of the brushes was made from a camel's eyelash, another from squirrel hairs.

Paint pigments for sale at a market in India.
Paint pigment in Venice, Italy, March 2009.
When I paint in public with pastels folks often ask, "Is that chalk?" Nope. Pastels are paints in solid form. Paint is made of pigment (particles of color) held together with a binder, and the nature of the binder determines the kind of paint and how it can be applied. Oil paint pigments are held together with linseed oil and runny or mushy when squeezed from the tube so are usually applied with a brush or knife. Pastels are made by mixing pigment, water and a binder such as gum arabic or gum tragacanth into a paste which is then compressed and dried into sticks of color. Pastels have a higher concentration of pigment than any other artist medium which explains why their colors are so brilliant. Another unique quality of painting with pastels is that they're applied to a surface by hand (much like drawing) with no brush to get in the way. Pigments can be organic, inorganic, or synthetic and can come from animal, vegetable, mineral or synthetic sources. Ochres and iron oxides come from the earth and have been used since prehistoric times. Natural indigo blue comes from a plant. The color burnt sienna is produced by baking a certain soil from Italy in a furnace then grinding it into powdered pigment. Because blue and purple pigments were difficult and expensive to obtain, those colors were associated with royalty in ancient times. To learn more about pigments, Wikipedia has a thorough and fascinating explanation. 

Sindoor applied to a stone carving in India.
Paint is used throughout the world for a variety of practical, aesthetic and religious purposes. In India, red sindoor (vermilion) is often applied to the part in a woman's hair to indicate that she is married, or as a "tilaka" or "bindi" on the forehead. Sindoor can  be made from turmeric powder which becomes red when mixed with lime juice or lime powder and moistened in water. In the photo to the left, paint is regularly applied to an ancient religious image.

There's a lot to learn and love about paint!


  1. You are a great world traveler, and I appreciate the things you are saying about the queen of mediums, pastels!

  2. I do love to travel! Took my first trip when I was 24 years old--solo--for three months in Europe with a backpack and a Eurail Pass. It was terrifying and liberating and opened my eyes to the big, wide, wonderful world. For the first time, history began to make sense. I saw people who looked and acted differently but were exactly the same as I was inside! The ancient cities, the marvelous architecture, the breathtaking art...what an education! Later, when I started a family and travel was no longer practical, we hosted international students so our children could begin to understand the fascinating multicultural tapestry of the world. And with regard to pastel....well, what better medium is there to capture the brilliance of our glittering, glorious world?


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