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  • Writer's pictureAlessia Stokes

Jackson Pollock and the Ferrari...

What may sound like the beginning of a bad joke, is in fact based on a strong belief in a connection between the famous abstract expressionist, Jackson Pollock and Ferraris of the 1990s. The connection? Pigment Red - 254

"Colour is central to human art making right from the start." So stated the modern colour keeper, Narayan Khandekar. He is a scientist in the field of conservation and colour working with The Forbes Pigment Collection at the Harvard Art Museums. Their collection of pigments is currently more than 2,500.

While colours and pigments are so vital to the art world, they are in fact central to our everyday lives as well. They have more impact on our lives than we often appreciate. Most of us will not get to see a 90s Ferrari up-close, nor a Jackson Pollack artwork to appreciate that impassioned tone of red. We do, however, use washing powder...

Ultramarine, a vivid deep blue, made from semiprecious stone, Lapis Lazuli, at one time cost more than gold. Its expense was due to it being mined in the Afghan region and having an arduous journey to Europe. The name Ultramarine, came from the Latin meaning "beyond the seas" when it was imported into Europe mostly during the 14th and 15th centuries. Eventually, a synthetic version was invented after a competition in Paris.

By 1828 it was sold commercially and extremely cost effective. In Victorian times, the laborious task of washing had at least a glint of technology on its side to "whiten" laundered items synthetic ultramarine. Despite it mildly dyeing the whites blue, to the naked eye the blue cancelled out the yellowing and thus made the washing appear whiter and brighter. This method of "whitening" our clothes has not changed; we have just built on the idea. Next time you do a load of "whites", ponder for a moment on the rich heritage, which we have whittled down to a 30 - minute cycle.

Green is prized for its calming effects and beauty; nature is generally variants of green. Yet, no green has ever had such a hypnotic and deadly influence as did Emerald Green. "Scheele's Green" or "Paris Green" was unlike any tone of green before it. Its vibrancy and hue captivated the Victorian consciousness as well as artists like Vincent Van Gogh. Developed by Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1775, it was made from copper arsenite. Yes, you read correctly, what we use to kill bugs - arsenic, was the main ingredient. This colour became so popular in the Victoria era that they used it in almost everything coloured green around them - books, children's toys, fabrics and even food! It was also widely used in wallpapers, a particular favourite for William Morris, a textile designer associated with the British Arts and Crafts Movement, and "the director of the biggest arsenic-producing mines in the world, Devon Great Consols." (Absolute History-Hidden Killers)

The tragedy was, that in a room with a surface area of about 100 square metres, there could be up to 2.5 kg of arsenic present. Illness to varying degrees was common. In severe cases, death was a relief from the suffering arsenic caused. As symptoms were not unlike those of cholera, (prevalent at the time), it took some time for the connection to be made between these deadly green products and arsenic poisoning. However, even after the discovery of the dangers, many manufacturers denied the connection and countless suffered the consequences.

Perhaps our human fascination with colour - even when it is deadly, is summed up by artist Georgia O' Keeffe, the "mother of American Modernism - "I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way - things I had no words for."

Let's face it, who doesn't like a rainbow?

Until next time...

Explore is SO worth it!

A few notable mentions:

  • Indian yellow - Made from the dried urine of mango leaf fed cows.

  • Mauve - Serendipity and an 18 year old. In his attempt to create a cure for malaria using coal tar hydrocarbons, he accidently made mauve. This later lead to Magenta and Fuchsia. I am eternally grateful...two my favourite colours!

Videos to round off your colour excavation:

Picture Credits:

  • Red Composition, 1946 - Jackson Pollock

  • Ferrari 512 TR, 1991 -

  • The Pigments - Caitlin Cunningham Photography

  • Girl with a pearl earring, c1665 - Johannes Vermeer

  • Lapis Lazuli -

  • Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin," 1888 - Vincent Van Gogh

  • (Paint Can) Chris Goulet - English Wikipedia /(Green Dress) Breyer Van Bomel Foundation Fund, 1980/Wikimedia Commons

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