Francis Bacon’s Use of Phthalo Green

About 1956, a peculiar artist’s oil color slipped on to Francis Bacon’s palette. \ Standing in front of “Figures in a Landscape” at a recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I saw Phthalo Green dart along the edges of Bacon’s broad strokes and watched the intensely chilly color sink into the background.

Bacon was increasingly dependent on this color until the last love of his life. During his final decade, the color is almost gone.

Before World War II, Viridian green pigment (hydrated chromium oxide PG 18) was manufactured in Germany and widely used throughout art painting and the paintings & coatings industry. When it was introduced mid 19th century Viridian replaced a toxic arsenic color, Emerald Green. Bacon’s palette like painters’ palettes for almost a hundred years included Viridian for muted greens and cool yellows. 

WWII ruined the pigment manufacturing industry in Germary. In the decade after the war, we can assume significantly fewer pigments were available to make artists’ paints regardless of the cost.  Cost was not a worry for Bacon. However, he probably could not find it when he went shopping for another tube of Viridian, especially at an art supply store in Tangiers!  By the mid 50’s the much less expensive Phthalo Green (Chlorinated copper phthalocyanine PG 7)was sold as “Viridian Hue.”

Phthalo Green is prominent in first two images from the left (late 50's) and absent from next two from early 50's.  

Bacon kept an apartment in Tangiers so he spent enough time there to need art supplies.  Phthalo Green "Viridian Hue" may have been his only option.  After being used to green colors with moderately low tinting strength switching to Phthalo Green's incredibly high tinting strength probably took some practice. Francis Bacon had to experience true dark green as a veil of a color shifted almost too near blue, that place where it consumes all the warmth of light inside painting layers. He, obviously, found inspiration in this green which he seems to use to increase the sense of doubt and discomfort in his paintings.

      Phthalo Gr Blue/ Gr Yellow

      Phthalo Gr Blue/ Gr Yellow

In the Color Factory every few months we had to stop down and just manage Phthalo Green. Phthalo Green is invasive. As a pigment, Phthalo Green's tiny particle size sinks into every crevice and scrape on machines and humans. I know from experience its color intensity and rich transparency make Phthalo Green ideal for for staining virtually any surface.

Bacon was a master at staining canvas to create deep background. Seeing the paintings together for the first time in 20 years, I realized again how great a painter Francis Bacon was and how much my eyes have changed since I saw his last big retrospective ... since I became a color maker. My eyes initially felt “black” velvet, until, intrigued, I stepped closer to the paintings into the complexity of Bacon's color - Phthalo Green, Prussian Blue, Ivory Black, amplified by his swift application of brush loads of bright white paint (often tinted with a Quinacridone complement) on top of the surface - right in the viewer’s face.

Bacon said he intended to connect to his viewers’ nervous systems. Maybe his pathway was through the soft, matte look of his complex background colors sunk deep into the canvas. From there, he reveals the morbid jarring world that gripped the mid-20th century.

Despite the bad lighting and infer glass covering many of Bacon’s great paintings in the show, I saw his power to use Phthalo Green (Blue Shade), to create visual memory in the eyes of his baboon’s ragged psyche hung over from two world wars.