100,000 years of Paint Making

100,000 years ago paint makers were mining soil for veins of ochre and iron oxides – yellow, orange and red pigments, mixing them with calcium carbonate white and bone black to make two types of paint according to archeological research.  http://www.livescience.com/16538-oldest-human-paint-studio.html

Why did humans start making paint?

Ancient paint makers, it seems, mixed two kinds of paint:  one for application to skin and one for wood and stone. Making paint like henna for skin is simple.  Nut oil and/or oil from fish eggs would make good binders.  Earth pigments and most plant dyes are non toxic.

Ancient paint makers had to create more complex mixtures to make binders strong enough to adhere pigment to stone. Relying on the sciences of experience and intuition, I proposed the radical technology was the invention of oil varnishes.  An oil varnish is made by slowly boiling commonly found resins such as mastic in vegetable oil.  This work was very dangerous.  Most vegetable oils explode at temperatures below 500 degrees F.  I know personally, how hard it is to control the heat long enough to dissolve natural resins in hot oil without boiling over.  Kaboom.

Well made oil varnish is magical.  When extended with the correct measure of solvent, the varnish sinks into a substrate then hardens.  After a few applications, wood is sealed against water, buoyant.  Every boat building culture had to invent ways to make boats float.  For most the risk of exploding resins/oil was not as significant as not fishing. When and who added colored pigments to the oil varnish?  Fisherman perhaps marked their boats to tell them apart for ownership and competition.

Perhaps they hired a shaman to apply a design to the boat to protect against storms or vandals.  Perhaps their homes were painted and their clothes were dyed colors that are now extinct and I cannot even imagine.  Perhaps only specialists like physicians and magicians handled colors, binders and solvents because they were the ones with visions?

I think “visionary” especially since seeing “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” a film by Werner Herzog. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZFP5HfJPTY

“Taking Color Off the Wheel” is a blog about ideas and images generated at the intersection of artists’ minds and art materials throughout history.

These first few posting will be about ancient paint making and early artists’ tools.  Some information comes from spectacular finds like the one linked above.  Some insights come from making Gamblin Artists Colors for almost 20 years.  Some come from helping contemporary painters figure out the right combination of art materials to best materialize their visions.