Pigments color our lives every day. Dug from the earth. Ground from rocks. Mixed from embers. Humans have been playing with pigments for the last 500 thousand years. First used to decorate the skin, we then started painting with pigments to make marks on cave walls. Fast forward to the Bronze Age and industrial processes like glassmaking and metal extraction gave us even more pigments as by-products. Pigment has a fascinating history and is central to the story of art and artists' materials. World Pigment Day is an annual celebration that takes place on March 22nd. Here we chat to Ruth Siddall and Jo Volley, the duo behind it.
Tell us about yourselves
I (Ruth) am a British geologist based at University College London (UCL). I’ve been working with pigments as materials for well over 20 years. Pigmentum, my research group, published The Pigment Compendium in 2004. My own research interest is in techniques and materials used in Roman-period painting, from domestic wall-paintings to painted religious artefacts and Romano-Egyptian funerary art, coffins and mummy masks. I’m proud to have been the second (and first female) Scientist in Residence at the UCL Slade (2018-2019). Jo and I started collaborating about a decade ago and share an interest in artists materials and the processes required to make them.
And I (Jo) am an artist and the Slade’s Deputy Director (Projects), Coordinator of their Material Research Project & Network and of their Material Museum. My work is concerned with measurement, light, space and color as light, and employs a wide range of material and medium. I began the A Colour A Day project in March 2019 to document the year by dedicating a painted swatch of color to each day.
How did World Pigment Day start?
International Color Day and World Poetry Day fall on the same day - March 21 – and we were discussing how these days came about. We decided there should be one to celebrate pigment and chose March 22. This is the anniversary of the death of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a poet and polymath whose work on color and color theory has been incredibly important in the history of science. We just decided to go for it.
How are the different pigment types defined?
You cannot classify materials succinctly. Many synthetic pigments will have the properties of natural ones. Organic pigments tend to be more transparent and more fugitive than inorganic pigments. Whilst the origin of pigments is an important part of the knowledge and naming of pigments, I don’t subdivide them in this way – pigments to me are either (in the chemical sense of these words) organic or inorganic.
Do you make your own pigments?
When we were writing the Pigment Compendium, we had to make examples of historical pigments which are no longer commercially available so that we could both describe their properties and illustrate them. As an artist, I (Jo) began making pigments some years ago to try and simply understand the materiality of paints better. And of course, once you start it's just fascinating. Unfortunately I’m a lousy scientist - more of an alchemist - so my experiments are somewhat hit and miss.
How do we find out more about pigment?
Get out there and read. Books, journals and the web. The Pigment Compendium is a good resource and our pages will be useful. To learn more about the geology and mineralogy of pigments, join a local geology club - going out in the field with experienced geologists is the best and only way to learn. Here in the UK, there’s at least one in every county and I’m sure other countries have similar organizations. I urge everyone to go out and look at paintings from the past in person (not mediated images) - really use your eyes to study the color. Get your hands dirty with real life color experiments, where you can see how pigments perform. And lastly, learn more about the materials you’re using – look at the labels and see which pigments the different colors contain. And of course follow us on Instagram - @worldpigmentday.
Any tips for artists who want to use raw pigments in their work?
Health and safety are the most important thing. You don’t want to ingest anything into your body so make sure your skin and hair are covered, and protect your eyes, nose and mouth – especially when using powdered pigments - so this stuff doesn’t get inside you. That’s why scientists wear lab coats, masks and eye protection as a routine. It’s not a uniform, it’s to protect us. Never use cooking equipment for preparing pigments - keep these processes separate. And clean up afterwards. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t be attempting to make highly toxic pigments at home - things like arsenic and mercury-based pigments. Just don’t do it. If you buy a tube of paint from a shop, you’ll be told what it’s made of and if there are any risks - it’s all on the label. You don’t get this if you make your own pigments or paints, so do the research, otherwise you could make yourself ill.
How did you grow your Instagram channel so quickly?
We have experience of making other successful accounts on other platforms, so we weren’t starting from a place of naivety. Nevertheless, it has taken off beyond what we had expected. I think that is partly because we started it during the lockdowns. It was a time when people found social media an important way of maintaining and creating contacts when other opportunities were not available to them. Influential pigment friends and colleagues around the world were fantastic at helping to promote the account and so it became very visible in quite a short time.
Tell us about your A Colour A Day project
By pure coincidence we had scheduled it to start on the first day of lockdown in the UK and it somehow documented this most extraordinary year. The project was inspired by A. Boogert's 17th Century manual on how to mix every color available and was influenced by Werner's Nomenclature of Colours, with Patrick Syme’s amendments. Each color was accompanied by a piece of text, poem or music and every Sunday I would mail it out and Ruth would include it in our The Pigment Timeline Project blog. There were quite a number of pigments/paints gifted by artists, scientists and manufacturers and some pigments especially produced. It developed its own momentum and at the end of the year, the completed series was shown for one night only, at the Griffin Gallery, London, curated by Stephanie Nebbia with artist Latifah A. Stranack reciting poems in front of the works.
All images: World Pigment Day/Jo Volley