Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Remember When . . . We Mixed the Paints?

Self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh

My heroine in Whispers from the Shadows (The Culper Ring Series, book 2) is an artist. In 1814. Now, I've written about artists before in other, unpublished manuscripts--but they were always modern ones. So all I had to do for research was look up art supplies and current techniques. Piece of cake.

For Gwyneth's art, it wasn't quite so simple. I knew that some parts of art have changed drastically over the years as synthetic this-and-that was introduced. But finding how it was then . . . I was prepared for a headache.

And so, very pleasantly surprised when I found the perfect old book and could download it for free. The Handmaid to the Arts is exactly what I needed--a comprehensive book written in the 1700s that was meant to be a reference guide for artists. In it I found a ton of information on how to make paints, what they're made from, which ones are tricky at best to get to set right, which shades come from which materials.


I now have my heroine wavering between which shade of brown to use, my chemistry-minded host (and hero from book 1) assisting her in achieving that perfect red through various heating and mixing techniques, and a few oh-so-delectable details on how they got these colors. 

Ground beetles, anyone? Soaked in urine, perhaps? Or minerals packed round with dung? No??? Come on! Let's be authentic! ;-)

Thus far, these painting scenes have been my favorites of the book. Not because of the technical details I got to sneak in (though y'all know I'm a sucker for getting those historical tidbits in), but because Gwyneth is as absorbed by her painting as I tend to be by my writing. The rest of the world fades away and, when she's really in a groove, becomes nothing but background noise. Inspiration pulses and flows, and life emerges. For me, onto my screen. For her, onto her canvas.

I won't inundate you with too many of the lists I made, but just to give you a sampling of how complex it was for them to mix that perfect shade back in the day, here are just the reds available. (Gwyneth is on a quest for the perfect, true shade...)

Red, tending to orange

Native cinnabar
Red lead
Scarlet oker
Common Indian red
Spanish brown
Terra de sienna burnt

Red, tending to purple

Rose pink
Red oker
Venetian red

And just for reference, it's one of those reds that we still get from ground-up beetles. Mm hm. Nice. This is why Roseanna is happy to buy her paints in handy-dandy little tubes and not to have to make them herself...

1 comment:

  1. Oh - I think your little ones would LOVE to grind up beetles and make red paint for you ;).
    Fascinating, as usual. :)