A reader commented on Tuesday’s post: “I’ve rarely associated medieval art with joy. Fear of retribution, death, plague, and a hard life, yes. Joy, no.”
We see so much medieval church art that we tend to forget the lighter moments caught in manuscript illuminations and genre paintings. Look at the illustrations from Le Régime du corps (c. 1285) for a glimpse of everyday life.
And then there’s religious ecstasy: so comprehensible for them, so inaccessible to us.
Gail Kellogg Hope recently took a manuscript illumination workshop. The palette was:
- Permanent white
- Ultramarine blue
- Alizarin red
- Cadmium green
- Iris purple (which is a convenience hue based on dioxazine violet)
- Cadmium orange
I winced. That’s a great palette for abstract-expressionism, but I can’t imagine a worse one for illumination. The pigments are all high-chroma and modern.
It would be impossible to recreate the medieval palette with what’s available today. There were no ‘paints’ as we know them—merely pigments held together with various binders.
The backbone of the medieval palette was the so-called “earths”—the paints made from iron oxides. Added to that were ground minerals like lapis lazuli and lake pigments (organic dyes precipitated with a binder), which fade quickly. The good monks were working with lead, arsenic and mercury, so it’s a good thing they were focused on heaven, not health.
Here are some optional colors to replace theirs:
- Lamp or bone black
- Burnt sienna
- Raw sienna
- Terra verte
- Mars yellow (as a substitute for realger and Naples yellow)
- Indian yellow (for yellow lake or orpiment)
- Zinc (China) white for lead white
- Cadmium red light (for cinnabar and cochineal)
- Quinacridone rose-violet (for rose madder and alizarin crimson)
- Indanthrone blue (for woad/indigo)
- Ultramarine (for lapis lazuli)
- Chromium oxide green (for verdigris)
Not that most illuminators would have used so many pigments, but you can make an intelligent palette for almost anything if you start from a place of knowledge. Ultimately, you must choose the pigments with the best physical attributes for your painting style. What we call ‘color’ is only a small part of that.
Even a beginner needs an accomplished teacher. Otherwise, he or she will start off with bad technique that has to be unlearned. Gail was saved from wasting a lot of time only because she isn’t a beginner.
On that subject, my next section of studio classes starts on May 17 and runs until June 21. We meet on Tuesdays from 10 AM to 1 PM in Rockport. Email me for more information.