Most of us take color for granted — from the rainbow spectrum of the flashiest Pink Floyd t-shirt to the electric blue Slurpee you are drinking. Let’s not forget the paint used in the most beautiful master artworks such as Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ or Warhol’s ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’.
Most paints or dyes come from organic pigments made from natural, inorganic (chemical reactions) or synthetic organic (petrochemicals) sources.
However, did you know that the origins of some of our most beloved hues came from the most insane things? Some deadly, some just plain revolting.
Tyrian Purple. I am wondering if Tyrion Lannister (a rich and somewhat powerful character from the popular HBO series ‘Game of Thrones’) perhaps got his name from a color called Tyrian purple. Tyrian purple denoted power and wealth, used by both the Greeks and the Romans. It was difficult to make, cost an absolute fortune and involved using the secretion from thousands of Murex snails.
Although, it may have been a status symbol for royals and wealthy folk, on-lookers may have had to clutch their noses. Why? The clothing — dyed in a mixture of mucus membranes from mollusks behinds — retained a bit of an unpleasant, pungent odor. It just shows you; ‘designer’ clothing is not all it is cracked up to be! Read more here…
Tyrian purple is, much to the mollusk community’s appreciation and to the public’s relief, no longer in production.
Blood and Urine. I had to put this thrifty artist on the list because, well, his methods are just so avant-garde. Make sure you have a bucket on hand as what you are about to read may entice a gag reflex.
Vinicius Quesada, a street artist from Brazil, uses blood and urine with which to paint. His art, although very impressive and comes with a strong message, has a rather sinister dark red and dirty yellow hue owing to his choice of pigments. He is adamant that he uses his own blood in his creations, insisting that fans who offer to bestow their own blood to use in his work rather donate to blood banks and hospitals. Suffice it to say, look up his series titled, ‘Blood Piss Blues’ — it is actually pretty amazing considering his macabre palette. Read more here…
Carmine Red. Carmine is a deep red color obtained from the carminic acid produced by certain scale insects (such as the cochineal and the Polish cochineal beetle). Read more here…
What may turn the stomach of most vegans, vegetarians and the slightly squeamish, is it is still being used in the manufacture of paints, rouge (blusher to the Western folk), yogurt, various other types of cosmetics, food and beverage additives (check those labels, my hippie friends!), and crimson ink.
Scheele’s Green. Green wallpaper could have killed Napoleon Bonaparte. He died in his prison home, Longwood, in St Helena in 1821 — a home kitted out in lethal green wallpaper. This toxicity was due to the deadly arsenic found in the green pigment. Jessica Haslam described this pigment as the ‘accidental killer’ in Deadly Décor: A Short History of Arsenic Poisoning in the Nineteenth Century. It is enough to make anybody a little green around the gills. Read more here…
Scheele’s Green (discovered in 1775 by Carl Scheele) was a very popular décor color in the mid-19th century (read more here). As oil lamps replaced the common candle, it became more fashionable to adopt darker colors for walls as domestic lighting became brighter. Grace Elliot, a historical blogger, went on to estimate that in 1858 there were 100 million squares miles of green wallpaper in Britain alone. Uses of this pigment included the making of fake flowers and as food coloring until the discovery of its harmfulness.
Orpiment Yellow (King’s Yellow). Up until the end of the 19th Century, a mineral found in volcanic fumaroles (an opening in or near a volcano) was a major source of the orange pigment called orpiment (from the Latin auripigmentum (aurum, “gold” and pigmentum, “pigment”) (Read more here).
This mineral bore a strong resemblance to gold. It is little wonder then that alchemists flirted with orpiment, which they believed could be a component to the much sought after Philosophers Stone (which, as we all well know thanks to J. K. Rowling, was a source of longevity as well as turning base metal into gold). Read more here…
Clearly, this noxious yet appealing pigment was a source of great allure to alchemists and artists alike. Paolo Veronese painted his ‘Allegory of love – happy union’ (about 1575) using the toxic King’s yellow (another name for orpiment). This work is on display at The National Gallery in the United Kingdom. Read more here…
Mummy Brown. No kidding with this one — so, brace yourself! Ground up Egyptian mummies (not the bandages, to be clear, the actual flesh) were used to produce a certain popular brown pigment called, ‘Mummy Brown’. It is even believed that the French artist Eugene Delacroix and his emancipating artwork ‘Liberty Leading the People’ — made popular as the CD cover of Coldplay’s ‘Viva la Vida’ album — used Mummy Brown in this creation.
Shockingly, ground mummy, believed to have healing attributes (from epilepsy to stomach ailments) and/or supernatural powers, became a popular form of medicine and balm. Fuel for steam engines and crop fertilizer also were some of its many uses (read more here).
Mercifully, the mummies dried up around the early 20th century and the practice stopped.
Dragon’s Blood Red. The deep, dark red color that is Dragon’s Blood comes with a whacky origins story. Okay, the short version: According to a medieval tale, a dragon and an elephant walked into a bar; have a bit of a scrap and the mixture of their liquid life force makes the ‘Dragon’s Blood’ pigment. Capeesh — well not quite…
Here is the full version:
“[Elephants] have continual warre against Dragons, which desire their blood, because it is very cold: and therefore the Dragon lying awaite as the Elephant passeth by, windeth his taile, being of exceeding length, about the hinder legs of the Elephant, and when the Elephant waxeth faint, he falleth down on the serpent, being now full of blood, and with the poise of his body breaketh him: so that his owne blood with the blood of the Elephant runneth out of him mingled together, which being colde, is congealed into that substance which the Apothecaries call Sanguis Draconis, that is Dragons blood, otherwise called Cinnabaris.”
Dragon’s Blood actually comes from plant resin — a group of tropical trees called dragon trees to be more specific. The substance has great health benefits, most commonly used for digestive health, as well as being a pigment used in incense, dye and paint (read more here).
However, tales of dragons and pachyderms does still excite the imagination.
Menses. Some may think this is another ‘reach for the bucket’ moment but when you see the painting in question of a certain POTUS, you may just forgo the grossness in lieu of a quiet chuckle at the irony. Enterprising artist, Sarah Levy, gives Vinicius Quesada a run for his money with her rendition of President Trump called ‘Whatever’ painted with her menstruation blood.
The painting is a reference to the present Commander in Chief saying moderator Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever” during the first GOP primary debate (read more here).
Therefore, we can probably add Menses Maroon to our palettes…period.
Indian Yellow. Indian Yellow is believed to have originated in Monghyr, India during the 15th century. To create the color, cows ate an exclusive diet of mango leaves and water. Dark yellowish brown lumps formed in the sand after the cows urinated. These ‘lumps’ were collected, powdered and purified to produce the pigment.
This inhumane diet reduced the cow’s longevity, leaving the bovine near starving and in pain due to the leaves’ toxicity, exponentially making ‘Indian yellow’ another cruel anecdote of humanity’s lust for hue at any cost. Mercifully, the practice was abolished and it disappeared around 1908. You can still get a modern substitute paint under the name ‘Indian Yellow’.
Elephant Dung Brown. The numero uno pigment peculiar has to be pachyderm poop. Now the reason I slotted this in as the pinnacle colorant is that a painting — that was created from elephant dung — sold for a staggering $4.6 million at Christies London in 2015 (read more here).
Yes, Turner-prize winning artist, Ofili, and his rather dubious depiction of ‘The Holy Virgin Mary’ caused controversy but also made him a man whose experimental and winningly excremental art has fertilized the minds of many.
I hope you enjoyed this intriguing yet disturbing list — may it entice you to read food labels more thoroughly and pique your interest in the titillating world of art and color derivatives.
Written by Cherie Roe Dirksen
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