Colorful Fridays–Moldy, Oily, Creepy Brown

Slide1 “I cannot pretend to be impartial about colors.  I rejoice with the brilliant ones and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns” Winston Churchill (from

Warning to fans of Burnt Umber: this will not be pretty.  Treatises on Burnt Umber tend to be generally polite and seldom stoop to name calling, however unflattering they may be.  Occasionally, a fan may make a positive statement on the warmth of browns made with Burnt Umber.  The most prolific use appears to be in under-painting.  But there in lies the problem.  Burnt Umber’s negative qualities can have a profound effect on an overall painting if used in the under-painting without proper precautions.

The name derives either from the Italian region of Umbria where the clay for the browns known as Raw Umber and Burnt Umber was first extracted or for the Latin word for shade, Umbra.  Burnt Umber is the same pigment as Raw Umber that has been fired to achieve the darker brown.  Sources describe Burnt Umber as a warm brown with reddish purple undertones. For watercolorists, burnt umber is hydroscopic and will hold water, according to Real Colorwheel, which can allow mold to set in.  Yuck!  Who wants a moldy painting?  Well, maybe someone might but I can’t imagine why.  Proper precautions with sealants will prevent this problem.

One paint maker advises oil painters that burnt umber be used in thin layers because of high oil content.  Instead of moldy, the painting is now oily. Oily may be marginally better than moldy, maybe. The best overall take down of burnt umber comes from The Painter’s Log of Timothy Joseph Allen at American Artist in  Allen’s post is titled, “Is Burnt Umber Evil?  Allen spoke with pigment supplier, Kremer Pigmente and others about the problem of Burnt Umber.  From Kremer he received the advisement, paraphrased by Allen, not to use burnt umbers because they “creep to the surface.” After researching the issue and discussing it with other authorities, Allen chooses not to make the final judgment that Burnt Umber is actually evil but has decided to experiment with mixing new browns anyway.

Essential has a more positive description of Burnt Umber.  Essential Vermeer says the pigment is derived from manganese oxide and iron hydroxide, the basic elements of clay.  The website states burnt Umber became the favored paint for the creating the shadows in flesh tones by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Rubens replacing the green previously used.  Nothing evil in those Masters.  They evidently knew how to tame the evilness.

Burnt Umber is a rich warm dark brown.  Its uses are many when armed with the necessary knowledge.  Some may choose to go that route.  Others may tame the oily problem for oil painters and the moldy problem for watercolorists.  No word on taming the creepiness.  If not interested in dealing with the mold, oil, or creepiness, just go for Van Dyke brown or mix a new brown.  Or go for no brown at all.

Colorful Friday’s–Rich Man’s Blue

Screen shot 2013-11-01 at 9.15.03 AMWhen the color achieves richness, the form attains its fullness, also.” Paul Cezanne (from The Painter’s Keys)

From King Tut’s tomb to 14th century illuminated manuscripts to the luxurious robes of the Byzantine Madonnas, ultramarine blue has been used illustrate the importance of the person or object depicted. Ultramarine blue earned this place in art from the high cost of its chief ingredient, lapis lazuli.  The introduction of the semi-precious mineral into Europe likely came from Marco Polo through Venice, say some accounts.

According to the website of The University of Hull (UK), Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) painted only with true ultramarine.  Vermeer’s pure whites were achieved by the mixing of ultramarine with lead white.  Hull reports that due to the high cost of ultramarine blue most artists had chosen to use a less expensive blue made with azurite.  However, this did not have the brilliance of the true ultramarine.  Vermeer chose only the pure form.  And his “Woman with a Water Pitcher” beautifully exemplifies this choice in the woman’s white head covering and her rich blue gown.  Hull’s in-depth description of ultramarine is a fascinating read.

Another website, has a more in-depth description of the process Vermeer utilized in the painting, “Woman with a Water Pitcher” and others.  Essential Vermeer has detailed and enlarged portions of Vermeer’s paintings where the artist has used ultramarine in the shadows of pure white objects to maintain the luminosity of object.  The more famous Vermeer painting, “Woman with a Pearl Earring,” also had the characteristic use of ultramarine.

Gamblin states ultramarine is a great glazing color and calls it one of the few mineral colors to be “completely transparent.”  Golden Paints gives ultramarine blue an excellent permanency rating and a lightfastness of one (very lightfast). Synthetic ultramarine is what is now produced by both companies, as well as most other art suppliers.

Synthetic versions of ultramarine didn’t arrive until the early 1900’s when the cost came down markedly.  If you want to make your own ultramarine blue, the pure pigment can be purchased from the Dutch company, Kremer Pigmente.  Kremer specializes in reproducing, as close to exact as possible, pigments of the original Old Master’s paint formulas.  Kremer’s pigments are widely used in the restoration process of Old Master’s paintings.  A word of warning though, if you are planning to purchase original formula Ultramarine Blue pigment, you will quickly see why it is the rich man’s blue.

Purchase Kremer pigments here

The painting “Woman with a Water Pitcher” is in the original collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.