Blue-Some of the most magnificent colors in all of art are the blues you find in illuminated manuscripts. It’s no wonder, they were often made of lapis lazuli, a semi precious stone found in Afghanistan. It was exceptionally expensive to produce a pigment from this mineral because lapis had to be brought from far away, it had to be of a very good quality (too many veins of impurity would render the end product muddy looking), there had to be a great deal of it incorporated in the media in order for the lovely blue to appear. The medium used for the most part was called “tempura” and is simply the yolk of an egg which is combined with the finely crushed pigment and a paint is formed. Ground lapis lazuli paint was known as ultramarine blue. You can buy tubes of lapis paint (oil, acrylic, and watercolors) though most modern artwork relies on modern pigments.
Under some circumstances, lapis lazuli paint was too expensive, and there were alternatives though most of them were not as spectacularly intense as ultramarine blue. Smalt (cobalt), woad (blue plant native to the British Isles and elsewhere) , and indigo (a blue derived from woad) were blue pigments used in the Middle Ages. Smalt, though beautiful at first, did have a tendency to fade with time even if kept out of the sun.
Yellow- Orpiment was the favorite yellow of the Middle Ages. It was a sort of orangy yellow and had a lot of body to it, in other words it remained raised from the vellum after it dried if put on in a thick glob (at leas the examples I have seen had this property). Orpiment was arsnic sulfide, and it was poisonous but it was beautiful. In the examples I saw, orpiment was shiny and had a good deal of opacity, it covered well. I think that there were grades of orpiment which went from a clear yellow to the orange-yellow of egg yoke. Beside being very toxic, it did not like to combine with lead and copper based pigments, and that meant there were some things you could not mix it with successfully. But it was glorious by itself.
There were alternatives to orpiment for yellow. Yellow ochre is non toxic, inexpensive and plentiful almost everywhere on earth. It mixes easily with just about any media base, dries quickly, and is at least semi opaque. It is a brownish yellow and does not give the intense clear yellow of orpiment. Very useful for painting outdoor scenes like this nativity above.
Saffron was uses as a pigment, too. It was an orangy yellow and high staining color which was pretty forgiving when mixed with other media and pigments. It was quite expensive though and generally not as common as orpiment or ochre.
This is the second blog on color in the Middle Ages from Possets Perfume. Possets is going to be bringing out a Medieval Collection on November 25th at www.possets.com. If you are interested in being put on the announcement list when the Medieval Collection comes out, please fill out this short form and prepare to be amused!