David Coles is the founder of one of the youngest paint makers in the world, Langridge Artist Colours. A painter in his own right and a self-proclaimed pigment nerd, he is the author of Chromatopia: An Illustrated History of Colour, which dives into the depths of the most popular pigments’ history, etymology and significance through the ages. We caught up with him to discuss his favourite pigments, paint recipes and how he set up Langridge Artist Colours.
Tegen: What pigment recipe would you recommend to someone just starting out making their own pigments?
David: Nice question! Although probably the easiest to make are pigments made by collecting, cleaning and grinding iron-oxide rich earths (often known as ochres, these can range in colour from earthy yellows, oranges, reds and purples) I like pigments where a chemical transformation has occurred. In a sense it’s a bit like alchemy, quite magical when you create a new colour from seemingly unlikely sources.
Lamp blacks are some of the oldest manufactured pigments, their creation going back to prehistoric civilisation. The process is simple: by burning a vegetable oil with a lit wick, the resulting black soot can be collected and used as a very fine but powerful pigment. I recently visited Japan and was lucky enough to be invited to see the manufacture of Lamp black at a family company that has been making the highest quality sumi-ink in exactly the same manner for over 470 years. Their production method is identical to all small-scale lamp black recipes so it is easy to replicate:
You will need a non-porous container and fill with approximately 250ml of vegetable oil such as sesame. It is important to use an oversize wick (5mm+ in diameter) to encourage inefficient oil combustion. This allows some of the hydrocarbons to turn into carbon. Fix the wick upright in the container and suspend a heatproof concave saucer (face down) about 5cm above the burning wick. Soot (carbonised oil) will accumulate on the inside of the saucer. You can then scrape or brush off the soot for immediate use as a beautiful blue-black pigment.
Tegen: Why did you choose recipes to make Lead White, Carmine Lake, Ultramarine and Madder Lake as the featured pigment recipes in your book?
David: All these pigments had something special about them: their historical importance to artists, the intriguing formulas (carefully refined over centuries) plus they look so damn good when all the ingredients are laid out!
Lead white is such pure alchemy; converting grey lead sheet into the purest of white pigments purely by its interaction with vinegar, manure and rotting bark fumes. Carmine Lake because of how such a bold crimson colour comes from the bodies of dried scale insects imported from Mexico. Genuine Ultramarine because this true azure derived from Lapis Lazuli was so incredibly important to Renaissance artists and Madder Lake because drawing out exquisite reds and pinks from plant roots seems so unlikely.
I wanted each of the featured recipes to be laid out and written as if from a cookbook which, in many ways, the historical making of colour has similarities.
Tegen: Do you have a favourite colour or pigment to make?
David: That’s a difficult question to answer because my favourite changes constantly. At the moment though it would be making Rose Madder from the roots of the Madder plant. Inside the mature roots are a variety of natural dyes. One of these is purpurin. After macerating the chopped roots in an alkali solution the dye is extracted. Extreme care must be made to prevent the other dyes from the roots being included. By adding alum to the extracted bright orange dye an insoluble delicate pink pigment is made. It sounds relatively simple but great care is needed in raw material selection and process to create this famous pigment of the nineteenth century.
Tegen: As part of your Langridge range, you have several very contemporary colours. I was very excited about your Video Blue and Video Green, especially the idea that they’re formulated to match computer-generated colours. Could you explain how you came up with these colours and why you haven’t included them in Chromatopia?
David: When I started making the Langridge oil colours, I thought long and hard about the need for another paint brand on the market. There are many great paint makers already out there and I wasn’t interested in copying them. What would be the point? Having moved to Australia to found the company what was a revelation to me was the extraordinary quality of light. Very bright and very intense. Also, modern Australia is young and relatively unburdened by the weight of European history. This gave me the freedom to create a unique colour range built on something I felt was more contemporary. I was also looking at acrylic paint makers with some of their colours and I thought oil painters should have access to something along similar lines.
As you said, Video Blue and Video Green are based on the idea of computer monitors, colours created by light emission. We also have a Neon Orange, which will be joined by a Neon Violet later this year. Our ‘neon’ colours are not made from fluorescent pigments but attempt, like the ‘video’ colours, to mimic the vibrancy of artificial light.
It is not to say that these colours are exact replicas of what inspired them but an idea of what they should look like. I have always been a big fan of magic-realism in literature through writers such as Marquez, Bulgakov and Rushdie and many of my created colours are not a copy but a visual equivalent of something. Langridge Brilliant Magenta was conceived to be a ‘plastic’ pink and I used my memory of Hubba-Bubba bubble-gum pink as the starting point. I didn’t buy any bubble-gum until I had created and signed-off on the colour I was happy with. Afterwards, I went and bought some to compare to the pink I had created. The difference was astounding! The bubble-gum was far less intense in colour than my creation, which just goes to show how memory has such a strong hold on our perception!
And why haven’t these colours been included in Chromatopia? Well, the book details the origins of individual pigments and not colours derived from mixtures of pigments. All the colours mentioned above are mixtures of two pigments together and I wanted to concentrate on pure single pigments that create colours in themselves.
Maybe I’ll need to write another book in the future on colour theory and perception!
Tegen: What is your view on using ‘toxic’ pigments and paints? One of your new colours is Diarylide Yellow, a warm yellow that is equivalent to a cadmium. What is your view on the toxicity question about cadmiums?
David: In recent years there has been a lot of debate and investigation into pigments from a health and safety perspective. Historically this has been a major driving force on the development of new, less toxic pigments. From the artists’ perspective, the cadmium-based pigments used are of such low solubility that they are not classified as hazardous. There are very few toxic pigments still in general use by artist’s paint manufacturers; cobalts, cerulean and lead white seem the obvious colours. Personally, I believe that each pigment has its own individual characteristic that shouldn’t be denied and should be celebrated to be used most effectively. The arylides and diarylides are modern synthetic colours with extraordinary clean colour mixing qualities but they are naturally transparent. In this, they are not replacements for the opaque cadmiums. This is where ‘hues’ are troublesome for artists: they may replicate closely the colour of the original (e.g. Cadmium Yellow Hue) but other qualities such as opacity are lost and adding opacifiers always reduces the chromatic intensity and this becomes especially noticeable when attempting to mix a clean secondary colour with it.
The new hybrid pigments that have been released are extremely interesting and Langridge will be releasing a colour using one of the yellows. But by calling them ‘cadmium-free’ colour replacements feels to me that these pigments are being done a disservice and that there is also the danger of artists being confused by misinformed descriptions.
Tegen: If you could only produce 8 colours or pigments what would they be and why?
David: Oh my! Really? What a horrible choice to make!
Actually, I do have a list as I give lectures and advice on the use of a ‘limited’ palette and these colours would be my obvious choices. Because I suggest using 2 hues of each primary the opportunity to successfully mix clean secondary and tertiary colours is greatly enhanced.
You’ll probably notice I’ve selected only modern pigments for these colours. This is because they give incredible clean mixing, as they are so chromatically pure to start with:
- Arylide Lemon – green shade yellow.
- Arylide Yellow – red shade yellow.
- Pyrrole Red – yellow shade red.
- Quinacridone Red – blue shade red.
- Ultramarine Blue (Red shade) – red shade blue.
- Phthalo Blue (Green shade) – green shade blue.
Added to this would be Titanium White for tinting and I’d have to include Nickel Azo Yellow because it is an incredibly versatile pigment. This pigment’s duality, starting out cool but gets hotter, cleaner and brighter as it is diluted, makes it strangely addictive!
Its mass-tone is like dirty yellow ochre, but when extended by adding a medium or when mixed with other colours the most fascinating new colours are created. Nickel Azo Yellow is used in the Langridge colours of Nickel Azo Red Gold, Quinacridone Burnt Orange and Green Gold so you can see we want to take advantage of its ‘changeling’ quality.
Tegen: In my review of your book, I’ve selected some of the history and etymology of pigments I find most fascinating. Is there a narrative that you think is the most interesting?
David: Over all the years of research on pigments and their histories the thing that kept cropping up was humanity’s desire, almost like a need, to use colour and to constantly look for more colours. The history of colour is the history of humankind. As we developed technologies and as civilisations became more sophisticated, so the search to create more colours was advanced generation by generation. From the ancient Egyptians onwards the use of technically difficult processes opened up the range of colours available and this hasn’t really stopped to this day.
Tegen: Chromatopia was commissioned by Thames & Hudson after a museum exhibition in Melbourne, that was held in 2017. You created the exhibition I believe, how did curating it affect your work, knowledge and the book itself?
David: Because I made a conscious decision to create a modern range of oil colours it meant I had to forego the older pigments in my paint with their extraordinary stories and I wanted an opportunity to celebrate these historical colours and their origin stories. I invested a lot of my own money into creating the ‘museum-quality’ exhibition and I wanted, as the book also does, to explain what these pigments were and where they came from. Many of the pigments are still used, but the general public had no idea where the colour came from. To most people, colour is abstract; it is so ubiquitous that we don’t think about its physical nature. I wanted everyone to realise that most colour is ‘hard won’ from strange raw materials.
Although I could have created the exhibition purely for fellow pigment-nerds, it would not have had as broad an audience. The same was true when writing the book. That was why I wanted to show that much of colour came from fantastical beasts, curious plants and deadly minerals. I wanted to show how much of colour is almost alchemical and magical. The Chromatopia experience has strengthened my connection to colour and made me more aware than ever to never take colour for granted.
Tegen: The focus on the farmers of cochineal really catches one’s attention in the book, especially with the illustrations. Why did you choose to include this and give it such weighting?
David: There are so many remarkable stories, and I wish I could have put more into the book but that would have turned it into a very large and expensive publication! Cochineal farming was started by the pre-Colombian peoples of Mexico and the technology to breed a species from the wild cochineal is remarkable and yet echoes what peoples have been doing all over the world throughout time. Its discovery by the Spanish Conquistadores and subsequent export as a colour for textile dyeing meant that the Spanish crown derived enormous income from it, third only to gold and silver from the new colonies. That a tiny scale insect can produce such an incredibly strong crimson dye I find remarkable. Although it’s production almost disappeared with the invention of synthetic dyes in the mid-nineteenth century, it has a made a resurgence in the last thirty years due to it being one of very few colourants that can be safely used in cosmetics and foods. That Mexican and other South American farmers have been able to carve out a sustainable local industry is a testament to the value of colour.
Tegen: Do you still have an active painting practice? What is most important to you about painting? And in Chromatopia how did you choose which artworks to select for the last chapter ‘Artists’ Colour’?
David: Sadly, I rarely get into the studio these days to paint but I am still heavily involved in the art world. My wife, Louise Blyton, is a professional practice artist and virtually all our friends are artists so I’m always at their studios looking and discussing art practice. Louise curated the artworks for the original exhibition and later inclusion in the book. It was critical to include artworks to make it understood how the pigments I had explained the histories of were used by artists. To make the point more pertinent only monochrome and non-objective artists were selected so the viewers could immerse themselves in a single colour at a time.
Tegen: If you could revitalise one forgotten, outdated, banned pigment (without any environmental, toxic or moral implications) what colour would it be and why?
David: This is an easy one! Manganese Blue. Production ceased in the 1990’s and it only had a short history of about sixty years but it is a magnificent ‘sun-filled’ blue. Semi-opaque and fast drying it is a fabulous addition to the painter’s toolbox. Unfortunately, due to environmental concerns it is no longer produced.
When I learnt at the time that production had ceased, I went out and bought a lot of pigment stock for my own use. We are now, however, in talks with a small pigment manufacturer to re-introduce it for artist’s use.
Tegen: The story of you setting up Langridge Artist Colours is quite incredible. Do you have any advice for anyone trying to make (what would be now known as) a startup?
David: The most important advice I can give people looking to start their own business is to truly know your subject, know your market and be ridiculously tenacious. Is there something unique about what you want to introduce, especially if it’s in an already crowded market? What can you bring to the market that would make people want your product over a competitor’s?
Build a reputation, you can’t buy reputation. This takes time!
Listen to your customers but don’t lose sight of your original vision. Trust your gut feeling and don’t chase a market.
You’ll need capital, probably quite a bit more than you originally allowed for. It took me much longer to get the company to where it is today because I started out with £1000 (A$2000), which is a stupidly small amount! It took me years of ploughing all my profits back into the company to get to a position of sustainability.
Ah, one more thing, enjoy the ride! Some of my favourite memories are of the first 10 years, even though often times were tough as we slowly built the business. I don’t recommend struggling for an overly extended time (unless of course you’re a masochist) but learning the lessons of business by starting from the bottom gives you great strength for your future.
Tegen: In your foreword in Chromatopia, you mention when you get in the studio, you love mixing paints, do you have a particular mix of two or three colours that you enjoy making most?
David: Tough question! As I mentioned earlier, pigments such as Nickel Azo Yellow are exciting to play with because they are able to ‘flip’ and seemingly do different things depending on application. Add to that that Quinacridone Red as it starts out a cool red but as its diluted moves toward fantastic hot fuchsia pinks and finally Turquoise Phthalo which flips between blue and green depending on what other colours are mixed with it. With these three I get a lot of colours that you probably never thought possible, but they’re especially useful for creating the widest range of flesh tones with enormous subtlety and nuance.
Tegen: How to you does paintmaking fit into the contemporary art scene as a practice? Why is it important for people to know about the paint they use (if you do think it’s important)?
David: I know that people have been writing the obituary of painting ever since the invention of photography, but here we are in 2019 and I’m seeing more painting than ever. Paint is so versatile; it can be manipulated and transformed into virtually any form you could want. It also has a physicality that printed, projected or illuminated imagery does not ever possess. The visceral nature of paint allows it to both represent the materiality of the world such as flesh but it can also exist within its own nature purely as a paste or smear of colour. I can’t see how many unique voices could have been heard except through the medium of paint and I truly believe it will continue to be an incredibly valuable tool for the creation of contemporary art.
I certainly don’t want artists to get too hung up on knowing everything about paint; otherwise most artists will never get started. However, knowledge equals control. It allows the artist to understand why their paint behaves the way it does. Many paints have very individual qualities and are best used as intended: If the slow drying nature of oil paint frustrates you change to faster drying paints such as acrylics. Want more time to blend colours on the canvas? Switch to oil paint. You want to create transparent washes? Don’t heavily dilute ‘bodied’ paints such as oils and acrylics but switch to watercolour, which is its perfect application.
A little bit of understanding of your materials will advance your practice, allow you to take control and avoid the misery of wasting money, emotional frustration and the sheer terror of accidentally ruining your hard-won creation!
Find out more about David Coles and Langridge Artist Colours here, or you can view the Langridge Oil Paints we have available here and Chromatopia here.
All photos except those of the Chromatopia book were kindly supplied to us by Langridge Artist Colours.