Thursday, May 14, 2009

Poisonous Paints of Antiquity

How many poisonous paints do you count in this ancient fresco?

I count at least three, white lead, orpiment / realgar for the yellows, and cinnabar (the ultra-bright Pompeiian red). I'm happy to say that I've recently obtained all of these grey market, semi-illicit and authentic ingredients for the next fresco project from a great US vendor. Maybe modern colors are technically better, but if you are going to recreate something,why do it half-way?

I was thinking of doing this very image, except maybe including a small 'Where's Waldo' (small to make it challenging for the viewer, with poisonous cinnabar and white lead stripes on his shirt of course).

The cinnabar (mercuric sulfide) is a wonderful warm shade of red, although I'm not sure if it is prepared exactly as research indicates the ancients did. The Chinese also used cinnabar back in the day, but it was usually on that red furniture and boxes. They loved themselves some red boxes.

White lead powder is fairly nasty stuff even though it looks authentic on fresco because the powders are ground down with the water before applying, which gives rise to lead dust inhalation.

And, we all know what happened to cousin Vinnie Van Gogh who used to lick the tips of his brushes containing lead paint to point them. By the way, here is an evening photo I took in Arles of the outside of the real Cafe de Nuit. It had nothing to do with coffee or squirrels, so I was mildly disappointed. But, I tried to get the same vantage point and lighting conditions of one of his paintings.

Realgar/Orpiment is basically arsenic (rat poison), but in pure crystaline form. It creates themost wonderful deep orange and yellow warm hues. I also received some actual crystals of this from a Chinese supplier, so I can't wait to grind them down and see what kind of colorific magic will happen.

There are other poisonous and difficult to find paints of course, but these are my favorite old style ones. Which is your favorite?


  1. How bout cadmium red isn't that a little poisonous?

  2. Yes indeed it is, but it was invented more recently by Jebediah Cadmium... just kidding, I don't know who invented the Cadmiums, but they are recent colors in the timeline of history.

  3. I dunno but bob ross certainly sniffed a little too much paint. 'Let's sniff that happy little tube of lead white right there'

  4. I've heard lead paint may have contributed to Goya's insanity. It sure made for some awesome paintings tho.

  5. @Mr. C - Bob Ross was high on life. And afro's. And certainly weed. At least, watching him made me want to smoke a bong load.

  6. Pru, Goya is great for sure. Also, the covering power and consistency of the lead is awesome. I want to see some of your more involved works if you don't mind sharing some time.

  7. OMG, Vincent van Gogh is your cousin? So you're Dutch too :-) I would watch out for your ears if I were you.

    Seriously though. I really like that ancient fresco.

  8. Hi Dutch donut girl, that fresco isn't mine, I just want to copy it. But I did do one from ancient Stabiae in my March 23 post (most of the good stuff is back there since it takes too long for me to do some of those pieces, day job...) :)

    Mr. C, Bob was something of a free spirit. I think his daughter carried on the family company and now they sell paints with his big 70's fro trademark on it.

  9. That fresco is beautiful! I just wouldn't wanna lick it :/

    Strangely enough, I don't have a favourite, deadly poisonous paint!!!

    Must add that to my "To Do" list! :P

  10. :) Hi there
    Girl Interrupted, it's not dangerous once the colors are dried into the lime plaster. Well, unless you accidently scrape off lots of it, or maybe if there is an earthquake... Imagine how ticked someone would be if a large portion of wall collapsed on them *in addition* to being poisoned. Quite a bit, I reckon...

  11. Is indigo poisonous? Because that, I think, is my favorite old-timey coloring agent. That and cochinea, whichis crushed beetle shells and is still ued today (clearly not very poisonous since it's used in food coloring).

    Indigo é il mio colore antico favorito, ma sento che non é molto pericoloso.

    (Indigo is my favorite ancient color, but I think it's not very dangerous)

    (Did I get that right? I'm trying to do these without cheating and using BabelFish any more!)

  12. *Cochineal, not cochinea. Damn, my typing is molto male questa sera!!!

  13. Brava Soda and Candy!
    Indigo é bene veramente!

    Your Italian is good, and good job on not using the translators! When I'm in a hurry, I'll use the translators too. That reminds me, I didn't work out the Italian portion of this post. :(

  14. Is Waldo our equivalent of Wally?! I didn't know what happened to Vinne but I can imagine. He went mad and kicked cats?

  15. Loved that photo, and I'm hoping that you're not licking your brushes Eric.

    I think I heard a story about Napolean being poisoned by his green wallpaper - I'm off to check that out.

  16. Mo, it must be the same. I'd hate to finally find the bastard and then have him say to me 'I'm Wally not Waldo, you retard, try again!'
    I didn't hear about the cat kicking, yikes...

    Lulu, I'll lick lots of things, but not brushes with poisonous paint on them.
    I'll check out that rumor too. I spent two hours in the Napoleon museum in Monte Carlo last year. Great stuff...

  17. "They loved themselves some red boxes."

    Yeah...I think in modern times, a red box is a sign of disease...


    I can be such a 12 year old boy sometimes!


  18. Hahaha!!! Lopez!!!
    I might be getting the smallest bit of a new Girl crush (sorry Andy).

  19. Cinnabar is probably my favorite.

    It's too bad lead is so toxic, because lead is such a wonderful pigment as most lead salts are not soluble in water and because lead has but two oxidation states, which means that there is less fading/oxidation over time.

  20. Lulu, Scheel's green, you were right...

    Mjenks, yep Cinnabar is mine too, but it can turn darker with prolonged exposure to sun (luckily, the Pompeii ruins were covered in darkness all that time). Lead is awesome for everything as long as it stays outside the body IMO.

  21. Waldo é chiamato Wally in Australia e in England.

    Hope that clears things up!

  22. Hey Soda and Candy!

    Yes, it does, so I'll be looking for the right one if I ever go sailing in Cairns / Whitsunday! Of course, I worry about the state I'd find Wally in if out in the ocean...