Our use of colour began simply, as most ideas do. Crude depictions in ancient caves, rendered using naturally occurring pigments – ground up hematite for red, carbon for black and, of course, lime, chalk and clay for white. Blended with water or animal fat, so it could be applied with fingers, moss or twigs, white was only as opaque as the density with which it was mixed and applied. In the years since, this white paste has taken many new forms. It has been embraced, ignored, improved… and even deadly.
White, as a colour, has moved in and out of fashion. The Ancient Egyptians, for example, considered ‘hedj’ (their word for white) to be the opposite of red (the colour of danger and chaos) and so valued it for its symbolic calm. It played a huge role in art as well as daily life and Ancient Egyptians were thrilled to get their hands on pure white cloth. Conveniently, they also had ready access to unlimited amounts of chalk and gypsum – a kind of chicken/egg relationship, perhaps? Either way, it was a colour of import in both quotidian and spiritual matters and as essential in artists palettes as it was in wardrobes, despite its translucency and permanence being less than ideal.
In the 3rd century BC, however, the Greeks solved white’s opacity issue by creating what painters call ‘lead white’. Lead mining was a huge industry in Ancient Greece and Rome, and so much was made from lead – plumbing, pots and pans, make-up and, of course, paint. Extraction and treatment of lead were long, drawn-out processes and its place in the country’s economies was such that even though its toxicity was well recorded, nothing was done about the widespread lead poisoning of people and places for many many years. For artists, lead white seemed to be a gift – it was opaque without requiring the application of layer after layer. And it was a warm, gentle shade of yellow white, which Baroque artists like Rembrandt and Caravaggio used to create the stunning contrasts of light and dark. Later Vermeer too would find lead white an irresistible addition to his palette, even going so far as to adapt and improve it. Yet, it was the allure of lead white which may have contributed to the long-term sickness and death of many artists, including Caravaggio, Goya and even Van Gogh.