Blacker Than Black: Technology And Color In Art

For most of us, paint colors are something we think about only when we’re engaged in home improvement projects, or when we’re judging renovations made by other people on television. For artists however, selecting the right color of paint can make an enormous difference in the way that their work is perceived, and indeed valued by their patrons. In the past, naturally-occurring materials like gold and gemstones were used to create the most costly pigments. Today however, there is a major battle raging right now over the creation of technologically advanced black paint.

Now, we’re not talking any ordinary, ho-hum, Henry Ford you-can-have-any-color-Model-T-you-want-so-long-as-it’s black, black. Rather, this is a black which is unlike anything you’ve seen before: one that acts in much the same way as a black hole does in space, sucking all light into it, and creating what to the human eye appears to be a two-dimensional surface. In recent years, the search for blacker-than-black paint has become something of a grail quest in the world of Contemporary Art.

Back in 2014, a British tech company called Surrey NanoSystems came up with a carbon nanotube-based fabric, whose color was described as “the new black to end all blacks.” Called “Vantablack”, its creators originally intended for it to be used as a material with military and aerospace applications. As you can see here, an object covered in Vantablack seems to virtually disappear, since the surface of the treated object reflects almost no light whatsoever.

Vantablack

In 2016, sculptor Anish Kapoor signed an exclusive deal with the creators of Vantablack, becoming the sole artist in the world permitted to use Vantablack in his work. This caused an uproar in the Contemporary Art community, which wanted to gain access to this blacker-than-black substance. A hashtag campaign was undertaken on social media called “#ShareTheBlack”, trying to convince Vantablack’s manufacturers to allow wider use of the material. Ultimately, this descended into the childishness that one has come to expect from social media.

Fortunately for the Contemporary Art world, despite its regular criticism of capitalism in an effort to bite the hand that feeds it, free-market competition has come to the rescue. For now an American company, NanoLab, Inc., has come up with its own version of carbon nanotube black, called “Singularity Black” – and unlike Vantablack, it will be available to anyone to use. On its website, NanoLab describes how the pigment works, which I won’t even attempt to explain it to you because I don’t fully understand it myself. Those of you who have science backgrounds will no doubt appreciate the technology at work here, whereas for my part, being a giant nerd, I appreciate the fact that it was most likely named “Singularity” for reasons related to Star Trek.

While the technology involved in the creation of these new pigments is new, this is not the first time that the art world has obsessed over the production of a particular paint color. If you’ve studied any art history, then you know that purple was highly prized by the Ancients: particularly that which came from Phoenicia, where there was an entire industry dedicated to the creation of what was known as “Tyrian Purple” from the labor-intensive processing of a particular species of sea snail. It was so costly and taxed so heavily under sumptuary laws, that its use was normally reserved to monarchs. One of my favorite objects in art history featuring this pigment is the magnificent Codex Petropolitanus Purpureus, a 6th Century illuminated Book of the Gospels that was created for the Byzantine Emperors.

Purple

Later on, the color blue came to hold enormous importance in Western art, from the Middle Ages up through the Baroque era. Although there were many ways to obtain blue from readily available sources such as indigo plants, the most prized and costly type of blue was typically called “aquamarine”. It was made from ground-up lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone that had to be imported to Europe, primarily from present-day Afghanistan. Aquamarine was so expensive to produce, that many archives still preserve the written contracts between patrons and artists executed during these centuries, specifying the amount, quality, and cost of the highly prized blue pigment to be used in different parts of a particular commission.

The quest for the perfect blue made works such as Philippe de Champaigne’s “Jesus Among The Doctors” (1648), shown below, very expensive to produce. Notice how the blue mantle of the Virgin Mary is a very different hue than the blue of the sky behind her, which would have been painted using a less costly pigment. If you see an Old Master painting like this, where there are figures dressed in blue, and the blue garments seem to glow and stand out from the other blues in the picture, it’s almost certainly a lapis lazuli-based blue paint that you’re looking at.

Finding

With the arrival of the Modern Age, we also arrive at the color dominance of black. If purple was the most prized pigment of the Romans and Byzantines, and costly blue helped to define Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque art, then without question black is the single most important color in Modern and Contemporary Art. Apart from a few exceptions, most of the more prominent movements in art history over the last century have relied heavily upon black paint. For example, Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece “Guernica” (1937) – arguably the most important painting in all of 20th century Art – is essentially a monochromatic painting, dominated by the color black.

Picasso

Certainly Modern and Contemporary artists have looked to other colors as well, and individual artists are often associated with their use – both Marc Chagall and David Hockney loved blue, for example, albeit very different shades of it. But whether you examine the work of important artists painting in the styles of Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, or Pop Art, they’re all relying heavily on the use of the color black – as these examples show:

Magritte

Pollock

Rothko

Warhol

As artists begin to play with these new, incredibly dense blacks, which are unlike any black pigment in the history of art up to now, we are left with some tantalizing questions. Which is better, Vantablack or Singularity Black? What new and interesting works of art will we see emerge from the use of this previously unknown form of black paint? How will these new, technologically advanced pigments hold up over time? Will they continue to grab the eye, centuries from now, in the way that say, a Renaissance painting featuring blues made from lapis lazuli still does? Or will they prove to be little more than a fad, with a limited impact on art history?

Only time will tell.

Classical Color: Take A Virtual Tour Of A 1st Century AD Roman Villa

We often think of the Classical world as a monochromatic place. This is partly because ruins and statues from the ancients have, in many cases, come down to us in shades of white and beige, utterly devoid of color. However the false idea of a neutral historical palette influenced centuries of architects and artists, who mistakenly believed that our ancestors lived in whitewashed surroundings, and reinforced this false impression on the public. This is clearly in evidence here in the Nation’s capital, which has two centuries’ worth of neutral-toned monuments, residences, and official buildings designed in a classically-inspired style.

In fact however, our ancestors loved bright colors, and used them on just about everything, including their own homes. If an Ancient Egyptian or Athenian were to turn on HGTV, and see a house flipper painting the interior and exterior walls of a house in whatever shade of gray Restoration Hardware is currently promoting, they would be appalled. In their day, the use of bold color in the home was an indicator of a person’s wealth and status.

With the passage of time, paint eventually fails, if surfaces are not maintained regularly or protected from the elements. Think of your own home, where in as little as a few years you may notice that the exterior paint color has started to fade. So in order to see just how colorful an ancient home would have been, we have to use a combination of research, technology, and imagination.

For the past 16 years, the Swedish Pompeii Project has been analyzing and recording as much data as possible to virtually recreate a single city block in the city of Pompeii, the Roman town that was buried by a massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.  Contained within this block were luxury homes, gardens, and several shops, including a bakery, a tavern, and a laundry. The juxtaposition of these structures may seem odd today, when we typically zone residential and commercial structures into different areas. However if you visit historic neighborhoods here in the U.S., you will often find luxurious, historic homes located in the same block as small businesses.

As part of the Project, researchers from the Swedish Institute in Rome in collaboration with technical wizards at Lund University have been using a combination of hand-held digital scanners, drone photography, and other resources to come up with a virtual recreation of what the buildings in this city block probably looked like at the time Vesuvius blew its top. If you’ve ever watched the HBO series “Rome”, then these buildings will look somewhat familiar to you. For many however, I suspect that the results will be rather surprising.

The first completed recreation that one can virtually visit is the home of a wealthy Pompeian banker by the name of Caecilius Iucundus, a man who was clearly not afraid of color. The walls of Caecilius’ home office, for example, are covered in mythological scenes set against a blood-red background, while his banqueting room (shown below) is painted a bold, mustard yellow. The central courtyard of his house contained a small reflecting pool, which caught the rainwater from the large opening in the timber-framed ceiling above, and the courtyard itself was surrounded by an inlaid floor, as well as walls covered in colorful frescoes of flowers and birds.

As luxurious as this home appears to be, keep in mind when looking around that Caecilius was not a member of the Roman aristocracy. He had to work for a living, and was possibly a self-made man. Thus, this home of a well-to-do banker, which to modern eyes appears to be rather grand, would have been nothing compared to the even more grandiose homes of the upper classes. Those who lived on inherited wealth and the income from their estates employed people like Caecilius to manage their wealth for them. One can only imagine how boldly colored their homes would have been.

More virtual reconstructions from the Swedish Pompeii project are to be forthcoming, including two other luxury homes located on the same block as Caecilius’ villa. Given what we have already seen, we can reasonably assume that these houses will turn out to be brightly colored and decorated as well. (Personally however, I’m more curious to see what a 1st Century AD laundromat would have looked like.)

Comic Book Colors and Western Culture

Contemporary artists and designers often pride themselves on the use of bright colors and bold patterns to attract us, the consumers of their products.  Whether it’s a piece of sculpture or a rug, a pair of socks or a cocktail dress, we like to think of ourselves as living in a world where we are daring if we pick a color that is not a neutral.  Those bright red trousers you’re wearing to work now that Spring and warm weather have finally arrived might make you think that you’re a bold, outspoken sort of fellow.

Except, of course, for the fact that this has all been done before: you were just never told about it.

If your visual experience of Western Civ 101 in high school or college was limited to viewing some grainy slides via a poorly lit projector, or paging through some hazy illustrations in a textbook, you could reasonably be forgiven for thinking that Western culture up until the 20th century was pretty murky and dark.  Yet when we look at a cleaned and restored work of art from our past, brought back as near as possible to its original state, we can appreciate how people who lived centuries ago not only loved to use color, but were just as bold as we are in the use of it, if not more so.  They surrounded themselves with domestic objects, buildings, and works of art that were brightly colored.  And they themselves dressed in those almost garishly bright colors which we associate with things like cartoons and comic books.

A perfect example of this is what I’m using for my wallpaper at present, appropriately for Easter, a painting of the Resurrection by the Florentine Renaissance artist Raffaellino del Garbo (c. 1476-1527).  Most of us today associate the Easter season with very bright colors after the months of dull, late winter grays and browns.  When it comes to public celebrations, ladies’ hats, and decorations such as Easter eggs, Easter grass, baskets full of colorfully wrapped candies, etc., we love to get out the virtual box of crayons and go a bit off the deep end in an explosion of color.  However this particular artist’s image of Easter is about as Easter Parade-y as you can get.

Look at the figures of the Roman soldiers and Temple guards reacting to Christ’s Resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday morning.  It is a bright, sunny day, well past sunrise, and as Jesus rises from the grave dressed in white garments, the soldiers are falling down like dead men and running away, just as Scripture tells us.  One poor fellow in the lower left foreground has even had the stone slab from the tomb land on top of him.

Now take a moment to notice what incredible colors these fellows are wearing.  We see these tough soldiers dressed in salmon pink, coral red, periwinkle blue, spring green, dusty rose, saffron yellow, and midnight blue.  There’s no camouflage here: even the very few gray, brown, and white articles of clothing worn by these fighting men only serve to enhance the bright colors of their other garments.

It’s worthwhile to take a look at what the painting looked like before it was cleaned of its old varnish, and notice how dark and yellowed it was.  I think oftentimes this is the sort of image which misinforms our impression of Western civilization.  We’re taught, whether intentionally or not, to see the past and the people who lived centuries before us as collectively dusty, yellowed, confused, ignorant, and unexciting.  One look at this picture as restored should permanently dispel that badly-learned lesson from your mind, and this is but one example among many.

The truth is that there is always something heroic, fresh, and invigorating about Western culture.  This image neatly sums up that fact, for del Garbo clearly believed that he was living in an exciting, vibrant time when he created this work of art.  He chose to depict the boldness of his own day, in the figures of the soldiers he painted, rather than sticking strictly to an historical interpretation of what 1st century Judea probably looked like.  In doing so he preserves, almost like a snapshot, what people who lived 500 years ago thought of themselves, their faith, their culture, and their world.  Theirs is not some dark and gloomy, scary place, but an attractive, bright and cheerful spot worth a visit.  Who wouldn’t want to picnic beside the Roman ruins in the background of this picture, under the trees on a bright Easter Sunday?

Perhaps it’s time we get out some of the varnish stripper, ourselves.  Let’s try to wipe away some of the jaundiced coloring that has been shading our eyes to the bright, heroic achievements of those who came before us.  We are part of a long tradition in Western culture, if we would but recognize it.

"The Resurrection" by Raffaellino del Garbo (c. 1500-1510) Accademia, Florence

“The Resurrection” by Raffaellino del Garbo (c. 1500-1510)
Accademia, Florence