The Power of Pigment
We sometimes forget that paintings – and all the ideas and feelings they can conjure up in us – are made of water, ground up earth and oil. The artist is an alchemist who transforms these base materials into searing sunlight and menacing gloom. It is precisely these qualities of luminosity and density of form that are determined by the kind of pigments an artist uses. A pair of exhibitions that I visited this week in Cambridge both foreground this idea. In The Moving Word: French Medieval Manuscripts in Cambridge, a display case is devoted to the medieval palette and the organic or inorganic materials on which paints were then based, such as buckthorn, lead and shells. The illustrated books that were created with them are still full of movement and light today.
The Fitzwilliam Museum is currently showing a large collection of paintings by John Craxton, a self-taught artist who was at his most productive during the second world war. He was deeply influenced by his friend Neo-Romantic artist Graham Sutherland, as well as by Stanley Spencer and Picasso. He was also interested in the use of gold, glass and natural stone in Byzantine mosiacs. As soon as he learnt to paint as a young boy he was grinding his own colours, and later developed his own version of egg tempera, using pure powder pigments and PVA glue. During WW2, he was given some unwanted cans of Ripolin household enamel paint (also used by Picasso) and found that they transformed his art. In his words: “We mixed tube colours with the Ripolin and they have retained a luminosity where other paintings of that period have not…allowing the statement without the brush strokes.”