• Michael Skalka


Manufacturers of Magnetic Tape, Aspirin and Yellow Pigments

Developing a story becomes a challenging proposition when it comes to certain groups of pigments. How do you find something exciting and captivating to say about many modern pigments that are popular and used frequently by artists, but do not have a rich history to explore? Perhaps that is why chemical companies, for all they make that shapes our modern lives, don’t advertise specific products.

The chemicals that play an integral role in our lives are rather pedestrian in nature. Chemical companies don’t have much to say about synthetic organic pigments either. When exploring the origin of modern pigments, in many cases, it is difficult to find a person responsible for their creation. The colors just seem to have popped into existence from the depths of a company’s research laboratory.

I do recall periods in time when chemical companies dabbled in the world of advertising aimed toward ordinary citizens. I suppose the goal was to make the consumer appreciate a familiar household item created by a manufacturer that had little or no connection with average people. One of those forays into chemical company advertising was in the 1980’s when BASF created an ad campaign for their magnetic tape packaged in the format called “compact cassettes.”

For a brief time, the ads were captivating and reassured the public on the quality BASF put into gluing iron oxide particles onto a ribbon of plastic film that they sold to the public to be used to capture and play back sound recordings. The ad campaign was almost as short-lived as the cassette. The cassette format has become an antique, similar in nature to 8-track tapes or 33 1/3 and 45-rpm vinyl disks. The 45s were frustrating. I could never get that plastic thing-a-ma-bob to stay in the huge hole of the 45-rpm record. I think it was my first lesson in “why technology has to be difficult and complicated.” That spindle adapter debacle has now been replaced by the complexity of trying to understand the advanced features of a digital camera. You thought I would reference the VCR as a modern complex device! Most people never tried to master that machine. Prior to it being relegated a landfill, it sat near the homeowner’s television eternally blinking, “12:00.”

So, let’s see how far down the rabbit hole we can venture into the world of organic pigments. The name, “Azo” seems harmless enough. We like organic things. It almost sounds like they should be part of the “green” movement. Organic vegetables are nice so why shouldn’t organic pigments be just as nice.

If you thought the history of some ancient pigment was complicated, see if this makes any better sense. Pigments like azo yellow and naphthol red come from a family of materials know as a disazo condensation sub-group. Modern pigment history and process authors, Herbst and Hunger state, “these pigments result from the condensation of two carboxylic monoazo components with an aromatic diamine to form a high molecular weight compound.” Sounds great to me.

However, we have just scratched the surface of a world of chemistry that is swimming with terms like these. Words like heteroaromatic moiety, benzene rings, azomethine complex pigment and a host of other unpronounceable items forge the language of modern organic synthetic pigments. Unless you are a chemist with knowledge of the issues, you will have to take a back seat on any technical discussion of the colors related to their chemical formulation. Trust that the pigment will not fade or deteriorate and let paint makers take charge of making the consumer product.

When art material manufacturers became bold enough to risk naming colors after the chemical nomenclature of the pigment structure, we entered a whole new color language world. Many of the comforting names like crimson red, scarlet lake and lemon yellow gained complicated sounding paint name relatives. We had to prepare our brains and tongues to say names like diarylide yellow, naphthol red, benzimidazolone orange, toluidine red and azo yellow.

Perhaps it is the disconnection between understanding the origin of a modern synthetic color that has nothing to do with crushing bugs and berries or refining something mined from the ground, that distances us from contemporary pigments. The structure of modern synthetics, how they are made and who makes them all swirl around in mysterious ether. Even worse, is to have a scientist try to explain these modern pigments. The explanation needs an explanation. Without a depth of knowledge of chemistry and more importantly, an appreciation of the intricacy of certain chemical reactions and bonds, the whole effort of deciphering synthetic organic colors doesn’t get any better no matter how many ways they are described.

We live in a world of ignorance to many modern things we use on a daily basis. It is akin to the experience of flying in an airplane. You buy your ticket, get on the plane, sit, take off, land and get off the aircraft. It seems simple until you start thinking about all the processes of flight, from the hundreds of thousands of specially engineered parts that make up the aircraft, the physics of flight, engines, combustion and the materials designed to perform these tasks. We know it works and we don’t really question how and why. We just take for granted that modern living is complicated and if we can get through the day without breaking anything we are coming out ahead. Are we better off?

Would it be in our best interests to live in a less complex world? Let’s view it from the perspective of being an artist. If your life was set in an earlier technological age where washing your clothes meant beating them down by a stream on a rock, where you had to catch or trap your dinner and then prepare it along with a host of other essential life tasks that took hours of your time, painting would not be high on the list of things to do that day. We don’t have a lot of art painted during a “rest stop” when America’s wagon trains were expanding the nation. We needed technology, cities and specialization of tasks and knowledge to give birth to a leisure class that could have the time to paint.

Many artists would consider the azo pigments to be rather new to the art materials scene. In fact, they started “life” as dyes around the late 1880s. Hansa yellow, a name that many artists will recognize, was developed in 1909. Early forms of naphthol red appeared in 1912. Diarylide yellow was developed in 1911 but did not surface as a consumer product until 1935. Benzimadazolone was introduced in 1960 and isoindolinone colors appeared in 1964. Some of these pigments are quite soluble in mineral spirits and other similar solvents. They exhibit a high degree of transparency and surprisingly, some use cold rather than heat in the process of manufacturing them.

It appears for the most part, that these dyes and pigments were developed in Germany by companies very familiar to manufacturers of art materials as mainstream color producers. I. G. Farben, BASF, and Ciba are associated with the manufacturing of these colors. Relatedly, names like Hoechst, Sandoz, and Meister Lucius and Bruning who made drugs and colors, provided the marriage between producers of pigments and drug fabricators. At the end of the day, one realizes that it is all just chemistry. The skill sets are similar. The laboratory tools are interchangeable and the knowledge of the physical world is built on the same family of scientific disciplines.

When examining a profile of modern chemical manufacturing, the diversity of enterprises that chemical makers enter is staggering. It reminds me of the series of clever commercials that used the theme showing various roadside signage and advertising on commercial trucks that displayed names like, “Brain Surgeon and Bait Shop,” “Heating Oil and Pizza,” “Hair Stylist and Plumber,” etc. In reality, the same chemical company making aspirin, pigments, roofing shingles and insect repellent is not absurd at all. This diversity of products is common and in the long-term interest of a company that relies on changing markets and an uneven or shifting revenue stream.

What I find so interesting about modern pigments is the inability to grasp their origin because of their chemical complexity. Many artists have a fascination with materials of ancient origin. They are found in nature. The process of turning them into pigments is easily understood. We have and understanding of the method of manufacture every time we open a tube of genuine earth pigments.

While manufactured and packaged in a modern setting, the same warm browns and tan hues exist for us today as were available to the apprentice craftsman of the past whose job it was to grind oil and pigment into paint and have it ready for the master to use when they arrived at the studio. It’s a tangible feeling, filled with history and assurance that a legacy of technique lives in the present and continues into the future. It is far opposite the feeling we might experience when using some modern synthetic organic pigments.

I suppose an affinity to modern colors is all a matter of perspective. Landscape artists may prefer the working properties of the inorganic, metallic pigments like cadmium and cobalt. They are lower in chroma than their organic counterparts, diminish in intensity when mixed with white and possess lots of positive attributes for the landscape painter. Abstract artists may prefer the synthetic organic palette of high key colors. So many are intense and transparent. They bring fire and passion to any surface they touch.

We may never be able to grasp an understanding of the origins of modern pigments but as we explore them, we either learn to adopt them and provide them with a permanent or guest space on our palette or reject them as being too far out of line for the style of painting we employ. It may not be important to know where they come from or how they work.

For the most part, they don’t have the “colorful” history of use we have come to expect from a number of pigments we have explored in past Syntax essays and will explore further in future entries on this website. Their inventors are mostly obscure. The corporations that oversee their employee’s inventions file the patents. An employee’s work becomes the property of the employer so the individual or group responsible is buried within a company’s internal documentation.

We have no interesting “heroic” inventors for many of our modern colors. They remain nearly as obscure as the pilots who fly commercial aircraft each day shuttling passengers back and forth from one destination to another. Pigments do not seem to end up on the front page of newspapers, with the exception of lead white painted on children’s toys. Do you remember the names of the pilot and copilot of the last air flight that you took? You would if your pilot happened to land in an unusual place like the Hudson River.

Perhaps if I get desperate in the future for pigments, I can grind up my old collection of cassette tapes to extract the iron oxide red contained inside each one.

Syntax of Color

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