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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

Chrome Colors

Summary: Chrome colors were derived from the discovery of chromium by the French scientist, Louis Nicolas Vauquelin in 1797. Their introduction created a group warm colors that would dominate palettes until the introduction of cadmium pigments.

I recently had a question regarding the use of cadmium substitutes to replace genuine cadmium pigments. That will be a topic for further discussion soon. For the moment, I want to take us back to mid-nineteenth and early twentieth-century palette choices artists could make. Their colors are very similar to the palette of today minus one class of hues. Today, many artists rely on the cadmium family to provide strong opaque yellows, reds, and oranges. However, prior to the introduction of cadmium pigments, chrome-based colors were tasked with providing these hues. So, in casual observation the nineteenth and twenty-first century range of colors appear to be much the same until you read the fine print and see that chrome red and yellow are the dominant colors.

In my collection of paints, I have an old tube of chrome yellow. The few times I have used it I liked the way it performed. Years ago, analysis of paintings by Thomas Moran revealed his use of Chrome Yellow. I marvel at the way Thomas Moran used Chrome Yellow and Prussian blue to make a wide range of fantastic green hues. Chrome Yellow Hue sold today is a close substitute,but does not have the subtle nuance found in a genuine Chrome Yellow.

How did we obtain the range of chrome colors that were the standard for many artists?

The discovery of chromium (a transition metal, Atomic Weight 24) provided the basis for creating a significant number of hues to expand the range of an artists’ palette. It is a color rarity that one material can be employed to span so many hues. Cadmium is one of few pigments that has this characteristic. The range of hues from pale, cool, greenish-yellow to deep purple-red is astounding. Cadmium green does not count since it is a mixed convenience color of cadmium yellow and chromium oxide green. The odd naming of colors is yet another topic for future discussion.

The individual we thank for introducing us to chrome pigments is Louis Nicolas Vauquelin. He was born in Normandy, France in 1763. Like all budding scientists of his time, he was mentored. Louis received his guidance from Antoine Francois Fourcroy. Fourcroy was a follower of the teaching of Antoine Lavoisier.

Lavoisier has been considered the “Father of Modern Chemistry.” This French scientist’s contribution to the world was the discovery of hydrogen and oxygen, the organization of the Periodic Table and introduction of the metric system. The above were substantial contributions in and of themselves. However, Lavoisier’s fame did get the best of him in the end. As a prominent figure in the French government before the French Revolution, he did not survive its overthrow and was one of the unfortunate individuals to be sentenced to a beheading. So, I suppose it could be said that Lavoisier lost his head over his dedication to scientific discovery.

Let’s go back to our story. Fourcroy, Vauquelin’s teacher, was implicated in contributing to Lavoisier’s demise but other evidence claims that he tried to save him as well as other prominent scientists who were targeted during the Revolution.

Vauquelin served under Fourcroy for 8 years and then moved to Paris to become member of the Academy of Sciences. Vauquelin left France for a period during the French Revolution. Leaving the country during the height of the Revolution for Vauquelin must have been a wise move that kept both body and head attached.

Vauquelin’s claim to fame is the discovery of two elements, chromium and beryllium. Beryllium is one of those esoteric metals that has found its way into numerous high-tech applications like satellites, integrated circuits and metal alloy combinations that have high heat absorption capacity. It has no useful purpose in the pigment world.

Chromium is a metal that, for those who lived in the heyday of grand automobiles that were about the size of ocean liners, provided the sparkle and gleam, literally from bumper to bumper. Chrome was the mark of a truly luxurious car. Chrome was also used in more pedestrian applications. It is used to make stainless steel. Oxides of the metal are used for polishing. Chromium salts color glass green but when used unadulterated, chromium provides the red color for synthetic rubies. Other forms of chromium were engineered to tan leather, used as a mordant for fabric dyes, and as a high-performance oxide to coat magnetic tapes.

Vauquelin’s discovery of chromium in 1797 provided the basis for the range of colors spanning yellow, orange and red. Chrome pigments were the precursors to cadmium colors but unfortunately, chromium pigments are high toxicity and will react to other colors in an artist’s palette. The chromium “family” has a green hue as well. Chromium oxide green has a long and useful history as a prepared green for artists use. In a hydrated form, it is the basis for the color Viridian.

Not to be understated, chromium pigments gave artists an opaque, saturated yellow, orange red and green that equaled the strength of modern single and mixed pigment cadmium colors. They provide high chroma in the yellows when only yellow lake colors, King’s Yellow, Mars Yellow, and a few earth colors could provide the yellow hue portion of an artists’ palette.

Chrome orange was refreshingly robust and strong when compared to Mars Orange. Since Mars Orange is derived from iron oxide, like other iron oxides, it has a fairly low chroma when compared to other hues of the same color family.

Chrome Red is as strong as Vermilion and is equal in intensity and opacity to Cadmium Red. It is interesting to note that while Cadmium Yellow and Orange are introduced to the market in the 19th century; Cadmium Red does not make its appearance until 1910. It shares a place with vermilion for quite some time until the cost, toxicity and other factors force vermilion from the artists’ palette. Chrome pigments also have some inherent drawbacks. They are reactive to materials containing sulfur and chrome paints do poorly over time when mixed with Prussian blue.

Louis Vauquelin did not stop with the discovery of two elements. He turned his attention to the biological world. Stalking the exotic and incomprehensible asparagus, he isolated an amino acid from it called asparagines. He dabbled with apples as well and discovered the substance pectin as well as malic acid that is contained within them.

Chromium is foundation of the high intensity yellows in the typical palette of the impressionists. Without chrome pigments, painters of the late 19th century would have to rely on many of the standard 16th through 18th century pigments that the old masters employed.

The Syntax of Color

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