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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

It Sure Doesn’t Look Like Tomato Juice!

Summary: It is time once again to dive into the realm of common household foods as they apply, or in this case, should not be applied to works of art. I will not be discussing natural colors that enhance foods such as carmine that is used to make red meats look fresh. In this case it is the color derived from the food itself that is the subject of discussion.

Historically, a massive amount of evidence exists that points to how badly some natural materials behave when used as pigments. We can exclude earth colors from the failure list despite them being fully derived from natural materials. The problem lies with using vegetables and fruits as colorants. Additionally, colors extracted from plants and animals that require chemical processing to bring out their colorant are also included in this list of failures. Indigo and madder, buckthorn berries and Indian Yellow are some of the best-known fugitive colors.

One of the most commonly used colors in the recent past, that is also fugitive, is alizarin crimson. It is derived from processing madder roots (Rubia tinctorum). Paint made from transforming madder roots into a lake pigment is known to be very unreliable, especially when applied thinly as a glaze. Making a glaze transparent requires only a small amount of pigment and does not provide enough color in the ratio of medium to pigment to combat fading. In addition, glazes allow highly separated pigment particles to be bombarded by light from every angle that accelerates fading.

However, an interesting loophole exists. The next time you visit a museum and tour galleries with paintings done in the 15th and 16th century, take note of the ones that have broad passages of deep crimson red paint. While the technique of rendering red areas frequently relies on starting with a layer of an iron oxide red or vermilion, many red areas are enhanced with a top layer of alizarin crimson to define the rendering of drapery on figures in the painting. Conservators have commented that when they find a very thick application of alizarin crimson, it appears to be sufficient to buffer against drastic color loss. The other factor that preserves these paintings is that good gallery lighting filters out harmful UV rays. This helps to preserve the wonderful ruby hue of this natural red pigment.

But if you are thinking that this same defiance for fading applies to colors extracted from fruit and vegetables, that would not be the case. Attempts by some companies to use natural ingredients to make paints super-safe using plant-based colors is an exercise in temporary gratification.

I recall an exhibit I enjoyed back in 2005 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington that focused on works of art by Ed Ruscha. The name of the exhibit “Cotton Puffs Q-Tips©, Smoke and Mirrors,” was whimsical and befit many of the prints and drawings Ruscha created. The exhibit featured a host of Ruscha’s iconic images that included prints with words in white letters on color backgrounds, a series of views of the iconic Hollywood sign and multiple views of the hard-edge, geometry in Ruscha’s depiction of a 1960s Standard Oil Company service station.

What caught my attention was a room in the middle of the show that featured a series of prints that employed various vegetable and fruit juice stains as colored backgrounds for words. It is noteworthy to report that this room was set to the museum standard of 5-foot candles of lighting for obvious reasons.

The natural colorants used on the prints highlighted the ironic humor of preserving the “artist’s intent” by using colorants that were doomed to drastically fade. To me, this was a mid-1970s statement addressing the temporary, fleeting nature of things, made obvious in the title of a print called “Colorfast?” * Ruscha knew or was likely advised that beet juice on paper was going to cause trouble over time. But isn’t that the point. “Colorfast?” questions longevity by its use of materials. This concept is not quite the same as attaching a ripe banana with duct tape to a solid support. We can interpret that the use of the banana was a statement on the perception of the value of art and how it is understood and marketed today.

*All images in the National Gallery’s collection by Ed Ruscha are not part of Open Access and cannot be reproduced without permission by the National Gallery of Art. The “artwork” depicted in this blog is a comical digital simulation that is similar in hue and design to the 1975 print “Colorfast?” My version is made with “digital” beet juice and is adjusted to appear to match the beet juice that has faded in Ruscha’s print in the last 47 years. It represents the visual simulation of the deterioration from what we would reasonably think that fresh beet juice applied to paper would look like when the artwork was originally fabricated by the artist. No actual beets were harmed in the making of this blog. However if you are interested, I can make the digital image available to you as a non-fungible token. 😉

The problem with some art materials is that the intent is for them to last for a very long time, but if the manufacturer is not careful and selects a pigment that has the similar light fastness properties as beet juice, then an artist will unknowingly be going down the same philosophical path that Ruscha intentionally did when he made his series of vegetable/fruit colorant prints. This dilemma makes using Alizarin Crimson look great by comparison.

I am totally at peace with artwork that has clearly stated inherent vice if I am made aware of it from the start. Inherent vice being defined as a process or materials that will cause the artwork to break down and/or drastically change in its appearance in a short period of time by comparison to artwork made with stable long-term materials. It is one thing to make art intentionally using fugitive materials to convey a point. It is another to accidentally make works of art that will self-destruct quickly.

The take home point of this essay is to use materials made for artists’ use and not raid your refrigerator or garden in search of interesting colors to make artworks. A plethora of colors are available to create every hue, tint and tone imaginable. You could even simulate fresh beet juice with paint, if you so desired.

The Syntax of Color

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