Before the advent of synthetically produced colours, colour for paints, inks and dyes came from the earth, rocks and minerals, soot, from bugs, murex or sea snails and from plants. Clothing, tapestries and paintings were all essentially made from these things. In them are the stories of thousands of years of human history, of experimentation, alchemy, recipes, technology, travel, travail, fortunes and tragedies.
Amongst the most prized colour was blue. Extracted, for use in painting, in an impossibly difficult process from lapis lazuli, it was rare and difficult to attain. Other natural sources were; plant based indigofera tinctorial and isatis tinctoria as well as the precious murex trunculus, a sea snail which gave a range of blues and purple. Desirable and expensive commodities, they were each more or less “blue-gold”.
It is difficult to apprehend the intense reverence in which the colour blue was held during the middle ages and renaissance yet we can glimpse its significance through our own fascination with the colour.
Sky blue, midnight blue, feeling blue, blue-blood, blue-collar, blue-ribbon, out of the blue, once in a blue moon, true-blue… There is something about blue that compels, comforts and inspires us. Its nuance of shades cover a range of associations and emotions.
We experience blue in an expansive and immersive way in the sky, lakes, oceans and seas.
A pervasive colour in the visual field of the world around us, it was a precious rarity as pigment and was highly sought after as a colour for representation in art and textiles. As glorious and emotionally captivating a colour, its history is a loaded subject of social inequality, upheaval, migration, strife as well as innovation and change.
The story of colour, its impact on art, interiors and fashion began to change most dramatically in the last 300 years with the discovery of synthetic manufacturing.
In his book “Bright Earth”, Philip Ball describes the accidental invention of the first synthetic blue in the early 1700s by Berlin colour maker Diesbach when working with a contaminated batch of potash which led to the oxidation of iron. It became known as “Prussian Blue” or “Iron Blue”. Still widely used as the basis for blue dyes, paints, household products and pharmaceuticals, it is largely considered to be non toxic.
Leaping forward from Deisbach’s discovery of “Prussian Blue”, Sir John Herschel, an English scientist, discovered, in 1842, use of this iron based chemistry combined with ferric ammonium citrate would create an early photographic form, the cyanotype or blue print.
In the cyanotype process, this iron based chemistry, at first bright green, is brushed onto a surface and deepens to blue when exposed to UV light. Each piece emerges uniquely from the exposure length, the intensity of the light and position of the sun.
Creative processes that lend their own qualities and variations beyond my direct control always interest me.
I was led to a renewed curiosity about colour through my investigations in textile with plant based colours, the chemistry of mordanting with alum and iron and the magic of watching indigo dyed cloth turn from yellow-green to blue while oxidizing once pulled from the vat.
Experimenting with the cyanotype process became, for me, an extension of the alchemy – part science, part wonder.
My recent cyanotype series circulation was inspired by daily walks in the streets of Toronto. My attention was drawn to the random, organic cracks, reminiscent of rivers, veins and arteries, in the pavement. It is striking how these human made, very controlled structures of roadways reorganize over time and wear into natural forms. It brings to fore both the intersecting language of and conflict between cultural and natural systems.
Further research has led me to realize that there is indeed the patterning of rivers beneath our feet. Like many cities with buried rivers, including New York, Paris, London and countless others, Toronto was once an undulating terrain of ravines and rivers. Through ideas around sanitation, city structure and development, the city has flattened to a grid, with its rivers largely diverted, dried up or buried as drainage channels and with this reshaping new patterns have formed.
“Waves” was inspired by the mesmerizing sense of expansiveness of a lake or ocean and its power to both calm and energize one’s being.
Similar to the way the eye perceives the wave and shimmer of water, this piece was created by working with the absorption and refraction of solar rays through my manipulation of kozo paper prepared with cyanotype chemistry and exposed to solar light. The pigmentation is integral to the fibre, like dye.
Both series of works on paper explore the subtext of circulation and the primacy of water in life.
The craving for colour is a natural necessity just as for water and fire. Colour is a raw material indispensable to life. At every era of his existence and his history, the human being has associated colour with his joys, his actions and his pleasures.
– Fernand Léger
Color is a power which directly influences the soul.
– Wassily Kandinsky