Cream from Cow's Milk

Cream from Cow’s Milk

Today’s bland but pretty post features a bland but pretty color—and one which traces its roots back to the beginnings of agriculture!   Cream is the color of, well… cream.  If one milks a grazing animal (cow, goat, sheep, camel, mare, etc…) the milkfat will rise up to the top of the bucket.  Cream from grazing animals takes on a lovely pale yellow color from carotenoid pigments which occur in the chloroplasts and chromoplasts of meadow plants.  This effect is greatly attenuated in processed cream from factory-farmed milk, so, if you want the original effect as appreciated by Roman and Medieval colorists, you will have to wonder up to a green mountain pasture and milk the goats yourself as though you were Heidi (eds note: please, please do not wander around unfamiliar mountain pastures and grab at the teats of strange ruminants!).

A Cream-Colored Charolais Cow

A Cream-Colored Charolais Cow

Cream was a premium source of energy, nutrients, and sustenance throughout recorded history (and a costly ingredient in the foodstuffs of the rich and privileged for just as long).  Cream shows up in Homer, the Bible, Roman pastoral poems, Scandinavian sagas, and Renaissance metaphysical poetry.   Throughout all of these times, the word has been used as a description of the pale yellow/off-white color.

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As a renter, I have a bitterness towards the color cream: rental flats are invariably painted cream because: 1) cream does not show dirt and age as much as white; 2) the bright color still makes rooms seem spacious and bright; and 3) you can always paint over it.  Yet as an artist, I love cream color!  It is perfect for vestal virgins, angel wings, and abandoned human skulls lying around dragon warrens!  Cream is the highlight color of flesh seen in incandescent light and it forms the shadow side of clouds on perfectly bright sunny days.  Even the oil-primed Belgian linen that painters like to paint on is cream-colored.

The Guardian Angel (Guercino, oil on canvas)

The Guardian Angel (Guercino, oil on canvas)

Because the color strikes such a note with humankind for aesthetic and historical reasons, a great many birds and animals have it in their Latin or common names.  Thanks to the ancient ties between cream and luxuriant desserts, it also has a strange double life as an aristocratic color (which belies its use on the walls of rental garrets).   As I keep writing, I realize how complex my feelings are about this beautiful pastel color….

The Cream-colored Woodpecker (Celeus flavus)

The Cream-colored Woodpecker (Celeus flavus)

Don’t expect any resolution–you will have to figure out how you feel about the multitudinous meanings and associations of cream on your own!

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