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Porch ceilings in the American South are traditionally a pale blue green and they have been for centuries (which is amazing since our nation has barely even been around that long).  The evocative name of this traditional color is “haint blue” and the roots stretch back to before the revolution when pigments choices were limited.  In the Gullah culture of low country South Carolina (a culture created out of West African tradition, colonial greed, New World wetlands, tropical disease, and rice), blue was a special color which was anathema to spirits or “haints.”  According to tradition, ghosts either thought it was the sky (problematic) or running water (impassable) and left it alone.  There was plenty of indigo pigment to tint the whitewash, and so doors, casements, window frames, and ceilings all became haint blue.  And even robust materialists inured by reason against the perils of the supernatural can still agree it is a lovely & calming hue.

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But the use of haint blue didn’t stop along the Florida and South Carolina coast.  The tradition was admired and emulated throughout the south, and it has even continued to spread beyond North of the Mason Dixon Line and west of the Mississippi in the modern era.  I wish I had the time to select a whole “Southern Living” pictorial spread of exquisite southern porches (for, although we are better off without the ways of the old South, those porches are delightful and should be adopted everywhere), but I think these pictures convey the idea.

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The whimsical names which paint companies give various designer shades and hues are a big part (well…at least a part) of the fun of painting. It has always made me happy to go into a Home Depot and peruse the rainbow arrays of eye-popping paint chips and look at the weird names. Imagine the thought process that lead to “Peppermint Penguin,” “Rutebaga Parade,” “Clontarf,” “Curlicue,” or “Bitter Gravy” (indeed my friend’s Arastu’s house is this last color, for some reason).

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But now, in an attempt to steal this joy from broke poets and stoned marketers, computer scientist (?) Janelle Shane has created a rudimentary algorithm to design colors and name them. Looking at the experiment as described on Ars Technica makes me think that either Ms. Shane is a poor computer scientist, there are aspects of the “experiment” which were not described, or this was a publicity stunt (or maybe all of the above).

But who cares? Even if the computer made a lot of boring gray and beige colors and did not seem to learn anything, it produced some amazingly poetic and hilarious names like “Stargoon,” Dorkwood, “Gray Pubic,” and Burble Simp *which is actually an ok color—if you are a crustacean living in 1978. Maybe Ms. Shane was asking the wrong questions. Perhaps her experiment did not determine if machines can be aesthetes (the results are uncertain unless you are an empty souled entity designing a new ecru for cubicles). The real question is whether machines can be hilarious and the answer is a definite yes. It’s even better if they don’t get the joke, but just sit there in their “Snowbonk” colored housing wondering why everyone is laughing.
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Here is an elegant paint color with an interesting historical backstory.  Charleston green is a shade of green so dark that it seems black.  Indeed, Wikipedia just straight-out lists it under black instead of green, so perhaps Charleston Green really is black.  The story goes that, after the American Civil War, mass quantities of black paint were provided by the Federal government for reconstruction.  The proud (albeit economically ruined) aesthetes of Charleston could not bear to paint their lovely vintage houses black–so they mixed in small quantities of yellow in order to create an exceedingly dark green.

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Whether this story is true or not, the color is very dramatic and pretty, although admittedly subtle.  In the modern post-post-Civil War period, Charleston Green seems to mostly be used for shutters, doors, and accents where it looks especially good against white, cream, bricks, or pale green.  Maybe it is not necessarily so much a response to northern aggression as a solid aesthetic choice. I feel like I’ve seen a whole house or two painted this color in my own neighborhood in New York, and weren’t the carpetbaggers supposed to have come from here?

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Egyptian Blue faience ushabtis at the Louvre

In ancient Egypt the sky was a gleaming blue, the sacred lotuses had blue petals, the pharaoh’s battle crown was blue, beautiful women wore chokers made of blue stone, and, above all, the life-giving Nile was blue.  The ancient Egyptians needed azure pigment to portray these essential elements of life within their sacred art, but the only natural blue pigments were from turquoise and lapis lazuli—semi-precious stones which were rare and expensive.  To provide a sufficient supply of blue pigment for painting, jewelry, and sculpture, the Egyptians therefore invented the first synthetic pigment which today is appropriately known as “Egyptian blue” (well, it is also appropriately known as calcium copper silicate–CaCuSi4O10 or CaO·CuO·4SiO2—but I’m going to keep calling it Egyptian blue).

Egyptian Blue Faience Votive Cup with Cartouche of Amenhotep III, c. 1391 – 1350 B.C.

Egyptian blue was synthesized in the 4th Dynasty (c.2575-2467 BC) when the newly created pigment was first used to color limestone sculptures, beads, and cylinder seals.  Its use became more prevalent in the Middle Kingdom, and then increased again during the New Kingdom when blue was used for the production of numerous everyday objects.  Throughout the Hellenic and Roman age, Egyptian blue was a mainstay of the nascent chemical industry, and it found its way into all sorts of art, jewelry, crafts, and artisan wares.  Then, in the fourth century the secret of its manufacture was lost.  Only in the beginning of the nineteenth century did interest revive as the English and French pioneers of the chemical trade rushed to synthesize useful compounds.  As one might surmise from the fact that the manufacturing process was lost for a millennium and a half, the method to make Egyptian blue is surprisingly involved.  Citing a British Museum publication, Wikipedia describes it thus:

Several experiments have been carried out by scientists and archaeologists interested in analyzing the composition of Egyptian blue and the techniques used to manufacture it. It is now generally regarded as a multi-phase material that was produced by heating together quartz sand, a copper compound, calcium carbonate, and a small amount of an alkali (plantash or natron) at temperatures ranging between 800–1000 °C (depending on the amount of alkali used) for several hours. The result is cuprorivaite or Egyptian blue, carbon dioxide and water vapor…

The Egyptians were clearly people who took their pigments seriously, and thankfully so–the blue tints they crafted have lasted for thousands of years (and helped us find our way to synthesized pigments).   It is strange to think of the subtle ways that the Nile still flows through our lives.

The mummy wrappings of Ankh Hor (21st or 22nd Dynasty, 1069-715 BC)

Caput Mortuum Violet

One of the most useful colors in an artist’s palette is one of the last colors anyone else would think.  Only its spooky name would incline your attention towards it.  Caput mortuum, which means dead head or death head, is made of haematite–iron oxide (in fact there are several extremely similar colors made of the same pigment but with slightly different hues and names–particularly mars violet and Indian red—but we will stick to talking about caput mortuum because that’s the variation I use). This unpromising rust color possesses a protean mutability–it could be red, brown, orange, or violet depending on the context.  Although it can stand on its own as a focus of attention, caput mortuum is very easy to paint into a network of subtle shadows:  many painters use it for shadowed flesh or as land cast in darkness (after all a person’s flesh and the red clay of a landscape both take their ruddiness from iron).

Wife of a Donator (Petrus Christus, 1450, oil on panel)

Wife of a Donator (Petrus Christus, 1450)

Though not a flashy color, caput mortuum has a dignity and a beauty to it.  In the middle ages and Renaissance, painters used it to paint the robes and clothing of eminent monastic religious figures and of patrons & donors (ie the people actually paying for the painting).  Oftentimes when looking at a religious painting, a viewer will notice that Jesus, Mary, and Saint Peter–resplendent in gold, white, blue, and red—are joined by an unknown pair of merchants wearing caput mortuum.  These two often have the most realistic and beautifully painted faces in the painting–it is difficult to say what Jesus really looked like but even the most money grubbing burgher knows his own face!

Portrait of a Female Donor (Jan Provost, 1505)

Although there is something somber about the deep color of caput mortuum, its name does not come from an obvious association with blood and corpses.  In addition to meaning “dead head” the Latin phrase also means “worthless remains” and it was used by alchemists to describe the inert residue left over from a chemical reaction.  Apparently this by-product was often a rusty violet color.  Alchemists used a (very) stylized skull to denote the oxidized left-overs.

Caput Mortuum Alchemy Symbol

However it’s more evocative to imagine the pigment being named after a death’s head.  The concept lends art a much needed touch of operatic dark magic.

Vanitas Still Life with a Tulip, Skull and Hour-Glass (Phillip de Champaigne, c. 1671)

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