Color is our perception of light, and artists somehow work in the inverted color spaces of reflection and absorption: one irreal, the other often simply paint. Artists’ renditions of the lit world and representations of its animate, changeable qualities—using nothing more than pigments in various vehicles—are astounding. My time at the Center, all too brief and defocused, was spent searching for clues on how artists experimented in order to depict luster and sheen, exploiting materials’ inherent visual and physical properties. My intent was to build on prior work on how and when artists used glassy material in paint. I had aimed to travel to Amsterdam to analyze “chemical glasses” found in a collector’s cabinet with a miniature apothecary (Rijksmusem, BK-1956-44) and to pore through the archives looking for hints about links between pigments and glassmaking. Hardly leaving my office, let alone Washington, owing to travel restrictions, changed the tenor and focus of my fellowship such that my project title no longer reflects the lines of thinking that emerged.
In the early modern era, artists’ and commentators’ descriptions of the colors and properties of pigments are usually spare. One useful exception is Gian Paolo Lomazzo’s description of l’oropimento arso, burnt orpiment, which follows from how to paint orange. Burnt orpiment is said to be the color of gold and considered the alchemy of Venetian painters. It was, however, reviled on account of its toxicity, obnoxious smell, and apparent tendency to darken. Authors from Cennino Cennini (c. 1370–c. 1440) to Nicholas Hilliard (probably 1547–1619), myriad house painters’ guides, and compendiums of advice warn against using orpiment although it is a brilliant yellow, the color of daffodils and primroses. In fact, large particles of orpiment are glittery—an observation that caught my eye. I reviewed analytical reports in the files of the scientific research department, searching for results suggesting that artists had used orpiment. In one, the analyst, Lisha Glinsman, recorded her observation that the yellow particles in a painting’s heraldic device appeared “somewhat sparkly.” The particles are not shell gold, nor mosaic gold; they most likely are orpiment. Orpiment is also found in an English miniature painting, depicting tiny links of gold chains adorning the sitter.