Who Burnt the Umber?

Sometimes when walking through the factory, a colour will catch my eye. The vibrancy of a Cadmium Red, the acid clarity of a Lemon yellow or the regal tones of an Ultramarine Blue, but browns….well generally I’m taken by their history and tradition but seldom do they grab my attention.

But this morning a colleague, whilst leaning on a broom, asked with a smile ‘Michael, who first tried burning Umber to make it darker’?

Sadly I cannot make a ‘blog exclusive’ by revealing the name of the monk, the artist or even the cave-dweller, but I can see why they might have done it. Umber is a natural reddish brown earth pigment, and it starts life already darker than its earth pigment cousins, Ochre and Sienna, but when Raw Umber is heated, the shade intensifies to a richer darker colour known as Burnt Umber. Its rich, strong, extremely light-fast and somehow seems to end up on my shoes!

The area of Umbria in Italy where this pigment was first discovered gives its name today to a range of colours. Unlike the modern synthetic pigments, it is not a precise colour or an exact science as different seams of clay and rock will have differing shades, depending on the amount of iron oxide and manganese in the clay.

So who burnt it? Well Umber was one of the first pigments used by man; it is found along with carbon black, red and yellow ochre in cave paintings both from the Neolithic period and probably in its modern equivalent, on the walls of the elevated section of the M6 near Wolverhampton…

But the greatest use of umber (burnt and raw) was the Baroque period. Rembrandt loved the stuff and used these colours in his deep browns. Like others, he too enjoyed the fact that earth colours dry faster than other oil colours.

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They then dwindled in use and popularity as artistic tastes changed. From 1850 onwards, Impressionist artists rejected the use of umber and other earth colours denouncing them as ‘old, dull earth colours’ preferring to make their own browns by mixing of red, green, yellow, blue and other pigments, particularly the new synthetic pigments.

But now they’re back! Or at least for the last 80 years they have been popular again. So earth colours live on, not only in paint and in printmaking inks but in my lounge carpet.

 

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