Landscape Paint and the Chemistry Blues

419px-Johannes_Vermeer_(1632-1675)_-_The_Girl_With_The_Pearl_Earring_(1665)Alchemy reigned at the time Johannes Vermeer painted Girl with a Pearl Earring in 1665. Back in that day, before the Periodic Table of the Elementswhich didn’t show up in until 1869—painters made their own paints from the powders of ground minerals by mixing them with linseed oil.

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Lapis lazuli

The pigment in the blue scarf around the head of the Girl with a Pearl Earring, for instance, was made from lapis lazuli, a beautiful but rather expensive mineral to be grinding to a powder.  Unfortunately, linseed oil made the fabulous blue color of this beautiful mineral a bit cloudy.

Linseed oil did that to most of the mineral powders, but there was no way around that in 1665. The mineral powders would be chalky-looking and would not flow onto the canvas smoothly without being mixed with linseed oil.

Better Living Through Chemistry

The Periodic Table going public in 1869 moved the job of creating paint from artists to the laboratory chemist. These days, few artists mix their own paints, or even know what’s in them. I’m a big fan of chemistry, for without it, there is nothing. No rocks, no clay, no paint. And I wonder how they make vivid yellow as well as intense red paint from the same thing. Not a mineral, but an element from the Periodic Table: Cadmium.

Modern painters can thank French artist, Yves Klein and a few French chemists, who created a rich luscious blue paint that retained the brilliant blue hue by suspension of the dry pigment in a synthetic resin, avoiding the murkiness of linseed oil.

They called it International Klein Blue. Yves Klein used IKB, as this patented pigment is known, to paint Blue Monochrome, part of a series of one-color paintings he had been creating for several years.

BlueMonochrome
Blue Monochrome, Yves Klein, 1961

IKB represented something profound to Klein: le Vide-the Void. Not a vacuum or terrifying darkness, but a void that invokes positive sensations of openness and liberty, a feeling of profound fulfillment beyond the everyday material world. Standing before Klein’s huge canvases of solid blue, many report being enveloped by serene, trance-like feelings.

That’s how the Southwestern desert landscape makes me feel.

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The iron-stained colors of my native land inspired me to make paint from it, in the old way—grinding the minerals to a powder and mixing them with linseed oil. Perhaps because these paints are made from desert clays (see my previous blog Desert Paintings), linseed oil did not make them murky.

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Crows Across the Sky, Mary C. Simmons, 2010

 

First Crow, First Raven, First Human: Tan Me Hide and Teach Me to Sew

 

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First Crow and First Raven had gained a vast storehouse of learned experience in the eons they flew the skies of Earth, well before the first human took a bite of the first apple from the Tree of Knowledge. In the beginning, Raven especially got a big kick out of tricking these silly gullible creatures. They believed anything he said.
“Look! Over yonder, on the horizon! It is the Great Spirit!” Raven would call out and point with one wing. When the humans looked away, Raven swooped down upon them and stole their food. Time after time.

Crow and Raven grew quite fat; they lacked nothing due in large part not to Raven’s trickery, but also because humans were so astonishing wasteful.

“They wouldn’t have to work so hard at hunting and gathering if they didn’t waste so much food.” Crow beaked an eyeball from the severed head of a Big Hairy Beast and swallowed it in one gulp. “They leave so much on the ground for us, which I for one am dreadfully grateful, but if they were more efficient, their food would go further, and they would not have to struggle so to get more.”

“Don’t let them hear you say that!” Raven said, shushing Crow with his wings. He never could leave well enough alone, could not resist wanting to be helpful to these pitiful creatures.

“You see Cousin, in a perfect world, the amount of time we Corvid should spend obtaining food needs to be inversely proportional to the time humans do. That is my famous Inverse Proportionality Rule governing work. Remember? Let’s say they work twice as hard as they have to, which translates into us doing half the work we have. Eh, Cousin?”
Crow’s beady black eyes glazed over, and Raven knew his cousin was only barely listening. But he also needed to remind Crow that his interference in human affairs nearly always backfired. “In other words, dear Cousin,” he said, shaking Crow out of his daydreams of rescue and assistance, “the more they hunt and gather, the less we have to. If they start slacking off, we’ll have to find our own food. No, Cousin. Their wastefulness is our largesse. Think about it. And shut up, please. For the good of us all.”
Crow had always tried to be helpful to the foolish humans. For instance, after they’d hunted and killed the Big Hairy Beast, he had suggested they skin it.
“Why?” the Chieftain asked. “The skin is no good to eat. Too much fur. It is tough and hard to swallow. Even the dogs won’t eat it.”
“No,” Crow said, shaking his head. “You must skin the Beast before you cook him so that you can use his fur to keep yourselves warm.”
The humans stared at Crow, slack-jawed. They hadn’t thought of that; the fire in the spit always burned most of the hair off. They ate the meat, and threw the burnt hide back into the fire.
Crow taught the humans how to carefully slice through the hide up the Big Hairy Beast’s big belly and down the underside of its limbs. The humans learned how to scrape the inside of the hide with a rock, and Crow taught them to boil down the Big Hairy Beast’s brain, which would produce the preservative that would keep the hide from rotting or falling apart.

“You want the biggest pieces of hide you can get,” Crow told them. “Stitching a lot of small pieces together would be very labor-intensive.

“Stitching?” the Chieftain asked, scratching his aching head. “What is stitching?”
“You make needles from his bones, and laces from strips of his hide,” Crow instructed the humans exhaustively and in a day or so, they had managed to not only make a few bone needles, but to thread them as well with long thin strips of Big Hairy Beast hide.
“Now,” Crow said, nodding as the humans finished poking a line of holes through the edges of the hide, “you can attach pieces of hide together, just make sure the holes line up.”
He picked up a threaded needle in his beak and jammed the pointy end into the holes through the two layers of hide. The humans broke into a surprised outcry when they saw him reach underneath the hide and pull the needle through. After poking the needle in one side and out the other a few more times, Crow stood back and said, “And that, my friends, is stitching.”
The humans were sore amazed, but were also clever and deft with their hands, and they stitched together every piece of hide they could find. Soon the whole tribe had fur cloaks, and Crow was very happy to see them all warm and toasty.
To show their gratitude to Crow for bringing the gift of sewing, the humans gave him the head of the very same Big Hairy Beast whose hide they all wore. Crow lugged the head back to the tree in short flights punctuated with a drop to the ground to rest a few moments; the head was heavy and made it hard to fly very far. He dropped the hunk at the bottom of the tree Raven, who didn’t care as much for the company of humans as did his Cousin.
“Cousin,”Raven said after they’d feasted on Beast head, “I have to thank you for the tanning lessons you gave them.”
“Why, thank you! It is good to see the poor things fending off the cold,” Crow said, ever hopeful that compassion had awakened in his cousin’s heart.
“Yes, well that too, I reckon,” Raven replied as he picked small bits of flesh from his feathers. “But the stench of burning Big Hairy Beast hair made me gag.”
And so the great partnership of humans and Corvus continued. As the years went by, Crow and Raven taught the naked and ignorant humans everything they needed to know to survive on Earth.

First Crow, First Raven Bring Fire to First Humans

The following tale is the first in the series of tongue-in-beak stories I made up concerning the ancient relationship our species has had with the corvids-a group of birds whose most familiar members are crows, ravens and magpies. They’ve been here a lot longer than we have. The oldest corvid fossil known is 17 million years old from Mid-Miocene Europe. One of our most ancient ancestors, Australopithecus afarensis walked the Earth between 3.9 and 2.9 million years ago.
And, these corvids are very smart.

This first story is about how Crow and Raven brought fire to Humans. The idea is not without precedence: the Native American story of Rainbow Crow also makes this claim, with a slightly different result for the corvid.

At the Very Dawn of Human History…

df6c072e1fe5a5ce7fc590df721af24cFirst Raven and First Crow had flown the skies of Earth for eons before First Human showed up. They didn’t know where these odd beings came from, and they didn’t care. The fact was, there they were. Skinny and hairless, no claws, pathetic flat little teeth, they were utterly defenseless. They could neither fly nor swim nor run fast. Raven and Crow wondered how they came to be so ill-equipped to survive in the world.

The cousins perched in a tree overlooking a band of humans huddled together below them. “They’re sitting ducks down there,” Raven said, his breath frosty in the frigid dawn light. “They’ve got exactly zero advantages, and no defenses. And they don’t know squat.” He pulled a tick from under a wingpit, spat it out.

“They’re pretty good with their hands,” Crow mused, “though they have not yet learned to adapt to this cold world. I do not know what it is they pack inside those huge heads, but it sure ain’t brains. We should lend a wing. You know, help them out a bit.”

Raven looked at his cousin and shook his head. ”Are you insane?” He stood up on his branch and unfurled his great wings. “Remember the old corvid proverb: No good deed goes unpunished. You mark my words, Cousin. The best policy is non-interference.”

“I am not interfering,” Crow said defensively, rising up to remain eye-to-eye with his cousin. “I am helping. And so should you, Cousin. How can you sit up here in your warm downy feathers, your stomach fattened by daily gluttony, due in large part to the abundantly wasteful habits of yonder humans. Yet still you look with such a cold eye upon those poor hairless fools shivering in the dark?”

Raven looked down upon the poor hairless fools and wondered why in the Great Orb it was his problem. “I’m sure they were put here naked for a purpose,” he said, yawning.  “They got big brains in those skulls–don’t you remember the one who fell of the cliff? Schmucked ‘em all over the rocks. What a feast it was! Remember?”

Both birds paused for a moment. Recalling, salivating…

“There’s absolutely no reason why they can’t figure out how to stay warm,” Raven said, blithely. “Who taught us? No one! We learned. We had to make our own mistakes, and we’re better for it.”

But Crow was overcome with pity. “How would you like to be out in this wind in your bare skin?” He felt sad for the humans. They were cold and hungry.

In the morning, Crow left his roost and dropped to the ground and told the humans, “You must learn to make fire to keep yourselves warm.”

The Chieftain looked at Crow blankly, his teeth chattering in his nakedness. “M-m-make f-f-fire?”

Crow spent many days teaching the humans how to make fire, but it was all magic to them, and they had great difficulty acquiring the skill. ”It was like the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing,” he reported to Raven on the dismal lack of progress. “Like their own two hands didn’t belong on the same body, and they argued with each other all the time.”

“You’re wasting your time, Cousin,” Raven said with a yawn. “Let them shiver. Necessity is the mother of invention, you know.” He hunkered down in his warm feathers and shut his eyes.

The sound of the humans teeth chattering on the ground below irritated him however, and he couldn’t sleep. “I really don’t see what the big deal is,” he said, opening one eye. “It’s a simple exothermic oxygen-consuming process brought on by the excessive heat generated from the friction of rubbing two sticks together. Intuitively obvious to the most casual observer. I grow weary of their dim wits.”

“But it’s so unfair!” Crow wailed as he paced back and forth on the branch. “We didn’t have to find our own feathers, did we? No, we came with them. But these humans have neither feather nor fur. They’re cold. Who can think critically when they’re cold?”

Thunder rumbled across the valley, and the shivering humans buried their heads in fear under their arms. The wind picked up, and a few pellets of cold rain hit Raven on the head. The sound of wailing below grew louder.

“That tears it!” Raven said angrily.
Without further word or warning, he unfolded his great wings, leapt into the air and flew off into the darkening sky.

Alarmed at Raven’s sudden departure, for the storm promised to be a very wild one, Crow called out: “Cousin, no, don’t go!”

But Raven heard him not, and he flew right into the thunderstorm. Powerful winds and sheets of rain battered him, yet he was steadfast in his purpose. Staying low near the ground, Raven dodged lightning bolts until one struck the tree right in front of him, sending fiery projectiles in all directions.

He caught a flaming branch in his beak and bore it out of the storm, back toward the freezing humans. As Raven approached, the skinny hairless things were trying with all they had to get a fire lit, struggling to remember what Crow had taught them. Arguing heatedly with one another, they had no patience with their own ineptitude.

“No, Dufus,” one human said, irritably. “You rub have to rub two sticks together, otherwise the fire won’t work.”

“Fine, Dumass, you do it, then.” Dufus said. He threw the fire stick down and walked off in a rage.

At that moment Raven swooped in, a ball of fire in the downpour. His black feathers glistened as a lightning bolt shot across the sky.

The humans cowered and pled for mercy, thinking they would be punished for being stupid, for failing to learn their lessons, for failing to make fire. But Raven said nothing. He dropped the burning branch right into the fire pit.

“Don’t let it go out, you Fools!” Raven called out as he flew away.

When Raven got back to the tree, Crow was overjoyed to see him. “I thought you were goners, Cousin. Whatever made you go out at that moment? That was a nasty storm.”

“Just taking care of a little business,” Raven said and shut his eyes.

The next day Crow flew to the human encampment where they had a roaring fire and were roasting many fish on sticks. Some were dancing around the fire, others were eating.

“How marvelous this fire!” Crow cried as he skidded to a landing right next to the Chieftain. “I’ve got to hand it to you, Chief, I never thought you’d get it, how to build a fire. And now this! I am astonished!”

The Chieftain looked puzzled. Humans hardly ever could tell ravens from crows, and so he had no idea that it had not been Crow, but his cousin Raven that had brought fire to them. The rain abated and the entire tribe had stayed up all night, keeping the fire lit. They stoked it with anything they could get their hands on.

Someone threw a dead fish onto the fire and the odor of its roasting flesh created a thunderous roar among the stomachs of the tribe . They fished the flesh out of the fire and devoured it.

“Look what we discovered, Crow!” the Chieftain exclaimed. “If you put fish into the fire, it comes out great! Try it!”

Crow beaked a few chunks, and agreed. “Marvelous! May I never eat it raw again!”

“Likewise,” the Chieftain said, as bits of pink salmon flesh fell from his mouth.

“We thank you for the gift of fire, Crow, Bearer of the Flame,” the Chieftain said as he pulled a whole salmon from the fire. He handed the meat to Crow and called out to his tribe. “Hear ye Crow, Hear ye Human! Hereafter, Crow, you shall be our friends, gods though you may be. In our camps, wherever we gather, Crow is always welcome.
“In token of our gratitude for bringing us fire, you will forever feast at our table, for all the days of your natural life, and your children’s and their children’s, until such time as children stop being born. Crow and Human will share friendship.”

“And feast,” Crow murmured.

“And feast,” The Chieftain added. “May we never have less! Let neither our friendship nor our feasting cease!”

Crow flew back to the tree and dropped the remains of the blackened fish the humans had bestowed upon him at Raven’s feet. A few chunks had fallen to the ground, or into his beak, on the way back. Still, there was plenty left for his cousin.

“See here, Raven,” Crow bragged, “you laughed every morning when I went off to teach the humans how to make fire. You said they’d never get it. Well, you were wrong, Cousin. They finally learned. For my excellent teaching, they promise me a chunk of meat, cooked to perfection, every day for the rest of my days, and my children’s days, and their children’s days, on into infinity! I will share it with you, Cousin, even though you laughed.”

Raven chuckled. “How precious you are, my dear Cousin. I am happy to know the humans finally learned something. It’s a small victory, though. Chances are we’ll be dragging them kicking and screaming into the Old Stone Age before too long. I reckon you’ll have to beat them over the head with a simple stone tool before they could figure out how to make one.”

“But they sure are grateful!” Crow said as he snagged a chunk of meat.

“For now,” Raven said.

The two cousins gorged themselves on the leftovers from the human table again later that day, and every day after that, for all the days that Crow and Raven lived on Earth. Their children and grandchildren gorged all the days of their lives. And their Great-grandchildren…..