Painting With Corpses

mummy brown

Sounds like a slightly arty horror film, doesn’t it? I can assure you, however, that until very recently, it was an accepted fact of artistic life. For centuries, a specific shade of reddish-brown called mummia was created using the ground up body parts of Egyptian mummies, either feline or not infrequently, human. One Victorian colourman (a provider of pigments) was known to have said that with one mummy he could keep his artists supplied for twenty years.

It is still possible to get mummia, or Mummy Brown as it’s also known, in the 21st century, but you’ll be pleased to know that the shading is now created with haematite. The redder the pigment, the more haematite (never less than 40%) is used. So there is no need to follow the example of Edward Burne-Jones, the great Pre-Raphaelite artist, and give your paints a decent burial in the back garden.

In fact, the stories behind a number of paint pigments would not be out of place in a decent detective novel, not least because so many of them were quite toxic – white lead, anyone? I must admit to having second thoughts about getting my portrait painted, not that I could persuade anyone to do it. There’s not much of a market for Gorgon pictures.

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