Newton’s curse: New Scientist

“Newton’s curse”, New Scientist, 8 April 2006, p.4. (The printed version contains errors and general ugliness introduced in editing: click here for a PDF of the corrected version.)

Alchemy and colour

Alchemy and colour: an article for the UCL chemistry departmental bulletin.
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Philip Ball. An article written for the UCL chemistry department, 2002

If you were a painter during the Renaissance, you were probably something of an alchemist too. That’s not to say that you spent your time trying to make gold; but you would have been familiar with the chemical manipulation of matter. You had to be-for there were no art shops, no Winsor and Newton, in those days: you had to make your own paints.

To some of those artists, alchemy was just a chemical technology: a convenient manufacturing process for making colours and other useful substances, such as turpentine and varnishes. Cennino Cennini, a Florentine craftsman, writing around 1390, explains that the brilliant red pigment called vermilion ‘is made by alchemy, prepared in a retort’-but he doesn’t bother to tell his readers how to do this, for ‘it would be too tedious’. Instead, he says, you can buy it from the apothecaries; but don’t take it ready-ground, because the swindlers will mix it with brick dust. …

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