Many pigments and oil paints used through the ages were made from poisonous or rare ingredients. My father worked regularly with toxins and pigments that were still readily available to him in the 1960s and 1970s to make his own paints (many of these ingredients are no longer available). For those colors that were more difficult to obtain the raw ingredients for, he purchased premade tubes of paint.
Most of these things were available for purchase in New York City – for others he would buy by mail order – like the mastic tears (the sun dried resin from the mastic tree Pistacia lentiscus) that came all the way from Chios, Greece, in a completely raw form .
My Dad mostly bought tubes of paint when it was an especially rare color like Mummy Brown (made from the flesh of ancient Egyptian mummies), or if it was highly poisonous and he couldn’t get the raw materials – like the white lead paint that he preferred because it was the purest white (and a long involved process to make) or the rare tube of Paris Green that was made from the extremely dangerous copper(II) acetoarsenite (used historically for killing insects and rodents).
Cochineal Lake was a red pigment made from the body and eggs of the cochineal beetle; it produced a brilliant red when glazed. Another red, Vermillion (then made from mercury sulphide), was toxic and not light fast – which my father soon found out after painting the background of his self portrait with it – it turned a nasty black over time after exposure to sunlight. He then scraped off the bad color and repainted it with Cadmium Red – another highly toxic compound that has proved stable.
In his studio, lined up along the back of his work table (made from a door set on two trestles with shelves) were many brightly colored jars of pigments and the ingredients for the black oil that he made – including large quantities of lead oxide.
I remember him explaining the history and use of some of these pigments to me and he showed me a book that had information on each color and how it was historically made and used. He didn’t consider it a safety hazard to have these things in the house or to handle them on a daily basis, as he was fastidious in their use and as he said – he never put any of it in his mouth.
When he cooked the Maroger black oil medium he always did it outside on a temperate day. It took several hours as I recall and smelled pretty bad. He had a dedicated set of scales, pots, measuring and stirring tools, and a two burner hotplate that he could plug in outside. All of these things have lasted for decades – my mother was still using them up to about 5 years ago to make the medium for herself.
He was very disciplined about his work and got up at the same time each day to have breakfast and then go to his studio by 9am at the latest. The first thing he did was to make the paints that he would need for the day. With his years of experience he was able to estimate how much of each color he’d need – and the amount was always small since he painted in thin glazes and in a paced manner required by the nature of the medium that needed to be dried between sessions.
He would first measure out the raw pigment into a mortar and pestle and grind the pigment finely. Then placing the ground pigment onto a glass sheet, he would mix some of the medium into it by using a palette knife. He did this by scooping up the two ingredients and then slapping the oil and pigment down together over and over again til it was completely mixed and smooth.
Then he would transfer the freshly made paint onto his palette. The order of the colors on the palette was always the same from tradition, and so it became rote as to where the paint was and could be used without even looking directly at the palette.
He had a large easel that could accommodate large paintings but he also used his drawing table to support smaller works. He used the same old wood swivel chair everyday and with the same taboret at his side – on which rested his palette. Sometimes he used a maul stick to support his hand while doing fine work.
And the radio or a cassette player was always on – his favorite music to work to was opera.