Monday, September 20, 2010

Paint and Perfume: A Visual Analogy

I’ve ordered a few cosmetics recently, and gotten gift-with-purchase scent samples. These are mainstream fragrances from big companies. They smell like chemical stew: “fruits” and “florals,” all alike, all repellent, at least to me. (I mean, DKNY, what can you folks be thinking?) 

Another new thing: the ingredients are listed on the card, lest anyone die of Tris- paramethylhydroxypiperidinol poisoning: “Hey,” the lawyers can claim, “It wasn’t our fault, it was right there on the card for God’s sake!” 
Did I say they all smell alike? They do.
Did I say they all....oh, never mind.
I’m a painter, and, like perfume, modern paints are made mostly with synthetics. The reasons for this are similar. They’re cheaper, easier and sometimes safer to manufacture, and, as in perfumery sourcing, the companies don’t have to deal with materials that are difficult to obtain -- a lot more difficult, in the case of paint, whose natural pigments must often be mined in some really iffy places, like, for instance, Afghanistan.
Artist-quality paint is a lot like perfume. Once, all pigments came from natural sources. Some of these natural pigments were unstable. One can only guess, for example, what the real colors of many Renaissance paintings might have been -- all those browns and blacks could have been blues or greens. So why not just make all paint from synthetic recreations of natural pigments, as the mainstream perfume industry is doing?
Take, for example, the two blues on the left. One is a pure “organic synthetic,” Phthalocyanine blue, the “modern” cool blue. The other is Prussian Blue, classified as an “inorganic synthetic,” whose chemical name indicates the presence of iron. It’s a classic color, available since the 1720‘s, but it can be testy; when applied thickly, for example, it sometimes gives off a coppery sheen, and cheap grades of it can fade. Phthalocyanine blue was intended to replace it. But all the paint companies still make and market Prussian Blue. Why? Because it works well with others, while phthalocyanine bulldozes everything in its path.
Geek that I can be, I did an informal experiment to illustrate this. The colors at the top are pure, 100%, just as they come out of the tube. I began adding white, first at 20%, then 40, then 60, then 80. (I judged these amounts visually, as I don’t have a scale capable of weighing them. So I suppose you’d have to call them estimated amounts.) Anyway, I don’t have to tell you what this phthalocyanine blue does to white (and every other color). I had to add four times as much white as phthalo blue to see any difference!
Meanwhile, take a look at the Prussian Blue. It’s a little greener out of the tube and, when mixed with white, produces a subtler, more muted blue. Fine arts painters tend to prefer this kind of latitude, and the paint companies, unlike the big fragrance companies, are willing to accommodate them.
Now take a look at the reds. Almost all reds are “fugitive” -- meaning they can fade over time. But a cool red is essential to even the most minimal palette, and has been made throughout history from the roots of a plant known as “madder.” The cool, dark red once made from madder is called Alizarin Crimson. 
Not so many years ago, the industrial paint industry came up with the Quinacridones, which  produce stable reds. However, like Phthalocynanines, they’re bullies. The Quinacridone-based red I used, Gamblin’s “Alizarin Permanent,” is a quinacridone red, muted a bit through the inclusion of Ultramarine Blue, another older pigment. The other strip is real Alizarin Crimson, from the French company Sennelier. They’re like two different colors! The pinks made with the Sennelier version are much more appealing, at least to me.
Again, the paint companies all make Alizarin Crimson, which, in reality, is semi-synthetic; some time ago, the components of madder root were replicated successfully as a coal-tar based dye. Still, it comes with a warning: it may not last forever. (Well, what does?) Artists who prefer its working qualities are willing to take that risk.
Here’s the point. The paint companies, and there are many, seem to respect their customers. Even the toxic leads, cadmiums and cobalts are easily available. They come with a warning label. “Yes,” you may say, “but you’re not spraying them on your skin.” Well, no, but it’s just about impossible to paint with any enthusiasm without getting paint, often mixed with solvent, on your hands. Here’s the thing: that’s left up to you. Wear latex gloves or barrier cream, or take the risk; you’re a grown-up. “Hues” for each of the toxic colors are available, too, and they’re much cheaper, but, like the blues and reds I used here, they have completely different working properties, and there is no true substitute for them.
In the perfume samples I’m receiving, there may be some classic ingredients, but I certainly can’t tell. If they’re there, the synths have knocked them aside. I still believe that synthetics have their place in perfumery -- added longevity, for example. But by the time the cosmetics companies do their “voluntary compliance” thing with the IFRA regulations, meanwhile bending backward to please the apparently growing universe of perfume-o-phobes -- well, this is what you get. Chemical stew, comprised of cheap synthetics fighting each other in the bottle, guaranteed to get no-perfume policies passed in every office on earth.
I’d like to see the fragrance companies put out a top-tier line of their great classics, made as close to the original formulae as possible. As we don’t eat paint, we don’t drink perfume. We have, in other words, brains and judgement. Concerned about liability? Slap on a warning label! That’s what the paint companies do. Price point problems? I’d pay more for real Shalimar. Wouldn’t you?
Hey, anybody want a “New Coke?” 

Photo, not that anybody would want it,  © Patricia Borow. All rights reserved.

Tech Specs from “The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques” by Ralph Mayer (ISBN 0-670-83701-6.) The white I used was Weber’s Permalba white, a mixture of Titanium Dioxide and Zinc White, and should definitely not be eaten, so don't eat it, okay?
The colors on the strips are: (L to R) (pure at top, then mixed with Weber’s “Permalba White” at 20, 40, 60 and 80% respectively):
Winsor-Newton “Winsor” (Phthalocyanine) Blue, a.k.a. Copper phthalocyanine a.k.a. PB 15:1.
Gamblin Oil Colors “Prussian Blue,” a.k.a. Ferri-ammonium ferrocyanide, a.k.a. PB 27. Don’t let the “cyanide” part scare you. This paint is not toxic.
Gamblin Oil Colors “Alizarin Permanent,” a.k.a. Quinacridone red b/Perylene red/Ultramarine Blue, a.k.a. PV19/PR149/PB29.
Sennelier “Alizarin Crimson,” a.k.a. PR83. This is the only one that is significantly more expensive, at about $20/tube list, than the others, which range from $7.17 to $15.95 per 37 or 40 ml tube.


Kyra said...

As a great fan of both scent and colour, I very much enjoyed the parallel, but my first reaction was this: Hush, whisper, don't bring this to the attention of the nannies or cobalt blue will become as scarce as oakmoss and bergamot.

Olfacta said...

Hi K -- I feel the same, but when checking the catalogs it is still available. I plan to research this further.

waftbyCarol said...

I totally agree with you on this...the only real way to change anything is to vote with your wallet - don't buy chemical stews .
And what about THEM is so non-toxic ? No it's not about non-toxicity , it's about profit .

Nina said...

Great article! The comparison you made between paint and perfume is very effective (and convincing). Thanks!

Isa said...

Congratulations on this article! It has been very interesting and instrutive.

flittersniffer said...

I hadn't ever thought of paints as being toxic - I will forward the link to a painter friend of mine, who also likes perfume now (thanks to my proselytsing efforts).

And I think people would want your photo - it would make very fetching pc wallpaper, for example.

Olfacta said...

Hi C -- Smoke 'n' mirrors, as they say. I try not to have close contact with anything that requires a word that takes up an entire line and I can't pronounce.

Olfacta said...

Hi Isa and Nina -- Thanks!

Olfacta said...

Hi FS -- By "toxic," the paint companies mean that they shouldn't be breathed (as in powdered pigment) or ingested. Skin contact is what the warning labels are for. Still, you have to really be careless to get enough on the skin to be an issue. Artists from the past ground their own white lead and made their own paints from powdered substances, some of which were really bad, like arsenic in a green that was popular. Many of them lived to be old. It's just common sense: don't eat paint.

Anya said...

Love, love, love this post. It's the second blog I'm wanting to link to on FB and Twitter for my folks to read. Is that OK?
(waves to Carol, the other re-linked blogger) said...

Hello Anya -- Of course! Thanks!

flittersniffer said...

I guess I hadn't ever given any great thought to what paints were made of, in terms of their metal content etc, though instinctively I would think twice before eating them. I accidentally gargled "Clean & Clear" toning lotion once and that didn't taste too great, I can tell you. And I try not to swallow lipstick, though just as we are said to ingest eight spiders in a lifetime, I expect some Rose en Forme and Frolick has gone down the hatch too... : - )

Rappleyea said...

I found this fascinating, Pat! And what an apt correlation between the synthetic stews and the newer paints. I've found that so many of the aroma-chemicals bloom on my skin and take over, just as you've pointed out that these new blues and reds take over. Laurie at SSS rightly pointed out that it's not so much that they bloom, but that as the naturals fade away, these are the chemicals that are left.

And Carol is right - these chemical stews ARE toxic! Read the newest findings on iso-E-super - I'd rather take my chances with oakmoss!

Mimi Gardenia said...

Great post Olfacta. I agree. Why the hell can't fragance companies bring out a top tier selection of classic and unaltered perfumes for perfume lovers.