Ardent Release Day/The Artist’s Workshop: Red



I’m so happy that today is Ardent’s release day and that I am in such good company with two other Manifold Press authors: Dorian Dawes (Harbringer Island) and Jay Lewis Taylor (Espresso Shots: Break of Another Day)


I love research and all the roads it takes me down…

For instance, what the color red meant to the Renaissance painters and their patrons; not only in the 15th and 16th centuries, but to artists going back 2,000 years and more. One of the things I learned was how arduous and labor intensive it was for workshops to render dyes into pigments to paint with. Not only pigments, but from the charcoal for sketches to the working of a fresco.

Authors, and especially historical authors, know how much research goes into a line or two that defines an era, historical character, or setting. I had to cut some of my lovely research from the conversation between Masters Zeno, Franco, and Morello in the first chapter of Ardent when they are discussing the color Morello has invented through Alchemy. Zeno was explaining about mordants (they helped the paint stick to cloth or wood or canvas) that Morello already knew, for the benefit of the reader and my love of research, but it still seemed a transparent to me, so I cut it. I’m going to post more bits about the Renaissance artist workshops and the world of Ardent.

The explanations were cut out except for this one about red, as it sufficed, in the end, to show what the process was without jerking the reader out of the narrative, and how significant it was at that time and place.

From: Bucklow, Spike. The Alchemy of Paint (Kindle Locations 283-292). Marion Boyars. Kindle Edition.

“The craftsman’s ability to convert assorted harmless ingredients into useful tools (not just lethal weapons) was widely respected and so too was the artist’s ability to convert raw materials into beautiful colours. For the painter, good reds were quite tricky to prepare from insects in spite of the fact that quite a lot of work had already been put into them even before they arrived in the painter’s studio. The vast majority of insect reds were used for dyeing cloth and painters often extracted the colour from waste cloth by dissolving it in lye. This lye was commonly made by soaking wood-ash in pots full of water. The alkali used to extract insect colours from cloth was sufficiently caustic if a fresh egg could float in it. (Another test was to see if it could dissolve a feather.) And artists timed how long the dyed cloth should be left in the alkali by chanting. Cloth was boiled in lye for one or two Pater Nosters, two or three Misereres, or for three Ave Marias according to different recipes.”

Rendered down by Morello, who has no patron to support him as yet, saying:

“It’s my own recipe. It’s true, I can’t afford the crimson-dyed cloth to make the pigment, though that process is far simpler than making this one.” If one could call standing over a stinking vat of lye and repeating paternosters to time the leaching of the color from the cloth a simple procedure.

This particular red Morello has copied, made from kermes, insects imported from around the Mediterranean (until the 16th century when a better red was discovered in South America. See: A Perfect Red, by Amy Butler Greenfield) was used in place of the Tyrian Purple. When Byzantium fell, the art of making the royal purple was lost. Europeans turned to kermes red to dress royalty and the pope and his staff, if you’ve ever wondered why cardinals wear red.

By the time we get to the Renaissance, the kermes and cochineal reds are prohibitively expensive. In the language of art, red has a powerful symbolic meaning as only the richest and most powerful can afford to have their portraits done with excesses of red.

To quote again Spike Bucklow: “What a colour meant inside a painting depended upon what it meant outside the painting.”



“From the 1470s, and simultaneously with his intense sacred output, Bellini had been engaged in work as a portraitist (in fact the Portrait of Jörg Fugger, the first known dated work by Bellini, is of 1474); although not particularly prolific, this activity was highly significant in terms of its results. The influence of Antonello da Messina in this field was highly evident in some instances. The Portrait of a Young Man in Red of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, datable to between 1485 and 1490, is one of the clearest examples of this, even though the psychological rapport between the person portrayed and the spectator is less immediate than in Antonello da Messina.

Although the concept and design of this portrait, considered to be among the finest of late quattrocento portraits extant, are derived from a Flemish prototype, the monumental simplicity of design, impersonal mood, and generalized surfaces betray the classical traditions of Italy.”



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