Trade Colors on the Northwest Coast
With the coming of explorers and fur traders to the Northwest Coast, new pigments and paint color slowly started becoming available to Indigenous people. In spite of this, an analysis of hundreds of artifacts from the 19th and 20th centuries to present shows the same colors (although not the same pigmenting materials) are still in common use today. In spite of all outside influences, the enormous array of manufactured colors and almost total devastation of NW Coast people and cultures, black, red, blue and green persist, as they have done form more than 4,000 years, as the iconic colors of these cultures.
When synthetic pigments/paints became available, Indigenous artists did not abandon their ancient methods of making paint; they made use of both traditional materials, tools and techniques into the mid-twentieth century. By the mid-1900’s the knowledge of pigment deposits as well as the methods for making paint were almost entirely lost due to a number of factors that combined to decimate not only the populations, but also the knowledge and practices that had been in existence for thousands of years.
As manufactured paints became easily obtainable, it had to have been an exciting and inspiring advent for Indigenous artists. What a heady experience for an artist who grew up digging pigments out of the earth, cleaning, grinding and mixing his own paint, to walk into a store and buy, or trade for, pigments or paint. Brilliant colors like Prussian blue, Chromium Oxide green, Naples yellow, and vermilion in large amounts must have left them feeling ripe with creative possibility.
The Industrial Revolution of the late 1700-early 1800’s helped precipitate a burst of new colors into the marketplace. The demand for more colors for industrial applications, and better stability for textile dyes had chemists and inventors all vying for a place in history by experimenting with an array of ancient and modern chemicals and natural materials like never before in history.
When I imagine stepping through the door of a 1900’s general store and seeing CANS of paint sitting on the shelf, my head reels with excitement at all the things I might cover in paint!