Monday, October 27, 2014

Caput Mortuum

With All Hallow's Eve nigh upon us, I'm taking a minute to salute a peculiar color with semi-macabre overtones, a pigment I delight in using called "caput mortuum."

caput mortuum
(Other terms for this pigment are cardinal purple and Mars violet)

The translation of the latin caput mortuum is literally "dead head," or "death's head," a term for the symbolic drawing of a skull (hence the famous Death's Head Moth).

The Death's Head Moth. Why have you gone so silent, my Little Lamb?

(Fun fact: I used to think the word "kaput," meaning broken down or dead, came from "caput" but apparently not. Autocorrect nonetheless insists upon a link between them...)

The term caput mortuum comes from alchemy, where it was used to denote the residue at the bottom of a heating flask after the solution's "nobler" elements had "sublimated." (Alchemists thought in symbolic terms, so it's a metaphor for how the soul was thought to ascend into the Aether after death, leaving the body's material remains behind). The alchemical symbol for the discarded residuum was a death's head, a version of which remained in use by chemists through the eighteenth century.

Symbol for caput mortuum (bottom right) from a ms. by Isaac Newton.
It's made from hematite, the common name of which is "blood ore," a form of iron oxide (rust is also a form of iron oxide, and incidentally, transparent red iron oxide is another color in my box).

Hematite (Blood Ore)
Painters used a version of caput mortuum as a substitute for mummy brown. If you've ever seen a real mummy, you may have noted the intriguing ochre and other warm earth tones of the ancient wrappings; Mummy brown was a pigment made from ground-up bits of mummies, both humans and cats. Artists stopped using it once they learned what was in it! Here's a painting that uses it extensively. Color look familiar, museum goers?

Interior of a kitchen by Martin Drolling, a painting made almost entirely of the pulverized remains of dead Egyptians.
Several brands of caput mortuum can be found, but I stopped at the first one I tried: Old Holland. I love how Old Holland colors mix - they make the most sumptuous and complex grays - and caput is one of the less expensive pigments (around $10 for a regular 40 ml tube). It's so packed with pigment that a single small tube can last me about a year.

Out of the tube, the paint looks the color of dried blood. But mixed with white it becomes a beautiful, moody shade of rose-violet
Caput mortuum mixed with WN's Soft Mixing White
and mixed with almost any blue, it makes the most gorgeous violets and mauves.

Caput mortuum mixed with mixed with WN's Ultramarine Blue and Soft Mixing White
It mixes beautifully with anything, actually, but I'm especially fond of blending it into a warm white (a Titanium/Zinc plus Yellow Ochre, say, or Old Holland's Brilliant Yellow). I love the harmonious contrast between the resulting yellowish-pink in proximity to the mauves and violets you get from mixing it with blue.

Closeup of a painting of mine using various mixtures employing caput mortuum
On a related note, I stumbled upon this mixing chart some guy made using Anders Zorn's very limited (three colors!!) palette (ivory black, cadmium red deep, and yellow ochre + white used as a value-adjuster, not a hue). These can be used to make many gorgeous colors including a variety of Mars violet-like tones.

Just a fraction of what ivory black, cad red deep, and yellow ochre can do together.

Ridonculous Anders Zorn painting presumably done with just the three colors above, Sommerabend, 1894

 Incidentally, Zorn's palette forms the basis of celebrated landscapist Scott Christensen's work.

Christensen rocking the Zorn palette with the addition of ultramarine blue.
There's a lot of caput-color in this, though I don't think he uses the pigment. One of the best things about oil painting has got to be the alchemy of mixing colors.

An artist mixing colors in his studio.


  1. Fascinating! Thank you for sharing the ghoulishness :) Is the moth one of yours? The Egyptians cursed anyone who disturbed their remains. I wonder how Martin Drolling did after painting with them...

  2. So glad you enjoyed it Jen. Elaine: the moth is not one of mine, though as you no doubt already know, I rather wish the handsome feller were.

  3. What a fascinating post, I use OH colours exclusively but never Kaput Mortem, will add it to the next order! Am also now rather wanting a death head moth....

  4. Catherine- haha! Treat yourself (yes to the caput but more importantly to the MOTH!) I hear they make great pets....;-)

  5. Thanks for the instructive insights. Just finished Vreeland's Lisette's List which in addition to discussing German treatment of impressionist painters and paintings told more about OCHRE than I thought I'd ever need to know.

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