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20/03/2019

Verdigris Brass

Find out what verdigris is, where does it come from, how do we use it at Rupert Bevan and why do we drink wine after producing it!

The most vibrant green available to artists for much of history, verdigris was used throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance and all the way up until the 19th century.  But it’s a fickle color — transparent with a tendency to turn brown or black over time.  It was most common in manuscripts and oil paintings where artists tried to keep it stable, often using it over a base of lead white, and layered with yellow ochre, transforming the bluish-tint into a vibrant, true green.  “A green copper pigment like verdigris is notorious for behaving in ways that are inconsistent and not fully understood,” explains Arthur DiFuria of Moore College of Art & Design. DiFuria is Assistant Professor and Visiting Scholar in Art History and Curatorial Studies, and specializes in Northern Renaissance art.  “What we look at now isn’t necessarily always what it [a painting] looked like when it was done, or what the artist intended.”

The fact that verdigris is an exceptionally changeable pigment is its most fascinating aspect.  All pigments change somewhat over time, but verdigris can have wide mood swings.  While it is generally thought to be light-fast in oil paintings, it has very little light or air resistance in other media.  In an effort to protect the color, painters would sometimes apply verdigris along with layers of varnish.

The name comes from the French “vert de gris,” which roughly translates to “green of Greece,” and in fact, recipes for verdigris are found throughout ancient literature and include ingredients like salt, honey, vinegar and even urine to be applied to copper plates in order to cause the necessary chemical reaction.  In France, verdigris pigment was produced in conjunction with wine, as the acetic acid of fermenting grapes was found to be an efficient catalyst to quickly rust copper.  The bluish green patina was then scraped off the metal and ground into pigments.

Interestingly, the French verdigris industry of the Middle Ages was almost exclusively controlled by women.  Despite the stringent guild guidelines of the time that normally excluded women from becoming skilled laborers, the production of verdigris thrived as a successful matriarchy, even becoming the main supplier of verdigris pigment for most of Europe.  Centered in Montpellier, copper plates were imported from Sweden, and alongside the wine industry of the area, verdigris was produced and ground with expert timing and skill.  No one is sure why this trade in particular fell to women, but it’s well documented that the practices were passed down from mother to daughter, growing an industry in which women could support themselves.

Another surprising tidbit about the women of Montpellier: while increased verdigris use meant poisoning was becoming increasingly common — causing symptoms of nausea, anemia, or even death — when 19th century scientists went to the source of the verdigris to study the health of the women who produced it, they found nothing.  The women who spent every day dusted in verdigris powder were perfectly healthy.  One scientist hypothesized that the fumes of wine that women were exposed to daily helped them develop an immunity to the toxicity of verdigris, but nonetheless, these industry-creating, toxicity-defying women were anomalies to be sure.

At Rupert Bevan we create a verdigris patina on brass sheets for various applications (and we drink wine afterwards, just in case).  Bar fronts, cabinet door finishes or wall paneling installations.  Due to the changing faces of the verdigris coloring various recipes deliver different results, yet not one exactly the same.  The beauty of this natural process.  We lacquer the finish with either a matt lacquer (to look more natural and untouched or gloss if preferred) in order to stop further oxidization and increase longevity of the colour.  Verdigris is a surface patina and the lacquer seeps through the patina in order to bond it to the brass.

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