Rublev Colours Mars Brown, Transparent Iron Oxides, and Chromium Oxide Green Oil Paints

By Virgil Elliott

As a realist painter of long-standing, I’m very happy to now be able to add Mars Brown, Transparent Red Iron Oxide, Transparent Yellow Iron Oxide, and Chromium Oxide Green from Rublev Colours to my Number One Paintbox and my palette. My preference is for oil paints with no stabilizers in them, just linseed oil and pigment, and I know of no other brand that meets those criteria. As Natural Pigments adds more of the colors I need to their Rublev Colours line of oil paints, I will retire those colors I have from other brands and replace them with Rublev Colours.

Mars brown is one of the paints listed in William Bouguereau’s notebooks, and it appears in mixtures with white in the flesh tones in his paintings of light-complected people, for which he is widely renowned among artists. Its high tinting strength makes it one of the ideal paints for tinting lead white for underpainting because so little of it needs to be added to lead white to create a range of values, thus allowing the underpainting’s primary ingredient to be lead white, which is the most perfectly suited paint for the underpainting of all oil paints in existence for its fast drying, its high pigment volume concentration, its superior film strength, and for the beneficial effects it imparts to all the paints in the ensemble. The white I use for underpainting is Rublev Lead White #1, which begins to set up in 6–8 hours and perfectly suits my painting ways.

I have eliminated umbers from my palette for reasons explained in my book, which I won’t bother to go into here because this is about Rublev Colours’ Mars Brown, Transparent Red Iron Oxide, Transparent Yellow Iron Oxide, and Chromium Oxide Green. With Mars brown on my palette, the absence of umbers is no great handicap. Mixed with bone black, it can substitute for burnt umber quite satisfactorily. Mixed with green, it can take the place of raw umber. Its high tinting strength means that if used primarily in mixtures, rather than alone, one tube of Rublev Colours Mars Brown will last a very long time. Mars brown, an iron oxide pigment, is as lightfast as any natural earth pigments, including burnt sienna. These are the most lightfast pigments in existence. It’s important to me that none of the colors in my painting will fade or change in any significant way for centuries (or ever, if that can be achieved. With Mars colors, that might well be possible.) Mars brown is more opaque than umbers and siennas.

Fortunately, Rublev Colours also has transparent red and yellow iron oxides, from which a wide range of dark, transparent browns and greens can be made by adding very small amounts of phthalocyanine green to them. For the browns, I mix Rublev Colours Transparent Red Iron Oxide with phthalocyanine green in varying proportions. The browns made in this way can take the place of all of the problematic browns used by the Old Masters, including asphaltum, bitumen, Van Dyke brown, mummy, and Cassel earth, without the problems those older browns brought to oil paintings. A lightfast substitute for the fugitive sap green used in former times, which was made from the juice of buckthorn berries, can be mixed with Rublev Colours Transparent Yellow Iron Oxide and phthalocyanine green.

As I wrote in my book, the Old Masters created the illusion of a full range of values in their paintings by having the darkest darks be transparent, which read darker by virtue of their absorbing more of the light that strikes them and releasing less to our eyes. The only white they had was lead white, which of course, is not as light as light in Nature, so they compensated by making everything darker than it was, keeping the relativity of the values as consistent with reality as the paints they had would allow. The deep, transparent browns and bone black made that possible. I follow those same principles in my work, but with the dark transparent browns made from Rublev Colours Transparent Red Iron Oxide with small amounts of phthalocyanine green. These I expect to hold up better than the ones used by the Old Masters, for good reasons.

Fortune Teller
Fortune Teller, Virgil Elliott, 2014, oil on panel

Rublev Colours Chromium Oxide Green is a staple on my palette as well, for its usefulness in flesh tone mixtures and, of course, in landscapes; in fact, anywhere where greens are needed. In flesh tone mixtures, it can be used in small amounts to reduce the redness of Mars brown or other colors that lean toward red. Mixed with burnt sienna in the right proportions, it makes a darker, more opaque version of raw sienna in one of the strings of yellowish flesh tones on my portrait palette. In mixtures with burnt sienna in different proportions, it finds many uses in landscape painting and in landscape backgrounds in portraits and figure paintings, et cetera. Chromium oxide green is opaque. In my work, I play opaque against transparent to exploit the respective optical effects created by each to enhance the illusion of three-dimensional depth, so it’s important to me to have opaque and transparent versions of the colors I intend to use in a given painting. Chromium oxide green is also reliable regarding lightfastness, confirmed by my own testing and that of others.

I hope to one day (soon, preferably) have all of the colors I need on my palette to be Rublev Colours. I’m leery of stabilizers in oil paints. The wise principle known as Ockham’s Razor (sometimes spelled “Occam”) states essentially that it is best not to make things any more complicated than they have to be. The more complex something is, the more things there are that can go wrong with it. With oil paints consisting only of linseed oil and pigment, it can’t get any simpler, i.e., any less complicated chemically, so there is good reason to trust them to remain problem-free for at least as long as oil paintings made with just pigment and linseed oil have lasted historically, and probably longer with these newer iron oxide pigments. I eagerly await Rublev Mars Yellow as the next improvement to my palette.

Virgil Elliott, August 26, 2020

Northern California-based artist Virgil Elliott is the author of Traditional Oil Painting—Advanced Techniques and Concepts from the Renaissance to the Present, currently published in an updated edition by Echo Point Publishing. He has been an active member of the ASTM Subcommittee on Artists’ Paints and Materials since 1996 and is ranked a Living Master by the Art Renewal Center.