Copper in the Arts

May 2007

The History of Copper Arts

By William Del Governatore

Copper as an art medium dates back to the fourth millennium B.C. when creating tools from native deposits of pure copper were popular. The first known documented copper resources were in Cyprus, Greece, and, in fact, the name 'copper' is actually derived from Kupros, a Greek island. This magnificent mineral was created at the beginning of the second millennium B.C., and was used in the Near East and Egypt throughout most of the second millennium.

In 3000 B.C., in the Egyptian Fourth Dynasty, proof exists that a copper-based paint called Egyptian Blue, a mixture of malachite with silicate and limestone, was painted on buildings, parchments and other objects. Roman uses of copper-based paints are found at Pompeii, where volcanic ash preserved artwork that wasn't destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Yet, both ancient Romans and Greeks claim to have created the pigment verdigris, a bluish green color, by immersing copper plates in vats of fermenting grape leaves. The corrosion produced a blue crust that was washed and dissolved in vinegar, resulting in a deep green.

Copper was valuable, but the discovery of the Uluburun shipwreck, carrying Cypriot copper ingots when it sank off the southwestern coast of Turkey in the late fourteenth century B.C., proved that it was used for international trade. Soon, Renaissance painters like Rembrandt, Picasso and Goya used copper based pigments in painting and engraving plates for etchings and prints.

In Picasso's famous 1935 composition of Minotauromachy, which denotes power and tenderness, the copper plate was steel-faced: a thin electroplated steel coating was applied to the plate's surface to preserve the printing quality. When he completed Minotauromachy for a fifty-piece edition, even he wasn't sure how many of the final edition were printed, and only certain numbers exist.

Rembrandt, known for his oil paintings, copper etching plates and millennium impressions, also worked with metal. It's said that only 82 of the more than 300 copper etching plates are known to have survived centuries of war, proving the durability of copper.

Goya started his career as an engraver and used etchings or aquatint, (a type of water color), or a combination. Goya expanded aquatint's tonal and expressive range, and drew images and etched designs on plates before plates dipping the plate in an acid bath that bites the exposed areas and embeds the surface design. According to early documented information, the process was discovered in 1660 and is still used the same way by today's artists.


For more information, visit The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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