Real and Illusory Feathers: Pigments, Painting Techniques, and the Use of Color in Ancient Mesoamerica

Nuevo mundo - Mundos Nuevos. 2006; DOI 10.4000/nuevomundo.1462


Journal Homepage

Journal Title: Nuevo mundo - Mundos Nuevos

ISSN: 1626-0252 (Online)

Publisher: Centre de Recherches sur les Mondes Américains

LCC Subject Category: Geography. Anthropology. Recreation: Anthropology | History America: Latin America. Spanish America

Country of publisher: France

Language of fulltext: Portuguese, French, English

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Diana Magaloni-Kerpel


Double blind peer review

Editorial Board

Instructions for authors

Time From Submission to Publication: 12 weeks


Abstract | Full Text

For the last thirteen years I have studied the techniques used by ancient Mesoamerican painters in their creation of mural paintings. Although my interest has been to recreate the procedures followed by these painters in order to characterize the different traditions or schools that once existed in Mesoamerica, I have also focus on the creation of color it self. In this regard, I have realized that there seems to be a very conscious choice in the selection of raw materials to create color. That is, the surfaces of murals are colored not by the easiest and more available raw material but by the material that best suits the artistic and symbolic needs of the painters or the painting tradition. The amount of pigments used as raw materials and the ability to model, mix, and apply them in order to produce multiple other tones are characteristic of a painting school and I believe are determined by other cultural and symbolic constrains. Here is where feathers and pigments come together as raw materials to create particular colored surfaces with specific visual effects. The color code and the materials used to create that code are not secondary elements in a representation. That is, they are not only used to embellish the surfaces of a representation where concepts and ideas are created with a line drawing, but they have an important function as means of expression and reflect cultural categories by them selves. Color is characterized by three aspects: hue (tone or chroma, the color in itself), luminosity (the amount of black or white, called shade), and saturation (the amount of color, providing transparency and opaqueness). From the very start of the mural painting tradition in Mesoamerica the painters were interested in modeling pigments as to create three shades of a particular tone experimenting with luminosity and saturation. This is particularly evident in their representation of feathers. In this work I will reflect of the links between plumaria and the use of several techniques in the creation of color as to reflect upon the common visual and symbolic characteristics of the use of color in murals and in plumaria.