Written By Lingkar Dunia on Sunday, November 15, 2009 | 10:39 AM

Occasionally research turns up the most wonderful tidbits of information. Unfortunately, those tidbits are usually irrelevant to the actual topic, but they make the world a really, really fascinating place for a few special moments.

This happened when I started wondering about Parkinson's paints. Parkinson, of course, was Sydney Parkinson, the natural history artist who was employed by Joseph Banks, and voyaged on the Endeavour with Captain Cook and Tupaia. In Tahiti, or so Banks related in his journal, Parkinson was forced to sit under a mosquito net while painting in the open. Because of the fascinated crowd? So he could share his craft with Tupaia (who took up art himself) in semi-private?

It was because of the flies. Wrote Banks, "they eat the painters colours off the paper as fast as they can be laid on." Well, it was not a surprise that there were so many flies, as every nobly born Tahitian carried his personal fly-whisk. But I did start to wonder what the flies ate. They surely were not interested in the water dilutant of the water colors, Tahiti not being the desert, so it must have been the pigment.

Accordingly, I searched the web for anything about pigments and found a lively web exhibit, Pigments through the Ages. The pigments are inorganic, mostly, or so I found. Red, for instance, was mercuric sulphide, while the browns, oranges, and yellows are based on ochres. Surely the flies did not eat that! But then I found that blue came from indigo, or woad leaves, which had been fermented with . . . wait for it . . . human urine.

But there was another, even more fascinating, wrinkle. That urine had to be highly alcoholic, so the dyers prepared for the job by getting thoroughly drunk. The actual dyeing process happened on Sundays. The pieces of cloth were dunked in the tubs of alcoholic urine and left overnight, and on Mondays the hungover dyers hung them up in the air, and the cloth gradually turned bright blue.

Hence the term "Blue Monday."


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