Prof. Theo de Beer about Caput Mortuum Violet or Dead Head

In the section  “Prof. Theo de Beer about ….”  we share with you articles from the unpublished book of Professor Theo de Beer “Everything about art materials”. Prof. Theo de Beer managed the Old Holland company from 1982 till 2000 and made a huge contribution to its development.

The colour Dead Head, which is called ‘caput mortuum’ in Latin, was first made around 1550. The residue left over from the production of sulphuric acid from iron vitriol was called ‘colcothar’. The first legend, and the most likely one, is that this name was exchanged with ‘Golgotha’, which means skull or dead head in the Semitic dialect.

Vanitas Still Life with a Tulip, Skull and Hour-Glass by Philippe de Champaigne

The second legend has it that the brown colour that tends towards violet matched the colour of the pigments that were made from mummies. The third legend is that at the microscopic scale, the shape of the pigment looks like the shape of skulls. So there are three different legends for why the colour was called Dead Head or Caput Mortuum. The colour, which was lightfast and had an opaque effect, is currently composed of synthetic iron oxide, as described in the Mars colours; the Mars violet.

Caput Mortuum watercolour painting

Check these colours for the Caput Mortuum pigment

Old Holland Classic Oil Colours

A66 Caput Mortuum Violet (Mars)

New Masters Classic Acrylics

A725 Caput Mortuum Violet (Mars)

Old Holland Classic Watercolours

A66 Caput Mortuum Violet (Mars)