A Brief History of Color Pigments

A Brief History of Color Pigments

Becky Joy
  • The first evidence of decorative painting is of painting the body with charcoal and chalk as well as using earth colors of red ochre. In the beginning "paints" probably didn't last and washed away.
  • There is evidence of ochres and charcoal being used in caves possibly as old as 60,000 years. The colors were burnt wood from the fire, and yellowish and reddish clays. They were at first applied wet and allowed to dry.
  • Eventually a basic paint was  developed with the addition of animal fats, or honey or egg which made the paints more durable.
  • With the growing power and wealth in Egypt, artists were employed. This gave rise to the production of paints in new colors. Some of the pigments were malachite a natural green copper ore as well as the blue variant called Azurite. An impermanent yellow, Orpiment was discovered. It was known to be poisinous, but it was the only bright yellow. Blue Frit, basically a ground up blue glass, was the dark blue found in the Egyptian tombs. Later a green and yellow variety were discovered. White came from the mining of gypsum as well as the use of chalk. Lamp Black was the early black that was used. Red Earth and Cinnabar were the only reds. Madder and indigo were known to be used in the dying of textiles.
  • By the Roman period greens were added with green earth and verdigris. White Lead ((an artificial copper green) and green earth were added as greens as well as Manganese Oxides. White Lead (Flake White) was being made. It's known that the yellows, Massicot and Naples Yellow, Tyrian Purple, Burnt & Raw Umbers and Siennas, and Realgar, a yellow-red, were used. Paintings of Greek, Roman and Egyptian usually were encaustic (probably bee's wax).
  • Although impermanent, a bright red, the gum from a tree in Southweast Asia, was used for many centuries.
  • Most of these colors, with the exception of blacks and earths, the colors were often toxic or impermanent.
  • During the Dark Ages, two important colors came about . First, Vermillion, a poisonous but permanent bright red. The second was a bright, permanent blue known Ultra Marine, which came from Persia and Afghanistan.It was ground Lapis Lazuli. Eventually the production became more refined and revolutionized art.
  • After the Roman period and up to the Renaissance period the wax process was lost and replaced by the use of oil, most often olive oil, which had a very long drying time.
  • The illustration of bibles and the churches during the Renaissance preserved the processes of paint making.  The color range was still very limited, but many colors were still either too expensive, too impermanent, or too poisonous. During the Renaissance linseed oil, walnut oil and poppy-seed oil were used.
  • With all the painting at this time, only two major colors were developed, Naples Yellow and Red Lake (now Carmine) was developed into a wide range of colors. Red Lake came from the insect Cochineal in Central America and India. In India a similar insect called Lac is used to produce Shellac, the varnish.
  • A little later Gamboge, from the gum of a Southeast Asian tree, was developed. Although a bright and transparent yellow, it was impermanent.
  • In 1704 Prussian Blue was developed. It was soon after this during the Industrial Revolution that the variety of paints became widespread as we know them today.
  • Some of the 18th century discoveries were short lived. Bremen Blue was quickly replaced by Cobalt Blue. Cadmium Yellow replaced Turner's Yellow. Prussian Blue was almost totally replaced by Pthalo Blue.
  • The 19th century during the Impressionist movement brought a lot of new colors, a new one every 4 to 5 years.
  • 1802 - Cobalt Blue, 1804 - Cerulean Blue, 1809 - Chromium Green Oxide. Indian Yellow came from India, but cruelty to animals in the production banned its production. Cadmium Yellow - 1817. Then artificial and affordable paints were produced - Ultramarine, Zinc White, Rose Madder,  Viridian, Cobalt Violet, Emerald Green and Aureolin. Some were later found to be poisonous.
  • Artificial Iron Oxides provided more consistent and pure natural earth colors, such as Yellow Ochre and Mars Black.
  • Coal tar dyes were invented, the first being Mauve. They were impermanent, but have been changed to since that time and now are permanent.
  • During the 20th century a large range of permanent colors were in use. Hansa colors replaced Vermillion (Cadmium Red), a toxic color as well as Titanium White, also toxic. In 1935 the Pthalocyanines were discovered. Soon after Quinacridones and Perylenes were discovered. This was the time of the expressionist painters and their bright colors.

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