The Bizarre History of Artists' Pigments


The Bizarre History of Artists' Pigments

The compulsion for humans to make and leave marks is so utterly human, we find our curious and creative marks going back to the beginning of recorded history. It is an inherent urge amongst humans. Creative expression is what separates humanity from the other Great Apes. Making marks was a manner of communication and intergenerational learning that predated the written word.  Paintings became a supplement to oral traditions and a framework for the survival of the Homo Sapien species.  Later pigment was used to symbolize wealth and power.  In modernity, dye and pigment have been used to ask society's questions. Yet, even on the canvases of cutting-edge, contemporary artists, ancient earth pigments still find a place. But what is a pigment? Pigments are ground materials like rocks or clay suspended in a medium like oil, water, or an acrylic base. Dyes are a little different; they are chemicals dissolved into a medium. Suspended objects stay substantive. Dissolved chemicals undergo a physical change. Both are used to create art objects and their development tells an important story in human history.


Pigment in the Paleolithic Era

Some of the earliest records of intentional markings occurred during the Paleolithic Era between 17,000 and 15,000 B.C.E. Examples of this art can be seen in the cave of Lascaux in France or Alta Mira in Spain.  These pictures depict daily life, explaining everything from hunting, gathering, and funerary rites. Early humans likely used the paintings in conjunction with coming-of-age rituals. Caves, by their very nature, are dark and hidden.  The youth entering the cave would leave enlightened after elders illuminated life's realities as a hunter-gatherer with a torch. Ritualistic behavior and realistic depictions of wildlife suggest the early elements of society.

Interior of Cave in Lascaux, via Wikimedia Commons

To make these striking, secret paintings, the Paleolithic people would need some form of pigment. They used what was around them. The shades of red and yellow came from ochre or clay-like sediments. Ochre is still used in paintings today. Tribal elders added the contrast with the use of black and white pigment. White came from the natural chalk deposits near the caves.  The black pigment was a bit more complicated. To get the darkest darks, sooty remains of fires provided black coloring. However, this was no briquette or piece of burned wood. It did not smell like a Feu de Bois candle. These pigments came from burned animal fats. Earth pigments used in the Paleolithic era were crude and sometimes smelly but still have a foothold in art. Artists continue to use charcoal, chalk, and ochre.

Read also: Caravaggio's Untold Secrets


Edward Burne-Jones,
Temperantia, via Wikimedia

Pigment in the Ancient World: Pioneers of Innovation

The Egyptians made a statement with their pyramids and the incredible treasures left inside the architectural marvels. 

They took the knowledge from their Paleolithic forebears and improved upon them by washing and purifying the pigments. In turn, they created brighter colors and a more substantial impact.

The Egyptians used readily available stones, minerals, and even local plant-life.  They are famous for their use of azurite, malachite, and cinnabar which create fantastic blue, green, and red shades, respectively.  The use of cinnabar is particularly notable. It marks an introduction to bright red pigments. Remarkably, millennia later, these pigments are nearly as bright as the day the Egyptians painted them. Around 3000 BCE, Egyptians figured out how to harness copper oxide's power to create the turquoise blue also known as Egyptian Blue. They did this by combining copper and glass at high heat. 

The Egyptians made many contributions to pigment-making. Their most shocking contribution came during the 17th Century when artists such as the Pre-Raphaelites used a warm brown, called mummy brown in their artwork. Once they understood the grisly reality of painting with ground mummies, they sought other pigments.

Within a similar period, China developed similar violet and blue hues. They are known as Han blue and purple, respectively. Development began during the Western Zhou period (1045-771 BCE) and lasted until the Han period (220 CE). This pigment also harnessed the power of copper oxides and their interplay with barium and lead. If that sounds like a vaguely radioactive concoction, you are correct. Welcome to the wild world of pigments. The most effective ones tend to be the most poisonous. Lead is dangerous, but it is also an excellent binder. Due to strong bonding, it makes a perfect paint; it will cover anything. However, that also means it will bind to other organic materials, including red blood cells, as we now know.

Lady Escabia, Egyptian symbols, via Pexels


One of the most significant technological advancements for pigments was the lake. Lakes are organic, vegetal dyes. Natural dyes combine with mordant to create a stable pigment. Mordants are usually inert metallic salts; anyone who has mixed dyes for tie-dye has dealt with mordants. Not often are the sexy, dangerous heavy metals involved with lakes. A famous example of a lake still used today is Rose Madder Genuine. It's a crown jewel among Winsor & Newton's color catalog and uses the madder plant's root. While these are natural and less poisonous, they are also not as colorfast due to the lack of strong binders such as lead. The etymology of the term lake breaks down its gooey origin.  Lake or lac comes from an Indian insect, Laccifer lacca, whose secretions had a transparent red pigment. Carmine red is another insect-based color. It is also where the word lacquer originates.

Ylanite Koppens, Paint Tubes, via Pexels


One cannot discuss classical antiquity and pigment without bringing up Tyrian Purple. The violet shade became associated with royalty and influential people such as the Roman senators who wore the toga praetexta.  This shade is sometimes called Phoenician Red. It is a warm violet shade close to magenta and named for Tyre. A city located in present-day Lebanon. The pigment comes from the mucus of predatory snails, known as murex snails. As one would imagine, this was a complicated and expensive process, collecting special mucus, and hence was reserved only for the wealthy few. At the same time, in Greece, artists developed new shades of white. Notably, lead white. A concoction of lead strips, vinegar, and animal dung were its constituent ingredients. It was not only quite poisonous but also odiferous. The opacity of this stinky brew remains unmatched by other paints.

Read also: Light Symbolism in Art of Different Religions


Renaissance, Baroque, & Early Modern: Old Masters, New Colors

The Italians focused on earthy pigments that reflected the Tuscan countryside. They would roast sienna and umber to create the rich browns and reds found in paintings of the time. Umber and sienna both have raw states which are lighter than their roasted or burnt counterparts. Umber and sienna are ferruginous earth or carbonates of iron found in limestone. Terre Verte or earth green comes from ore mined in the Tuscan town of Verona. Similar deposits exist in Poland and France. Rennaissance artists used this shade of green to create skin tones as an under coloring. Earth green is well known for its opacity. While it may be light green, it is a very permanent pigment, as are all earth colors due to their durable, chemical components. 

Pixabay, Curious Cows in a Field, via Pexels

What do cows have in common with pigments? Quite a lot!

During the Mughal Empire (1526-1857); farmers fed cows a diet of mango fruit and mango leaves that led to very yellow urine. The urine was dried to a powder and used as a watercolor and to create flesh tones. Talk about a natural pigment!


Lapis lazuli Block,via Wikimedia

That Particular Shade of Blue 

But wait—there's more! Paintings from this era were not neutral; they used a wide variety of colors.

Notably, Italian artists used a particular shade of blue for the veil worn by the Madonna.  

This sacred shade owes its majesty to the mineral lapis lazuli, a blue stone found in Afghanistan. It created a true ultramarine blue when powdered. Although given the rarity of the fine gem, it was prohibitively expensive. The expensive hue highlighted the stature of the Madonna in society.

With modernity came increased trade routes, knowledge, and science. Soon there were more options presented for formerly pricey pigments.  In 1704, Johann Diesbach accidentally created what we call Prussian blue in the lab. Not long after, in 1828, Jean-Baptiste Guimet discovered a synthetic ultramarine, known as French blue. Chemically, this pigment is precisely like the prohibitively expensive powdered lapis but more refined, as the lab-created color lacks the impurities found in nature.  

The laboratory's breakthroughs can be owed in part to the isolation of elements, bringing a deeper understanding of which chemicals create stable colors. Frontiersmen discovered deposits of chrome in North America. Chrome offers the same benefits of opacity that lead has, without the toxic side effects of lead.

In 1834 Winsor & Newton created Chinese white, which involves heated zinc oxide.  However, the most notable pigment breakthrough of the 19th century is the discovery of Alizarin.  In the lab, two teams of scientists, one in Germany and one in Great Britain, were able to synthesize a shade of red only found in the madder plant's roots. The transparent, blue-red crimson that artists had been vying for since the early modern period.

Matti Blume, via Wikimedia Commons

Chrome yellow is a shade with which almost everyone is familiar. The inorganic pigment is used to paint school buses, and, perhaps oddly, sports cars. Lead oxide bonds to chromium to create the iconic colorant.


Impressionism: Age of the Pigment Masters

Even the uninitiated can speak to the Impressionist era. This knowing is partly due to the shocking use of color that allowed artists to obscure reality into their painterly 'impression' of a particular moment. Monet used stunning oranges, pinks, and greens to depict his ocean scenes at sunrise or his verdant landscapes from his gardens in Giverny. Van Gogh's usage of color reflected aspects of his insanity as he employed yellows, blues, and purples to describe his world.  Even Paul Gauguin depicts his life in Tahiti using sun-dappled denim shades, purples, and rich colors befitting his surroundings.  

Vincent Van Goh, Irises via Wikimedia

How did these artists harness pigments with such precision? Before this era harnessing the power of pigment was something akin to alchemy. While artists could purchase their pigments, they were not stable very long.

Tupperware was not an option for early modern artists. Instead, they could use nature’s bag, the bladder, to store their paints. The 19th century introduced paint stored in metal tubes, not unlike what exists on shelves of art supply stores.

Packaging not only allowed paints to have a shelf-life in the atelier but also allowed artists to venture into the outdoors, as the Impressionists did. The pigments were bright, portable, and stable. Trains helped create a reliable supply chain for art supplies. Artists could receive their far-fetched stains, and manufacturers had more options for creating pigment both in-lab and through natural components.  

Claude Monet, Wheatstacks (End of Summer) via Wikimedia Commons

Cadmium yellow was popularized with its use by impressionists. The pigment is well-known for its colorfast properties and is a reason why we are still able to enjoy Monet’s landscapes with dappled sunshine today.


Yves Klein, International Klein Blue (IKB)
via Wikimedia Commons

Primary color of pigments could not be discussed without discussing Yves Klein’s perfect shade of ultramarine blue. In 1960 the artist trademarked the hue in France and continued to use IKB in his work.





In the context of contemporary viewers, color is unimportant. All-day, we are bombarded by bright colors in 4K and HD.  Today's color has almost divorced itself from its pigment forebears, relying on light and shades of cyan, magenta, and yellow. The colors of light rely on an entirely different logic from pigment. It is easy to forget that the vast spectrum of color available to the average person has a pedigree in pigment. Artists' pigments were not easy to come by or simple to conceptualize. Creating pigment, even in its more rudimentary phases, involves a keen understanding of science. The soot from wood was not suitable for the cave paintings because it would not stick to cave walls long enough to be used across generations—instead, the oilier soot of burned fats was sought out for its permanence. Artists also needed to know what colors could be made more potent by heating oxides or that natural colors would not withstand time without salt to stabilize them.  Incredibly, humans kept studying and deepening their knowledge of the knowledge of pigments and the chemical processes that enhanced their usage across time, just another reminder that art, the human response to color, beauty, and symbolic meaning is not superfluous to society but one of the very things that sustain us. 


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Nicole Lania is an art historian and writer who has years of experience finding genuine creativity in a world of thinly veiled reproductions. She earned a master’s degree from New York University with a focus on contemporary art and writing; her thesis was on the impact Christo’s The Gates had on the cultural capital of Central Park and the surrounding neighborhoods.  She can be found walking her dog, Tucker through the New England wilderness or baking pastries in her kitchen. Nicole can be found on Instagram @nik.lania, Twitter @NicoleLania1, or her website

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n.d. Han Purple and Han Blue. Accessed January 11, 2021.

Winsor and Newton. 2020. A Brief History of Pigments. Accessed January 10, 2021.