Mar 5, 2010


The History of Pigments
by Sharon Teal-Coray

There are so many pigments we have to use as artists. It is fun to see where they came from.
Before the industrial revolution the variety of colors that were available for art was strictly limited. Most that were used were mineral pigments from the earth. Some were made from botanicals. In the early 90’s I took a class at the University of Utah on ancient pottery making. We studied the Anasazi Indians of the southwest. After making our pottery we learned that the Anasazi’s made their black paint with a plant called Bee plant. They would boil this down until it was a thick black consistency. I had never heard of pigments being made from botanicals before.
Archaeologists have found evidence that our early relatives used paint for body decoration. They had natural pigments such as Iron oxides and ochres. In a cave at Twin Rivers, near Lusaka, Zambia they have discovered paint grinding equipment believed to be between 350,000 and 400,000 years old.
There are also some very interesting pigments that was harvested and traded over many miles made from animal waste, mollusks and insects. Some being very costly and hard to obtain. . Tyrian purple for instance is a pigment made from the mucus of one of several species of Murex snail. In1200 BCE the Phoenicians were making Tyrian Purple for use as a fabric dye. The Greeks and Romans continued this until 1453CE. Because the pigment was expensive and involved to produce items colored with it became associated with power and wealth. Just as purple and blue was associated with royalty because of the price of the pigments
Many manufactures of the pigments were secret.
Lapis Lazuli is one of the most expensive pigments used. It produces beautiful ultramarine blues. The old masters didn’t use blue much because if it’s cost. Because of this artists looked for other alternative blue pigments like mineral Azurite and biological Indigo.

After the New World was conquered by the Spanish new pigments were discovered. A dye and pigment resulting from a parasitic insect called Carmine was found in Central and South America, found great fame and worth in Europe. This was produced from dried and crushed cochineal insects.
Natives of Peru had been producing cochineal dyes for textiles for many years, but Europeans had never seen the color before. The Spanish invaded the Aztec empire they were swift to take advantage of the color for new trade opportunities. Next to Silver this pigment became the region's second most valuable export. This pigment gave the Catholic cardinals their energetic red robes and the English "Redcoats" their characteristic uniforms. Interestingly where this pigment came from was kept secret until the 18th century, when biologists discovered the source.
Europeans loved their Carmine, however blue was still an elite color, associated with the wealthy.
The Dutch master of the 17th century, Johannes Vermeer often used copious amounts of Lapis Lazuli along with Carmine and Indian yellow, in his vibrant paintings.
Some of the earliest pigments ever used are Red Ochre, Yellow Ochre, Carbon Black and Charcoal. They were found in in many Paleolithic and Neolithic cave paintings.
Synthetic pigments were used as early as the second millennium. Synthetic pigments are pigments that are manufactured from naturally occurring materials, available both for manufacturing and artistic expression. Lapis Lazuli was so expensive that the scientists put a great deal of effort into finding a pigment that cost less.
For many years pigments were known by the location where they were produced. Mineral pigments and clays often had the name of the city or region where they were mined. Raw Umber and Burnt Umber came from Umbria. Raw Sienna and Burnt Sienna came from Siena, Italy. The names are the same today.

White Lead and Egyptian Blue were two of the first synthetic pigments. White lead was made by combining lead with vinegar. Egyptian Blue is made from colored glass with copper ore such as malachite.
Dutch and Flemish painters of the 17th and 18th centuries preferred Indian Yellow for its luminescent qualities. This was made with urine of cattle that had been fed only mango leaves. It was found that mango leaves were not nutritionally good for the cows and was eventually confirmed to be inhumane. Our modern day Indian Yellow is made from synthetic pigments.
The semi-precious stone lapis lazuli has been replaced by an inexpensive modern synthetic pigment, French Ultramarine.

The first modern synthetic pigment was discovered by accident, it was Prussian blue. By the early 19th century there were more blues and metallic’s including a synthetic form of lapis lazuli, French ultramarine, and the an assortment of Cobalt and Cerulean Blue. Phthalo Blue, a synthetic, organic pigment with overwhelming tinting power was introduced in the early 20th century.
In 1856 Mauveine, the first aniline dye was a precursor for the development of hundreds of synthetic dyes and pigments. Next came a synthesized substitute for madder in the production of Alizarin Crimson. By the end of the 19th century reds, crimsons, purples and blues had become affordable.
Vermilion was favored by many old masters, one was Titian. Vermillion is a deep red-orange color. However it is very toxic and has been replaced by a variety of modern pigments such as cadmium reds.
I have painted with this color and loved the richness of it. You can still find it but, because of legal liability issues few manufacturers make it. Other pigments are much safer and react with other pigments less. It is very rare and expensive.
Now we can use vermillion Hue which is a good replacement.

As the modern color industry developed they found they needed to have an international standard for producing, measuring, identifying and testing color. identifying, producing, measuring, and testing colors.
By the middle years of the 20th century, standardized methods for pigment chemistry were available. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) develops technical standards for the manufacture of pigments and dyes.
Many manufacturers of paints, inks, textiles, plastics, and colors have voluntarily adopted the Color Index International (CII) as a standard for identifying the pigments that they use in manufacturing particular colors. In the CII plan, each pigment has a generic index number that identifies it For example; Phthalo Blue has been known by a variety of generic and proprietary names since its discovery in the 1930s. In much of Europe, phthalocyanine blue is better known as Helio Blue, or by a proprietary name such as Winsor Blue. Grumbacher, an American paint manufacturer registered an alternate spelling Thalo Blue, as a trademark. Color Index International resolves all these conflicting historic, generic, and proprietary names so that manufacturers and consumers can identify the pigment or dye used in an exacting color product. In the CII, all Phthalo Blue pigments are chosen by a generic color index number as either PB15 or PB16, short for pigment blue 15 and pigment blue 16. These two forms of Phthalo Blue, PB15 and PB16, reproduce slight variations in molecular structure that produce a slightly more greenish or reddish blue.

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