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The History of Pigments and Paint: Cave Paintings to Modern Art

40,000 years ago, primitive artists who painted murals on cave walls and stony outcrops invented the first pigments from easily available resources; a selection of
History of Pigments and Paint
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How did Vermeer lay his hands on that brilliant Ultramarine Blue? And Van Gogh, where did he find that gorgeous Indian Yellow? Did it really come from India? These and many such questions have run through my head as I’ve admired some extraordinary paintings created long before artificial pigments came into existence. After some research and the discovery of the amazing stories behind pigments and paints used by the Masters, I decided to share some of these tales here.

Cave Paintings

40,000 years ago, primitive artists who painted murals on cave walls and stony outcrops invented the first pigments from easily available resources; a selection of red and yellow coloured clay, brown earth, white chalk and minerals. Black came from the soot created by burning animal fat. Perhaps the best known early cave paintings can be seen at Lascaux in France.

Paint in Ancient times

As societies advanced around the world, there grew a demand for other colours and experiments by the Egyptians and the Chinese resulted in a slew of new hues. For example, sand, lime, and copper ore were mixed together and heated to make a greenish blue pigment called Egyptian blue in 3000 BC; a vibrant red was produced by mixing and roasting together hazardous mercury with sulphur; and lead white paint was made by the Greeks by sealing strips of lead in earthenware pots with vinegar and covering them with manure. Earth colours were cleaned and washed, increasing their strength and purity, and new pigments appeared from minerals such as malachite, azurite and cinnabar. 

Egyptian blue pigment
Egyptian Blue was created in 3000 BC

In China, the brilliant red that came from vermilion (powdered cinnabar) was developed 2,000 years before it was used by the Romans. The Egyptians also developed vegetable dyes and discovered the “lake” making process of producing pigment, the basis of which is still used by paint manufacturers today to produce Rose Madder Genuine. A lake pigment is an organic pigment made by precipitating a dye with an inert binder, usually a metallic salt. 

Then there came the discovery of the brilliant Tyrian Purple also known as Royal PurpleImperial Purple, or Imperial Dye, a reddish-purple natural dye secreted by several species of predatory sea snails or rock snails originally known by the name ‘Murex’. In ancient times, producing this dye involved extracting the mucus by hand, from tens of thousands of snails, and as a result, the dye was expensive and affordable only by the elite. This pigment came to signify power and wealth and was used by both the Greeks and the Romans. 

Renaissance and Ultramarine Blue

With the rebirth of interest in art in Europe, the Italians threw themselves into developing a range of earth pigments by roasting sienna and umber to make the deep, rich red of Burnt Sienna and the rich brown of Burnt Umber. Earth colours featured heavily in their painting techniques, with terre verte (green earth) the principal under-painting colour for flesh tones.

As people began experimenting to create new, richer paint colours, they began using more opulent minerals to produce them. Around 6,000 years ago, a vibrant blue pigment called ultramarine (meaning “beyond the sea” in Latin) was created by crushing the semi-precious gemstone, lapis lazuli. Lapis lazuli was originally imported by the Egyptians from the mountains of Afghanistan in order to make jewellery and headdresses. However, once it was imported to Europe by Italian traders during the 14th and 15h centuries, artists extracted brilliant blue powder from the semi-precious stone. 

Girl with a Pearl Earring
Johannes Vermeer used ultramarine blue to paint the Girl with a Pearl Earring

The pigment was highly sought after among Medieval artists and was considered to be just as precious as gold. Artists used it to paint Madonna’s clothing, as a way of reflecting her status and power. Dutch Golden Age master Johannes Vermeer used ultramarine blue to paint the Girl with a Pearl Earring. He was so enamoured of the colour that he brought his family to the brink of bankruptcy by buying large quantities of it. It is believed that Michelangelo Buonarotti left his painting The Entombment (1500–01) unfinished because he could not afford to buy more ultramarine blue.

The Development of Oil Paints

The earliest paints used animal fat and saliva as a binding agent, and later—during the Middle Ages—artists used eggs to combine their pigments. However, by the 15th century, artists began using oils and dramatically transformed the art of painting.  The discovery of oil paints is often credited to Jan van Eyck, who perfected the technique of painting with oil. Since these paints could be mixed easily and applied smoothly, Renaissance artists like Van Eyck and Leonardo da Vinci built their paintings up in layers, adding depth and complexity to their work. This allowed them to create more detailed and realistic works that later influenced the works of other artists.

“Arnolfini Portrait,” 1434
Arnolfini Portrait, (1434) by Jan van Eyck

Oils dominated the art industry in Europe during the Renaissance era, and the continued development of international trade meant that artists could access more and more colours from across different trade routes.  A rich red dye called Cochineal Red is one example of a colour that was circulating during the time, brought to Europe by the Mexican Aztecs. It was extracted from female cochineal insects living on cacti and was used to create a beautiful crimson red.

Pigments Across the Globe

The opening up of trade routes in the 18th century, coupled with advances in technology and science, allowed for greater experimentation. In 1704, the German colour maker Johann Jacob Diesbach created Prussian Blue by accident in his laboratory. This became the first chemically synthesised colour. In 1828, the chemist Jean-Baptiste Guimet created a low cost blue, French Ultramarine. The artificial pigment is chemically identical to genuine ultramarine, but is physically finer and has none of the impurities of the lapis rock. The isolation of new elements in the late 18th century also played a part in providing new colours. The discovery of large chrome deposits in North America in 1820 eased the manufacture of Chrome Yellow, a highly opaque, low cost colour available in a variety of hues.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Virgin of the Rocks’
Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo Da Vinci

The isolation of zinc gave rise to Zinc Oxide White, which was used as an artists’ white in preference to Lead White, as it was less hazardous and more permanent, particularly in watercolour. However, it lacked opacity until 1834, when Winsor & Newton, pioneers in commercial paint manufacture, developed a method of heating the oxide to increase its opacity. This new type of zinc oxide was called Chinese white.

Alizarin or Mordant Red, also known as Turkey Red is arguably the most important organic pigment of the 19th century. Though the cultivation of madder plant from which the pigment was made, and the use of its ground root for dyeing by the complicated Turkey red process were known in ancient India, Persia, and Egypt; the use spread to Asia Minor only  around the 10th century and was introduced into Europe in the 13th, finally being used as a pigment in artists’ paints in the 19th century in Europe. It was found as a colourant in the roots of the madder plant, but independent work in both Germany and Britain managed to duplicate it synthetically in the laboratory – the first time this had ever been achieved. This more affordable synthetic pigment provided a shade of crimson of strong tinting strength and high transparency, and quickly gained popularity amongst artists.

Post-Impressionism (1886-1910)

One of the most astonishing discoveries I made was about a particular colour known as Indian Yellow used extensively by Vincent Van Gogh, a pioneer of the Impressionist Movement in Europe. It featured in a large number of his paintings, notably in the one titled ‘Starry Night’. 

Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh
Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh

Indian yellow is a complex pigment, but its origin and composition varies from source to source. Legend has it that the ‘pure’ animal version had a disagreeable odour, because according to a study by one Mr TN Mukharji in 1883, the colour was obtained from the concentrated urine collected from cows force fed a diet of mango leaves and water, in the district of Munger in Bihar. It was mostly used in India in the Mughal period and in Europe in the nineteenth century, before becoming commercially available around 1921.

Industrial Revolution and the Metal Tube

The explosion of new pigments during the 19th century, the invention of the metal tube in which paints could be stored, transported and easily used, and the arrival of the railways that helped distribute paints as well as allow for the cross-cultural spread of colours from around the world all combined to accelerate this movement. Bright new colours in portable, stable tubes and an easy method of travelling around the country helped give rise to some of the world’s most beautiful paintings across the globe.

Images courtesy: Wikipedia

Anjana Dutt is a writer, graphic designer, published poet, pianist, soprano, film maker, interior designer, photographer, single mom…you are as likely to find Anjana shooting her beloved Labrador, as you are to see her writing an article or designing a product. She spent 25 years in advertising, at Ogilvy and later J Walter Thompson. She rose to the position of Senior Creative Director was in charge of the films division in Calcutta, with several awards under her belt. As a columnist, she contributed articles fortnightly for three years titled ‘Elements of Style’ to The Telegraph newspaper. Launching herself anew as a Creative Consultant, her choice of independent projects have been as varied as her eclectic taste in music.

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