Pigmentsd in Art


Red, black, brown, white and ochre were part of the color palette artists used in cave paintings. The first pigments, invented about 40,000 years ago, were a combination of soil, animal fat, burnt charcoal, and chalk, but since then, the number of colors available to the artists has continued to grow. Let’s review the fascinating history of some of the colors most loved in art.

RED is one of the oldest pigments still in use, perhaps the first color ever created by men. First made with iron-rich soil (red ochre), new shades of red were added to the artist’s palette during the centuries. From the incredibly poisonous Cinnabar, much loved by the Romans, to the Vermillion and Carmine reds, the first a favorite of Raphael’s and the latter a deep red pigment derived from a cochineal insect, to the more modern Cadmium red, a bright red hue discovered in Germany in 1817 that Matisse was so fond of, red has dominated art history since the dawn of time.

GREEN, the color of nature, today associated with healthy products, is known for being one of the most poisonous pigments of all times. Scheele’s Green, invented by a Swedish chemist, is even suspected to have had a major part in the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, who’s bedroom wallpaper was tinted this color.
Another rather unhealthy color was Paris Green, much used by Renoir, Cezanne and Monet, and banned in the 1960’s.
The Romans made the green earth pigment that was used in the wall paintings of Pompeii and other Roman cities, but another pigment they widely used, called verdigris, was toxic and unstable. So much so that Leonardo Da Vinci himself, in his treatise on painting, warned artists not to use it.

Found in the cave of Altamira and Lascaux, and in hand paintings on rock walls in Australia, VIOLET is one of the oldest colors used by men.
The ancient Egyptians made a violet dye by combining the juice of the mulberry with crushed green grapes., so did the Romans using bilberry.
Violet has often been a color worn by the ecclesiasts, the royals and the wealthy. It does not surprise then, that when the mauve dye, discovered by accident in 1856 by a British chemist while trying to make a synthetic quinine, it became all the rage among the nobles of Europe of that period.

Associate with darkness, emptiness and death, it seems only fit that the color BLACK was made using consumed, dead things, such as charcoal or burned animal bones. A color for all that is evil, an idea reflected also in the world’s most famous illuminated manuscript, the Book of Kells, where the only figure completely painted in black carbon ink is that of the Devil.
As a matter of fact, in Medieval paintings the devil was often painted in black.
The Greeks also favored this color to paint their famous silhouettes on clay pottery, but those who have made the color black the favorite pigment in their art are the Eastern ink wash paint masters, who used only black ink to capture the spirit of their subject.
In 2014, an English company announced that it had created the darkest black ever seen, it traps light to such an extent that the surface looks like a void, and it is used by Artist Anisk Kapoor to achieve this very effect.

Made from chalk limestone, WHITE has been used since the first attempt at painting made by humans. It is considered the color of purity in most countries in the world, buti t has actually a very dark past. A way to make white without using chalk was through the use of lead and vinegar. The resulting pigment was extremely toxic for the presence of lead, but it was the most used in Eastern paintings until the 19th century when the zinc white and titanium white where invented and could be used it its stead.

YELLOW was associated with gold, and in Ancient Egypt, gold was considered to be eternal and indestructible. That’s why the Egyptians used yellow in tomb paintings to color the skin of the gods and of the deceased.
The color was vastly used in the Renaissance to paint the rich fabrics of the noblemen and noblewomen, but the painters who loved this color the most were certainly William Turner and Vincent Van Gogh. Turner’s paintings were dominated by yellow light to such an extent that some critics mocked him, saying that the he must have had a vision disorder.
Flowers wheat fields, hats, stars, skies: the color yellow is present in almost every painting made by Van Gogh, and it is certainly one of his signature colors along with blue.

BLUE is the most universally loved color, probably because it is also the color of the sky and the sea that always dominate our vision. It was also one of the last colors to be discovered or at least successfully turned into pigment by humans.
Egyptian blue was the first pigment to be synthetically produced around 2,200 B.C, using limestone, sand and azurite or malachite which contained copper.
Blue is also one of the most expensive pigments to produce. Ultramarine, a rich blue pigment made with lapis-lazuli and in use since the 6th century, was almost as expensive as gold and you had to be wealthy to buy it. Therefore it was only used for the most important commissions and for relevant elements in the paintings such such as the blue robes of the Virgin Mary.
In the 1950s, Yves Klein collaborated with a Parisian paint supplier to invent a synthetic version of ultramarine blue, and this color named International Klein Blue, became the artist’s signature.
In 2009, a new shade of blue was accidentally at Oregon State University. Named YInMn blue, after its chemical makeup of yttrium, indium, and manganese, the new blue is the first to be discovered since a French chemist created cobalt blue in 1802.

Pure pigments, not derive from the mixture with others, are limited and difficult to discover at this point, but the scientists are always looking for ways to create new colors and we can only hope that they will succeed!

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