What Crushed Art Pigments are Made From

Before modern innovations in art, ground pigments were derived from organic and mineral sources, some of which were unstable or lacked permanence. What were art pigments made from before their synthetic substitutes were developed?

Derivatives of White Pigment

White paint was originally derived from powdered gesso chalk or lime, sedimentary minerals found in abundance in rocks. But later, lead white was used for its high opacity and brilliance. Sadly, this toxic pigment was also used for priming, interior decor and cosmetics which made it the probable cause of illness. This color was banned in the late 20thc to be replaced with zinc white and titanium. Titanium white is made from an oxide that has high refractive index, meaning it causes light to scatter in different directions. With opacity and brilliance to match lead white, titanium white is commonly used today.

Where Blue Pigment Comes From

Ultramarine was originally made from the semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli which was hard to come by. Its modern French equivalent was made from aluminum silicate with sulfur. Until then, any blue pigment was thought to be a luxury in painting, so only the wealthiest could afford to commission an artist to use this color. This forced artists to use the less expensive azurite, a copper mineral or smalt, crushed glass composite with cobalt oxide. The only trouble was, some inferior blues were also unstable in that it faded with time. This effect can be seen in some early Italian art today.

Prussian blue was one of the first synthetic blues to be produced. Pthalo blue, another synthetic blue was made from treated organmetallic substance, a carbon composite of metal. These synthetic blue pigments meant that artists need no longer worry about the cost of blue pigment as it was cheaper to produce. Cerulean and cobalt blue came later.

Red Pigment Origin

Vermillion was originally made from a mercuric compound, favored by Titian. A derivative of cinnabar was used later. From then, the cadmiums took over. The cadmium range of colors, including cadmium red and yellow are made from cadmium sulfide (a metallic component) with a little selenium. Heat the selenium and the yellow becomes darker, or redder. The darkest red, carmine red was for centuries made from crushed cochineal beetles found in South America.

Where Yellow Ochre Comes From

Ochres and such earth colors were derived from clay and minerals making them the oldest pigments used. Earth colors have been found in cave paintings, some of which are blended with blood or charcoal. Yellow ochre, red ochre, brown ochre and purple ochre are produced from crushed clay containing mineral in various stages of oxidization. Red ochres’ rusty hues are attributed to minerals within the most advanced stages of oxidization.  Indian yellow, a brighter, clean yellow, was made from urine collected from cattle fed on mango leaves. In later years, cadmium yellow and lemon yellow made from cadmium sulfide enabled artists to mix clean yellows with high opacity and stability.


Earth Colors Through the Ages

Many other earth colors in addition to the ochres just mentioned were used for hundreds of years. Such colors bear the name of where they were originally produced, such as burnt sienna or raw umber (Siena and Umbria in Italy), although these locations no longer have bearing upon their synthetic counterparts. Interestingly, a commonly-used brown pigment, mommia, was made from ground corpses from Egyptian mummies, and even cuttlefish.

Bright Orange Colors

Pure orange colors could be produced by chrome or realgar, (an arsenic sulphide) which were favorites of the impressionists. Such bright yellow can be seen in Monet’s sunsets and gardens. Cadmium orange was produced by heating the selenium element of metallic cadmium sulfide.

Source of Green Pigments

Green, being a secondary color was produced by the blending of traditional blue and yellow ground pigments such as ultramarine and cadmium. Sap green, made from buckthorn berries, and olive green are two traditional greens used for hundreds of years, but emerald green, a compound containing arsenic was banned for its toxicity. Viridian a modern synthetic alternative is unequalled for its tinting strength and purity.

Crushed Black Pigments used in Art

Black pigments were (and still are) made from crushed carbonized bones or charcoal such as ivory black and lamp black. Mars black is made from an iron oxide. Earlier versions of black were known as ‘carbon black’ or ‘bone black.’ Other black pigments were made from charred vine leaves.

What Pigments are Made From

Pigments were traditionally made from a range of organic and mineral compounds, some of which were toxic, lacked permanence or were costly to produce. The ochres are some of the oldest pigments used by man; the cadmiums some of the newest. Others were discovered by accident or experimentation. Some of these traditional pigments are still being produced today in the form of artist range of paints, but can be quite costly to produce. Their synthetic counterparts (tagged ‘hue’ on the art tube) are cheaper and in some cases equal their traditional version regarding tinting strength and permanence.
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