A Colorful History of Paints and Pigments

By Google Arts & Culture

Pleasant Landscape 1098 (2011) by Kim, Ik MoKorean Art Museum Association

As we plod along in the 21st century, we often take for granted our ability to go into a shop and choose from an infinite array of colors of paint. If you’re an artist, or you’re just changing the color of your bedroom walls, the endless choice of colors gives everyone the freedom to express their creativity in myriad ways.

For a long time, paint colors were only made from natural materials like minerals – some as expensive as gold – and ground up insects, so options were limited. So what happened since then? Below you’ll discover when paint was actually invented, how we got to a point where paints were freely available, and see some examples of when the quest to create new colors goes a little too far.

When was paint invented?

Tens of thousands of years ago, clever humans discovered that combining colored earth with a sticky liquid resulted in something that could be used to make a mark.

These primitive paints were often made from colored rocks, earth, bone, and minerals, which could be ground into powders, and mixed with egg or animal byproducts to bind the solution and make paint. Through this process patterns and stories could be painted onto rocks and inside caves in earthy tones, of black, white, yellow, and red.

With paint available, early people could express themselves and we gained an unparalleled insight into what life might have been like over 20,000 years ago from these cave-created works.

The transportation of materials and minerals widened as societies grew more sophisticated and this progress can be seen in ancient Greece and Egypt. With advances in technology, materials could now be imported from all over Europe and Asia to make paint and decorate temples. While a painter’s palette was still limited, the advanced processes that were beginning to be used to create paint widened the choice of colors. For instance sand, lime, and copper ore could be mixed together and heated to make a greenish blue pigment called Egyptian blue; a vibrant red was produced by mixing dangerous mercury with sulphur and roasting them together; and white was made by sealing strips of lead in earthenware pots with vinegar and covering with manure.

Saint Jerome in His Study (1435) by Jan van EyckDetroit Institute of Arts

The oil paint revolution

Coming into the 15th century, egg as a binding agent for paints was replaced by oils, which completely transformed painting. Their invention is credited to Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, though it’s thought oils were already in use before his time. His real achievement? The painted techniques he developed, which saw him building up oil paint layers from fast-drying to slow-drying and combining opaque with transparent pigments. These innovations enabled painters to create more detailed and realistics works as oil paint could be mixed more easily and applied in big strokes.

Lucca Madonna (1437) by Jan van EyckStädel Museum

Travelling hues

As European exploration continued, trade routes opened up across the world therefore making the discovery of new colors possible. Suddenly traders could transport new pigments and dyes. In the 16th century this really took off and many pigments were soon used extensively in European painting.

A great example of this is with the Spanish bringing cochineal to Europe – a red dye which had been used by the Aztecs and was made in Oaxaca (which at the time was called New Spain, and now Mexico). The dye was extracted from female cochineal insects living on cacti and was used to create a rich crimson color.

Woman Reading a Letter (c. 1663) by Johannes VermeerRijksmuseum

The price of color

Want to treat a loved one? Well how about getting them a pot of naturally made ultramarine paint. Coming into existence during the 900s, this intense blue was created using the mineral lapis lazuli and the color quickly infiltrated European palettes. Originating in Afghanistan, where lapis lazuli was and still is mined, the color was achieved by separating the brilliant blue powder from the semi-precious stone. The name ultramarine means “from beyond the seas” and it was as expensive as gold leaf. Even today, the natural version remains one of the most costly pigments around.

In the early Renaissance, the main binding medium was egg yolk, which created a quick drying matt paint. This meant the pigment had to be applied with distinctive brush strokes. Many famous artists around that time found themselves painting beyond their means with the color as the vibrant hue was admired by all. For instance Johannes Vermeer used the pigment a lot in his works, so much so that it left his family in debt. And for poor Michelangelo, his painting The Entombment was supposedly left unfinished because he wasn’t able to afford the ultramarine tint he was after.

A Young Woman seated at a Virginal A Young Woman seated at a Virginal by Johannes VermeerThe National Gallery, London

A chemistry lab of color

For all those cerulean lovers out there, a synthetic version of ultramarine was created in 1826. Before this, research into the creation of synthetic paint colors had been going on for decades as our understanding of chemistry advanced.

The first modern synthetic pigment is an old favorite, Prussian blue, which was discovered in the early 1700s by accident when a chemist was trying to make red. It was long-lasting but darker than ultramarine – again it offered new possibilities for artists. By August 1709, the pigment had been termed Preussisch blau. The Entombment of Christ, dated 1709 by Pieter van der Werff is said to be the oldest known painting where Prussian blue was used.

Over the next 100 years many more artificial colors were introduced, along with the aforementioned ultramarine. Apart from the range of new colors available, another benefit of the new chemical processes was that it started to drive prices down. By the end of the 19th century almost any color could be purchased for a relatively low price.

Melancholy Woman (1902) by Pablo PicassoDetroit Institute of Arts

The creation of industrially manufactured paints

The use of paint continued to increase and manufacturers of industrial paints began to make emulsions, glossy enamel, and house paints. Artists like Pablo Picasso liked to use industrial paints alongside the more traditional oil brands, as they allowed him to create unique colors and different textures – he particularly liked a type of enamel paint made by a firm called Ripolin.

Convergence (1952) by Jackson PollockAlbright-Knox Art Gallery

American abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock also favoured industrial paints. For his drip technique the artist needed a paint that would pour smoothly and so he turned to the new synthetic resin-based paints on the market known as “gloss enamel”. These paints were intended for spray painting cars or household decorating but the artist used this type of paint until his death in 1956. Pollock described his use of modern household and industrial paints, rather than artists' paints, as “a natural growth out of a need.”

Red Barn (1969) by Roy LichtensteinHuntington Museum of Art

Acrylic paint was invented in the 1940s and again transformed painting, quickly replacing oil in everyday paint. Acrylic paint is water-based, cheap, holds color well and dries quickly, so it became a no brainer for many artists.

Painters such as pop artist Roy Lichtenstein used them in combination with oil paint, giving the artist more control over his stylized works. Others such as abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis preferred synthetic acrylic paints for their richness of color, and the watercolor effects they could obtain by diluting them and letting them stain the raw canvas.

Even today the breadth of colors and finishes continue to grow due to developments in science, such as the creation of iridescent and fluorescent paints – a far cry from the earthy red and black formulations used on cave walls.

Gamma Lambda (1960/1960) by Morris LouisChrysler Museum of Art

Can you own a color?

There is a multitude of hues which have now become synonymous with certain figures or brands over the decades. Take the Tiffany blue associated with the luxe jewellery brand, a robin egg blue color that was first used by the company in 1845. Or the particular shade of purple (Pantone 2685C to be specific) associated with Cadbury since it wrapped its confections in the shade to honor Queen Victoria in the 1800s. While these colors might be trademarked in some roundabout way, they don’t actually own the color of course. Though it hasn’t stopped people from trying.

Portrait Relief of Claude Pascal (1962) by Yves KleinGalleria Civica di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea Torino

In 1960, the French artist Yves Klein took out a patent for International Klein Blue (IKB), a deep, matt shade of blue that he developed with a Paris paintmaker and used in a series of monochrome blue paintings. In recent years the shade has been adopted by the Blue Man Group and a sister shade can be seen at Marrakech’s Majorelle Gardens. Here artist Jacques Majorelle also trademarked a bewitching blue hue, called Majorelle Blue, which has been painted over the walls, the fountains, and surroundings of his garden.

Large Blue Anthropometry [ANT 105] (1999) by Yves KleinGuggenheim Bilbao

A more extreme case started in 2014, when Surrey NanoSystems developed Vantablack, the blackest black ever, absorbing up to 99.96% of visible light. Made up of a series of microscopic vertical tubes, when light strikes the pigment it becomes trapped instead of bouncing off, and is continually deflected between the tubes. The color was developed to use on stealth satellites, but in 2016 British artist Anish Kapoor seized the exclusive rights to the material. NanoSystems publicly confirmed that Kapoor alone could use the color when the artistic community went into a flurry.

In retaliation British artist Stuart Semple created a fluorescent pink pigment known as the “world’s pinkest pink”. The cerise hue is available to all artists except Kapoor, who is legally banned from purchasing it. Sold in 50g pots for £3.99 on the artist’s website for no profit, customers must confirm when purchasing that the “paint will not make its way into the hands of Anish Kapoor”.

Anish Kapoor, Dark Brother, 2005 by Anish KapoorMadre - Donnaregina Contemporary Art Museum

Not one to be beaten, Kapoor has of course flouted the ban and somehow got his hands on Semple’s fluoro pink. In December 2016, Kapoor posted a picture of his middle finger dipped in the paint to his Instagram account with the caption "Up yours #pink". While some criticized Kapoor for his childish reaction, Semple has continued to create pigments that are not allowed to be shared with Kapoor, including the “world’s most glittery glitter”, the “world’s greenest green” and the “world’s yellowest yellow”.

For many artists color and the type of paint they use can be a defining characteristic in their work. color can change the mood of a piece or conjure a particular meaning. The development of paint and the subsequent array of pigments now available has opened up the possibilities for artists and allowed them to directly translate what’s going on in their imagination straight onto the canvas.

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