Some Notes on the History of Paint / by Chris Hall

Paint is composed of two elements, a pigment and a binder.  The pigment, a ground up granular like powder, gives the paint its color, while the binder acts as a glue to bind the pigment to a surface, whether that be a cave wall, a canvas, or a piece of paper.  

In 2011, the earliest example of paint was found in South Africa.  It dates back 100,000 years.  The first paints were composed of pigments derived from the earth, such as clays and sand, and animal derivatives, such as charred animal bones.  The first artists used spit and animal fat as a binder.  Later, as our ancestors developed a taste for honey, eggs, and milk, egg white, egg yolk, bee’s wax, and milk was used as a binder.  

In search of a more permanent and harder solution, binders derived from plants developed, such as linseed oil (used in oil painting) and gum Arabic (used in watercolor).  When linseed oil became a scarce commodity during the Second World War, synthetic binders made from artificial resins emerged and Acrylic paint was born.

The history of pigment development is one of a search for new colors, permanence (fade resistance), affordability, and less toxicity.  In this regard, the general trend has been to move away from organic and earth derived pigments, and toward synthetic pigments.  

Some interesting examples of obsolete pigments include:

Indian Yellow

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Indian Yellow was made from the urine collected from cows that were force feed a diet of mango leaves.  The urine was collected and dried, producing small foul-smelling balls of raw pigment called “purree.”  Cows do not digest mango leaves very efficiently as the leaves contain a toxin similar to poison ivy.  Consequently, the cows were often thin and malnourished.  Apparently, even though the cow was/is considered sacred by many in India, they did not think anything about profiting from the starvation of cows.  The practice of producing Indian Yellow was declared inhumane and outlawed in 1908.

Mummy Brown

The use of Mummy Brown as a pigment dates from the 16th century to the early 20th century.  Like the name implies, it was derived from the ground-up remains of Egyptian mummies.  The pigment, falling between burnt umber and raw umber in color, was good for producing transparent effects in glazing, shadows, and flesh tones, and was a favorite color in the palette of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.  The pigment quickly lost its popularity once the secret to its composition became generally known to artists.  The Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones was reported to have ceremonially buried his tube of Mummy Brown in his garden when he discovered its true origins.  By this time, however, the supply of available mummies had become exhausted, and with the birth of modern Egyptology, new mummies were no longer forthcoming.  Sometimes this pigment was alternatively named Caput Mortuum (latin for “Dead Head” or “Worthless Remains”).  Caput Mortuum is also an Alchemical term for the useless residue left over from processes such as Sublimation and is symbolic of decay and decline.  Alchemists represented Caput Mortuum in their art and texts by using a stylized Death's Head  symbol.


Ultramarine Blue

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The name Ultramarine is from Latin meaning “beyond the sea,” referring to the distance one had to travel in order to obtain it.  Ultramarine Blue is an expensive pigment sourced from Lapis Lazuli, a semi-precious stone mined in Afghanistan.  Lapis Lazuli was also extremely difficult to grind-down, filter, and refine into a high quality pigment.  In Renaissance times, wealthy patrons would commission works using Ultramarine Blue as a status symbol (stipulating its use in their contracts), as the pigment was worth its weight in gold.  Its brilliance was also desired by painters.  The 15th century artist Cennino Cennini wrote in his handbook for painters: "Ultramarine blue is a color illustrious, beautiful, the most perfect, beyond all other colors; one could not say anything about it, or do anything with it, that its quality would not still surpass."  Synthesized in 1826, Ultramarine went from being one of the most expensive pigments produce to now being one of the most cheapest.  Real Ultramarine is still manufactured (it is both non-toxic and permanent), but remains extremely cost prohibitive.  During the darkest days in the recent wars in Afghanistan, a tiny tube of paint could cost $500.

Tyrian Purple  

Tyrian Purple is technically a dye (smaller colored particles diluted in liquid rather than suspended) and not a pigment, but it's history is also worth discussing.  Tyrian Purple (also known as Imperial Purple) had a reddish purple tint and was extremely light-fast (rare among the early colors).  It was also expensive to produce, as it was derived from the collected mucus of the Muricidae family of predatory sea snails.  Discovered by the Phoenicians as early as 1570 BCE, the pigment was used almost exclusively by royalty because of its cost, which was reported to be worth its weight in silver.  In fact, in some places, sumptuary laws were put into place restricting its use those of “noble birth.”  In Byzantium, where such sumptuary laws were practiced, a child born of a reigning Emperor was said to be “born into the purple.”  Byzantine production of Tyrian Purple came to abrupt stop after the fall of Constantinople in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade.  Soon the color fell out of favor (replaced by Vermillion and Crimson) as no one in the West could gather the financial resources to restart production.  Incidently, Tyrian Purple was also produced in Pre-Columbian Mexico, from the same sea snails, where it was valued more than gold and also used denote those of “noble birth.”  For all its Royal implications, cloth dyed in Tyrian Purple tended to retain its fishy odor.  So pervasive was this stench that the Talmud actually granted women the right to divorce their husband if they became a dyer after marrying.

Sepia

The word Sepia comes from the Greek, meaning “cuttlefish,” and that is exactly from where the red-brown pigment comes from, more specifically, the cuttlefish ink sac.  Sepia ink was first commonly used in the Greco-Roman world, as a writing ink.  Artists used it as a drawing medium starting in the Renaissance, with the practice continuing up through the 19th century.  In the late 18th century, Jacob Seydelmann found a way to concentrate Sepia so that it could be used as a watercolor and oil paint.  Because Sepia is not very light-fast, it is difficult today to find real Sepia pigment.  Fortunately, however, Sepia has now been successfully synthesized and a hue is available.

Carmine

A New World pigment derived from crushed shells of the female Cochineal insect.  Replaced Crimson in Europe, which was derived from the Kermes insect.  Although comparable in color quality and intensity, it required 12 times as much Kermes insects to produce the same amount of color from the Cochineal insect.  Consequently, Carmine pigment became one of the first export goods from the New World after Hernando Cortez's conquest of Mexico, the second most valuable, after silver.  Such was its value as a raw product, that its price was regularly quoted in the London and Amsterdam Commodities Exchanges.  The Mexican monopoly on Carmine came to an end during the Mexican War of Independence (1810- 1821), with production centers starting in Guatemala, the Canary Islands, North Africa, and Spain, though as an artist pigment, Carmine was soon replaced by its synthesized version, Alizarin Crimson.  Carmine survives today as a pigment used to color food products and cosmetics.

Dragon's Blood

From the time of the Romans up through the Medieval times, Dragon's Blood pigment was literally thought to have derived from the congealed blood of Dragons and Elephants, mixed together as they fought in mortal combat.  The truth to its production was kept secret for over a thousand years.  Dragon's Blood pigment was produced from the sapped gum of a South East Asian tree and the story was most likely invented as a marketing device.  Dragon's Blood was used in the famous Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii.  The pigment is known to be extremely fugitive (it fades rapidly).  Inhis handbook for painters, the 15th century artist Cennino Cennini writes concerning Dragon's Blood, “leave it alone and do not have much respect for it..."


Indigo

Indigo is a dye extracted from plants of the genus Indigofera, native to the tropic regions of the world.  Indigo is dark blue in color.  Indigo dye is one of the world's oldest and best known colors, being produced in the ancient times in India, China, Japan, and South East Asia, as well as in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Britain, Mesoamerica, Peru, Iran, and Africa.  Because blue pigment is rare in nature and is difficult to produce, trade in Indigo dye became very lucrative.  In some circles, Indigo dye was referred to as “Blue Gold.”  Indigo was a major export crop supported by plantation slavery in colonial South Carolina in the 18th century, second only to rice production (cotton was not profitable until after the invention of the Cotton Gin in 1793).  Later, peasants in Bengal revolted against unfair treatment by the East India Company traders/planters in what became known as the Indigo Revolt in 1859, during the British Raj  government of India.  

Maya Blue

The secret to Maya Blue production has long been lost to history, but scientists in recent years are finally putting an end to the mystery.  Unlike Indigo, Maya Blue is extremely permanent and light-fast.  Scientists have now discovered that Maya Blue is a combination of Indigo dyes and palygorskite, a clay found in the state of Georgia, in the Southeastern United States.  Besides being used in their art (murals, sculpture, textiles, and illuminated codices) Mayan Blue also held a particular religious significance in Mesoamerican culture, as Human sacrificial victims were frequently daubed with the blue pigmentation.  

Prussian Blue

In 1704, Johann Conrad Dippel discovered the world's first modern synthetic pigment, by accident.  He was trying to produce a red pigment, but instead invented Prussian Blue (also known as Berlin Blue), known for its deep, blue-black color.  Dippel was a controversial figure, a mad scientist type who dabbled in alchemy and illegal anatomy studies in his laboratory in Castle Frankenstein.  In the course of one of his experiments, Dippel is said to have accidentally blown up one of the castle's towers.  It is also said that he tried to re-animate the dead, worked at transferring the soul of one cadaver to another, and boiled and distilled human body parts while seeking to create the Elixir of Life.  It should come as no surprise that Dippel was the inspiration behind Mary Shelley’s character Dr. Victor Frankenstein in her novel Frankenstein.  Prussian Blue is highly toxic, being derived from Cyanide.  Despite being toxic, Prussian Blue pigment was also used as an orally administered medicine, an antidote to heavy metal poisoning.  Dippel himself was reported to have regularly taken doses of the pigment, which, ironically, may have slowly poisoned him.  The skin of his body was said to have been the color of Prussian Blue when he died.  Prussian Blue would go on to have an even more grisly history.  The poisonous gas Zyklon B, used by the Nazis during the Holocaust, was also derived from Cyanide.  Consequently, the walls of the Gas Chambers are stained Prussian Blue.  It is still possible to obtain Prussian Blue today, but for the most part, the color has been replaced on artist's palettes by the less toxic Phthalo Blue.

In case you thought the history of Prussian Blue pigment is all grissly, allow me a chance to redeem it.  A good many beautiful works of art were created with Prussian Blue pigment, including Hokusai's The Great Wave (1832) and Van Gogh's The Starry Night (1889).  There is a potentially interesting connection between the two works.  Prussian Blue did not became popular in the European pallet until sometime in the mid to late 1800's.  Meanwhile, when the color was first imported in 1829 to Japan, works created with Prussian Blue were in great demand.  When Japanese prints made with Prussian Blue pigment found their way back to Europe, they named the exotic color “Hiroshige Blue,” after the Japanese printmaker who used the color extensively.  It seems the people in the West had forgotten that the source of the pigment was actually Germany!  Van Gogh, who collected Japanese prints and who was inspired by their beauty, color, and other formal qualities, perhaps began using Prussian Blue as a result.  

Flake White

Developed in Ancient Greek times, Flake White pigment is derived from White Lead Carbonate.  For centuries, Flake White was considered the perfect pigment, being permanent, fast to  dry, and producing flexible oil films.  There was only one problem:  Flake White is extremely poisonous.  It is thought that it may have contributed to bad physical and mental health, and even death of many artists over the years, including Michelangelo Buonarroti, Michelangelo Caravaggio, Francisco Goya, Candido Portinari, and possibly Vincent Van Gogh.  Nevertheless, Flake White was still used by many artists up until after World War II, when it started to lose ground to Titanium White.  By the 1990's only a few manufacturers were offering the color, and it is still possible to buy the pigment today.

Emerald Green

Green pigment (along with blue) has always been the rarest and hardest to produce of the pigment colors, a bit ironic when you consider we live on planet dominated by the colors green and blue.  One of the most beautiful green pigments to have ever been produced is Emerald Green (also known as Scheele's Green), but it is also the most poisonous. It is so poisonous it was sold under the trade name Paris Green as an insecticide and was used to kill the rats in the Parisian sewer system.  Emerald Green was also popular as a wallpaper pigment and would degrade, with moisture and molds, to arsine, a poisonous gas related to arsenic.  The pigment was also used in wax candles, textiles, and children's toys.  Aside from being toxic and exuding toxic gas, Emerald Green was also highly carcinogenic.  It is impossible to figure how many people may have died as a result of the use of the Emerald Green pigment, but we know it may have contributed to the death of Napoleon, who surrounded himself with the color (his favorite) in the damp climate of his exile home on St. Helena.  Analysis of hair samples taken after his death reveal there was a significant amount of arsenic in his body.  Emerald Green was an extremely fugitive color, as it could both fade in sunlight and darken as it tended to chemically react with other colors.  Today there is a safer, synthetic version of the color available.

Woad

The use of Woad as a dye dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who used it to color the cloth wrappings of mummies.  It is blue in color dye derived from a flowering plant of the same name.  Woad is most popularly known, thanks to the movie Braveheart, as the dark blue face paint used by the Scots when preparing for battle.  The tradition of using Woad as a body paint dates back to ancient Britain, to the northern Picts (from the Latin Picti, meaning “Painted Ones”), who were recorded by Julius Caesar as having extensively tattooed bodies and covered in designs applied with blue Woad paint.  Woad was in direct competition with Indigo and Logwood, a dye derived from a South American tree, exported by Spain to Europe.  In England, laws were passed preventing the importation of both Indigo and Logwood in order to protect the local Woad industry, and sea battles were fought with Spain over the trade.  As it became clear that Indigo and Logwood were superior pigments, producing stronger dyes with more permanence, the ban was lifted in 1661.  The Woad industry slowly died out, with the last large scale commercial harvest happening in 1932.