As a painter and artist, color is my lifeblood. I am sure if you looked inside my soul, it would be flowing with yellow ocher, burnt umber, alizarin crimson, and ultramarine blue. The history of color is fascinating as we look at it development over time bringing us to these convenient paints in a tube that can be bought at any art store in person or online. Some pigments are of the earth and minerals dating to 11,000 BCE and beyond. Other pigments are made from found objects such as minerals, twigs, and bugs going back over 4,000 years ago. In the contemporary era we began to create modern synthetic colors. We begin to see more of these emerge around the 1700s CE.
“Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways. ” ― Oscar Wilde
Colors of the Earth
In the Lascaux Cave, France, paintings dating back to the Ice Age were discovered in 1940 CE during the German occupation. The cave has gorgeous depictions of animals drawn in red, whites, greys, and blacks. Originally the black was presumed to be drawn on with charcoal (burnt wood), but in the 2000s CE, while studying a sample of pigment from the “Great Bull” image, French scientists discovered that some of the black was from manganese oxide. This pigment is created by heating rocks rich in manganese to about 1650 Fahrenheit. The use of manganese black on these early cave drawings indicates that humans have been intentionally searching for and improving upon art making techniques and materials as far back as the prehistoric periods.
The earliest written record of this blue is in a 4th century BCE in Athens text by philosopher Theophrastos. There were three types of blue available in Greece, the finest of which came from Egypt. Egyptian blue was invented around 2200 BCE, alongside the construction of the Great Pyramids. It is created through a carefully calculated balance of calcinated limestone, sand, malachite, azurite (or bronze filings). Egyptian Blue was incredibly rare and expensive because, after calculating the correct quantities of materials, it has to be heated to between 1470 and 1650 Fahrenheit. If crafted perfectly it will cool into a blue, opaque, crystal. The process is not yet complete. Next artists would grind the blue materials into powder and mix it with a binder such as egg white, glue, or acacia gum. Although it is made from a base of limestone, because of the complicated process, it is known as the oldest synthetic pigment.
“Ocher” is derived from a Greek word meaning “Pale Yellow”. Made popular on pottery during Ancient Greece, the pigment is actually plentiful and found worldwide. Yellow ochre is made from a specific type of iron-rich soil that creates the deep yellow and orange colors. Famous origins of yellow ochre are Australia, modern-day Turkey, the Greek Islands, Athens, and Southern France. Because of its use as a slip on pottery, Romans in Athens called yellow ochre “Attic sil”, describing it as a type of slime.
Color from the Living
A dye used as early as the Ancient Phoenicians in 1570 BCE in the Western world, Tyrian Purple was created from the mucus excretions of the murex sea snail. It took more than 250,000 snails to create just one ounce of dye, which made Tyrian purple a very expensive and highly coveted color. It was often worn by rulers like Cleopatra and Julius Cesar and became known as the color for royalty over the centuries. A close relative of the murex sea snail, known as purpura, is found in along the coast of Mesoamerica. The village of Tehuantepec, in Oaxaca State in Mexico, Mixtec women traditionally wore purple striped skirts dyed by allowing the snails to move across the white cotton. The women would return snails to the unharmed sea when they were done.
The Cochineal is a small bug found in South America that lives on prickly pears and often will kill the plants. When dried and crushed, however, the cochineal make an incredibly bright red color. For centuries before the arrival of the conquistadores, the Maya and Aztecs used cochineal for paints, dyes, cosmetics, and medicines. After the arrival of the conquistadores in the 1500s CE, they loved this color and began shipping 50 to 160 tons of cochineal to Europe yearly. This was almost as valuable a shipment as gold and silver, but it also depleted the supplies for the native people who already lived in South America, which then had to be carefully rationed for traditional uses. In the west, Cochineal was turned into a paint called “carmine” and was frequently used by well-known artists Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci.
Fairly self-explanatory, mummy brown is as its name suggests. It is dust or particles from mummies ground up and mixed with a binder. The necessary parts were actually easily acquired at an apothecary. Mummy brown was a common color in art until 1925 CE, and cannot be found in any art stores today.
William Perkin, an English scientist in 1856 CE, was exploring the properties and possibilities of the byproduct of street lamps. He was initially experimenting with this gooey coal substance as a cure for malaria and instead during the process he created a dark beautiful color. It was similar to a violet that was popular in Europe and America, except his synthetic dye was more stable and affordable. He named this dye “mauve” or “mauveine” after a French flower of the same color. This was the first modern synthetic dye.
Discovered in 1817 CE, and used for pigments since 1840 CE, cadmium yellow was created from the same toxic chemical in batteries. The brightness of this yellow (and its counterpart, cadmium red) influenced the later Impressionism and Modernism movements. Monet and Kandinsky are both known for using the Cadmium colors.
Lithol red was invented in 1899 CE. It was originally a low-cost printing ink intended for newspapers or magazines. Without testing the lightfastness of the medium, Mark Rothko used it in his large scale color field paintings. As an untested pigment, it is a constant experiment for curators and restorers to ensure the original colors are displayed to the best of their ability by using special filtered lights. Many of these red paintings have begun to fade to blue and purple over time.
“The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love color the most.” ― John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice
Human capability to capture color has grown and developed over the centuries and throughout civilizations. Thousands of artists, scholars, scientists, and regimes have made their mark on the process. Learning about the creation of pigments and dyes can help inform us as artists create a bigger impact with deliberate color choices in our creations.
Finlay, V. The Brilliant History of Color in Art, 2014, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Sydney Davis-Campos is the Virtual Learning Coordinator at Able ARTS Work, Learn for Life. She has a B.A. in Studio Art and Art History. Sydney has worked at Able ARTS Work for almost 5 years where she has also held the positions of Art Instructor and an Assistant Program Manager.