Colors and Pigments Through Time

The colors in a painting are as important as the content. But how do we accomplish those bright colors? The use of pigments started in the caves of prehistory and are still used in art today. In different times of history distinctive colors were used. Artist have always used color to show emotion; blue for depression, red for passion, purple for royalty. These are some examples of how artists use color as a symbol. Now at days artist are able to obtain all types of artificial colors because of chemicals. How did they do it before? If we really consider it, color plays a very important role in the principles of art; Emphasis, variety, harmony, unity, balance, the lists goes on. But color as we know it didn’t start until later on, yet artist since very early in time have successfully created masterpieces that are still appreciated today.

Before all the technology of today it was impossible to know how toxic some of the materials to make paint were, for this reason it is known of artists dying early in their lives. They sacrificed themselves in the name of art. They were willing to give it all, and try it all in order to get a better, brighter, newer color. Scientist today still develop relatively new, materials, yet to understand the rawest version of art we must look back. Only that way will we be able to understand how far we have come. Art reflects the growth of humankind since the very beginning. One thing that we must beware is technology getting ahead from us. With the introduction of digital art more, and more artist have left the paintbrush and taken a screen. While this is not bad in any way, the best manner of learning the art of expression is through the personal, almost intimate contact with your creation and the medium. Any artist will agree that is not the same to touch a screen, and to feel the paint on your fingers.

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The earliest pigment known to men is black. Carbon was the first material used to draw in the caves of the first artists. Charcoal, something as simple as a burnt piece of wood is still used in art studios today. In cave paintings like the “Great Hall of Bulls” carbon black was used for the outline of the larger animals, while the others are depicted with red ocher and umber. Colors like those come from iron oxide, vegetable juice, bone marrow and blood. Science shows that cave painters used animal fat as a binding material to better preserve the images. The pigments were trapped in pores of the walls of the caves, this way the traces are seen today. Cave paintings are the earliest records made by humans, and are a way we can understand the life of ancestors.

Ancient Egypt

Egyptian art is characterized by the bright blue used in many of their scrolls and sculptures. Is important to denote that those pigments were not only used in art but also cosmetics. The characteristic Egyptian blue pigment was created by pulverising precious stones and mixing it with wax as a media. The techniques used consisted of covering a limestone walls with plaster (similar to the process of the frescoes during medieval period and the renaissance) to later depict significant scenes, like the “Last Judgement of Hunefer”. Another characteristic color created by the Egyptians is malachite also known as iris green or bremen green. This bright green color is one of the first green pigments created. while this color is found in several European paintings in the 15th and 16th centuries is important to denote that the origin of this color was the Egyptian culture. Egyptians used the color to give meaning to the symbols, in many cases the color used to depict a figure gives us a clue to the identity of the character depicted.

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Medieval Times

Religion was at a high demand during the Middle ages, for this reason the production of religious paintings are seen in church walls, chapels, catacombs, and tombs all over Europe. Egg tempera; which is what the name suggests, egg mixed with pigment; was used in the creation of frescoes. An example of this can be found in the Catacomb of Priscilla. Two very important colors used during the Medieval times were ultramarine and yellow ocher. Ultramarine, obtained from lazurite; was commonly used to depict the garments of the Virgin Mary and was normally relationated with purity. Yellow ocher collected from the earth was used to depict gold as well as some skin tones. At that time minerals were taken out of the earth, and used as chalk to trace, and draw. This was also during the renaissance by artists like
Michelangelo,Rembrandt and Antoniette.


During the renaissance the use of pigments was revolutionized. Some the pigments were made with precious minerals hard to come by. This special paint was reserved for holy figures as well as nobles who were able to pay for such materials. The use of this paint was a way to recognize the status of the figure portrayed. The more expensive and rare, the higher the status. During this time period pigments were mixed with oil, this allowed the paint to dry slower. Oil painters during the renaissance were able to achieve higher realism thanks to the natural luminosity of the paint. Some distinctive colors of the renaissance were carmine lake, and Naples Yellow. Cochineal lake (a type of carmine lake) was made with the cochineal beetle originally used by the Aztecs. This pigment was brought to Europe during the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Naples yellow is known to be a prominent color in the color palette of the masters. A good example to see all the variety of color during the renaissance is “School of Athens” by Raphael 1509-1511.

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Modern/ Contemporary

In the modern day art world we can find an extensive number of paints, varying on color, brightness, resistance, thickness. Acrylic paint first became available to the public in the early 1960s. With this important invention, new colors were developed. Titanium white made from the anatase and rutile minerals revolutionized the use of white. Painters like Pablo Picasso with “Les demoiselles d'avignon”, and Andy Warhol saw benefit from acrylic paint on their work. The first artist to use acrylic paint in large scale were Mexican muralists.

All throughout human history the necessity of expression is seen. The materials have never proven to limit the flow of expression. People all over the world have created a way to record their history. Paintings, drawings, sculptures, from burnt wood, and mushed insects on caves, to complex chemical substances created in laboratories; material used to create art develop with our civilization. Yet even today artist use the same, or at least the roots, of ancient processes. We must find a balance between complete modernization and conservatism, otherwise we could miss what future hands could create with the raw material of the earth.Painting was born on a cave, and it will survive as long as humans live. Pigments give color to the world and help artist defy the way we see the world.

- Elbumor