The source of all painting colours…
The first synthetic pigments were supposedly invented by the Egyptians. In 4000 BC, the Egyptians made colours by heating the soil and sand and from this process malachite and the cinnabar made their first appearance. The Chinese developed the vermilion pigment by heating up sulphur and mercury and the Greeks were the first to create the first perfectly opaque white. Evidence shows that the Romans drew their inspiration from the Egyptian and Greek colour inventions as Pompeii’s ruins revealed traces of vermilion on the houses’ walls, and they prepared the Tyrian purple with murex, a precious colour used only for the Roman dignitaries’ togas.
In the 16th century, the Renaissance gave fresh drive to the fabrication of colours by refining the earthy pigments, most importantly with the creation of burnt umber and burnt sienna, which have a prominent position in the Renaissance works of art. The Italians also created the Naples yellow.
The development of industry and commerce in the 18th century was a turning point in the history of pigments. The German colour trader Diesbach created the first synthetic colour, Prussian blue, with potassium contaminated by animal oil. This colour, still present nowadays, fades in the daylight and regains its intensity in the darkness.
Pigments based on cobalt and cerulean blue (another type of cobalt) make an appearance at the beginning of the 19th century. As the cobalt was expensive for the artists, research was carried out in order to find a darker and more affordable blue and J.-B. Guimet created the French ultramarine in 1828.
During the same period, chromium deposits across the Atlantic lead to the creation of chromium yellow, very opaque and cheap. Chromium-based pigments offer an excellent opacity and easy production. In 1834, Winsor & Newton heated the oxide in order to increase the opacity. This is also how the famous factory creates Chinese white and permanent white.
Cadmium yellows were not developed until the middle of the 19th century but even now cadmium yellow is the yellow most used by the artists.
While working on quinine in his laboratory in 1856, W. H. Perkin created the first organic colourant by accident, mauveine, which sparked a craze among the British artists. The alizarin carmine, also called crimson alizarin, was introduced in 1856, and then the Hansa yellow, very transparent and lightfast, was created at the beginning of the 20th century by Hoescht. The quinacridones were later developed in the 1950s.
There are four main groups of pigments:
Natural Mineral Pigments
These are the earthy pigments, the oldest used by man: sienna, umber, green earth, etc. They are found in clay soils and are composed of iron oxides. They are usually not very intense, and granular.
Mineral synthetic pigments
The pigments of this group are very varied. They are obtained by chemical reactions, usually with metal oxides. Some of them are toxic, such as the cobalts and the cadmiums and should be handled with care! (e.g. cobalt blue, cadmium red)
Organic natural pigments
Organic natural pigments are very rare such as garance pink (madder pink), which comes from a plant root, and carbon black. They are transparent, and not very permanent. Even though we kept the names of organic natural pigments such as sepia or indigo, their production method was changed in order to improve their properties and availability.
Organic synthetic pigments
Some of them have always been used. They have a natural origin, extracted from plants (madder, indigo), seashells (crimson), caterpillars (cochineal), but their synthesis has only been started in the 19th century. The majority of pigments we use nowadays have been discovered in the 19th century. Coal tar, benzene, naphthalene and anthracite are essential materials for their development.