History of Pigments


A Short History Of Pigments

The story of pigments is a story of chance, experimentation and science but above all it is about providing human beings with the means by which to express themselves, and this has helped create some of our greatest artistic movements including the Renaissance, Impressionism and Modernism.

Creativity Born In The Caves

Early man used earth pigments on the cave walls such as yellow earth (Ochre), red earth (Ochre) and white chalk. Ochres are coloured clays that are found as soft deposits within the earth. Carbon (Lamp) black was also used, collected from the soot of burning animal fats. Probably the best known early paintings can be seen at Lascaux in France.

Getting Serious

Pigments were produced on a larger scale by the Egyptians and the Chinese. Earth colours were cleaned and washed increasing their strength and purity, and new pigments appeared from minerals such as Malachite, Azurite and Cinnabar prized as the first known bright red. Egyptian Blue was first produced around 3,000 BC - a blue glass made from sand and copper which was ground into a powder.

Vegetable dyes were also developed by the Egyptians, who discovered the ‘lake’ making process of producing pigment and the basis of this process is still used by Winsor & Newton today to produce Rose Madder Geniune. In China, the brilliant red that came from Vermilion was developed 2,000 years before it was used by the Romans.

Tyrian Purple came to signify power and wealth and was used by both the Greeks and the Romans. It was complicated to make, cost a fortune and involved using the mucus from thousands of Murex snails. The Greeks also manufactured white lead, the first fully opaque white – namely Flake White and Cremnitz White – which involved stacking lead strips in a confined space amongst vinegar and animal dung. Nice pigment, not so nice smell.


With the rebirth of interest in artistry, the Italians threw themselves into developing the range of earth pigments by roasting siennas and umbers to make the deep rich red of Burnt Sienna and the rich brown of Burnt Umber. Earth colours featured heavily in their painting technique, Terre Verte (Green Earth) being the principle under-painting colour for flesh tones.

One of the most astonishing pigments came from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, found largely in Afghanistan, and used to produce Geniune Ultramarine. It allowed artists to create a deep rich blue and was the most expensive pigment in the world. Paintings that used it were considered a great luxury and led artists to use it to paint The Madonna’s clothing as a way of reflecting her status and power.

Modern Times, Modern Methods

The opening up of trade routes in the 18th century coupled with advances in technology and science allowed for greater experimentation. In 1704, a German colour maker Diesbach created Prussian Blue by accident in his laboratory and this became the first chemically synthesized colour.

In 1828 a low cost blue was created by Jean-Baptiste Guimet called French Ultramarine. The artificial pigment is chemically identical to genuine ultramarine but physically finer and has none of the impurities of the lapis rock.

The isolation of new elements in the late 18th century also played a part in providing new colours. Deposits of chrome in the USA in 1820 eased the manufacture of Chrome Yellow, a highly opaque low cost colour available in a variety of hues.

The isolation of Zinc gave rise to Zinc Oxide which was used as an artists' white in preference to lead white as it was less hazardous and more permanent particularly in water colour. However it lacked opacity until 1834 when Winsor & Newton developed a method of heating the oxide to increase its opacity. This new type of Zinc Oxide was called Chinese White.

Alizarin is arguably the most important organic pigment of the 19th century. It was found as a colourant in the roots of the madder plant, but independent work in both Germany and Great Britain managed to duplicate it synthetically in the laboratory – the first time this had ever been achieved. This more affordable synthetic pigment provided a blue shade crimson of strong tinting strength and high transparency and was an immediate hit with artists.


The explosion of new pigments during the 19th century, the invention of the metal tube and the arrival of the railways all combined to accelerate this movement. Bright new colours in portable, stable tubes and a method of easy travelling around the country helped give rise to some of the world’s most beautiful paintings.