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 with 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 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 – a blue glass made from sand and copper which was ground into a powder – was first produced around 3000 BC.

Vegetable dyes were also developed by the Egyptians, who discovered the “lake” making process of producing pigment, the basis of which is still used by Winsor & Newton today to produce Rose Madder Genuine. 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,  involving using the mucus from thousands of murex snails, and cost a fortune. The Greeks also manufactured white lead, the first fully opaque white – used to make flake white and Cremnitz white – which involved stacking lead strips in a confined space among 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, with terre verte (green earth) the principal 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 genuine 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 artists used 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, the German colour maker Johann Jacob Diesbach created Prussian blue by accident in his laboratory. This became the first chemically synthesised colour.

In 1828, the chemist Jean-Baptiste Guimet created a low cost blue, French ultramarine. The artificial pigment is chemically identical to genuine ultramarine, but is 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. The discovery of large chrome deposits in North America 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 watercolour. 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 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 an easy method of travelling around the country helped give rise to some of the world’s most beautiful paintings.