Colour Story: Lamp Black

Black pigments are among the oldest-known in the world. Carbon Black was first made by heating and burning plant material and wood, and Vine Black by charring desiccated grape vines and stems. Lamp Black belongs to the same group, but the clue to its origin lies in its name: lamp – or more precisely oil lamps. Soot was traditionally gathered to produce this oldest of lightfast, permanent and opaque pigments. 

Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr, CC BY-SA 2.0 FR <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Electric light transformed our world and our social interaction with each other. Oil lamps date back to between 10,000 and 15,000 BC and have been found in the Lascaux caves. Most of these simple oil lamps were made of stone and burned animal fat; their shape resembled an elongated spoon. This method continued during Ancient Egyptian and Roman times through to the Byzantine Period (in the latter this consisted of burning olive oil), with lamp designs evolving in their symbolic as well as practical uses. The qulliq (a seal-oil lamp) provided not only light but warmth for the Inuit, Yupik and other indigenous people. And in Baghdad in the 9th century Muhammad al-Razi mentions the use of kerosene lamps for heating and lighting in his Book of Secrets. 


BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives from Canada, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Lamp Black has been used since prehistoric times. It is a lightfast, permanent and opaque pigment, with a rich history despite its quotidian existence in artists’ palettes. When added to gum and water it becomes ink, and methods for this date back 4,000 years to its use in Egypt and China. In China specifically, around 1,500 years ago, ink was made by burning oil lamps behind a bamboo screen, with soot removed from the lamps at regular intervals with the use of a feather. During the Tang dynasty (617–907) much of Chinese art employed the use of fine line designs that would be filled in with colour, until the artist Wu Daozi (680–740), also known as Daoxuan, introduced the idea of only using black ink, starting a tradition of Chinese monochromatic painting. In this we can see the influence of Lamp Black in the development of painting language and graphic arts. 

In the Middle Ages Lamp Black was made by bringing the flame from beeswax candles to a cold surface and collecting the soot deposited. Over time a variety of oils were used in lamps such as linseed, hempseed or olive oil.  

Today candles and oil lamps are mostly used for ceremonial or commemorative occasions. Oil lamps in particular are a rare sight. It’s hard to imagine that at one time, before the invention of the modern lightbulb, we relied on these devices after dark. From the outset, the 19th century brought the Industrial Revolution, which lead to Thomas Edison’s lightbulb in 1879. In 1800 Alessandro Volta was the first person to develop a method of generating electricity, followed shortly by English chemist and inventor Humphry Davy, who produced the world's first ‘electric lamp’. 


Jamian, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Water-based inks made from Lamp Black were also being used in Chinese printing from 500 AD by applying inks to woodblocks. However, in 1440 Johannes Gutenberg began to experiment with new inks in innovative printing methods using letterpress fonts known as movable type. Inks were made by mixing varnish or boiled linseed oil with Lamp Black to produce a new permanent, opaque ink that was slower-drying than water-based inks. This allowed printers to ink the moveable type without drying – making printing large volumes of paper manageable.  

vlasta2, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
takomabibelot, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Gutenberg’s printing press exponentially accelerated the dissemination of ideas and knowledge. By 1543, printing methods made possible in this way were printing the astronomer Copernicus’ book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. This was important not only for sharing new knowledge and ideas, but in radically changing our world view and, like with the lightbulb years later, our relationship with light. 

More like this

All that glitters is gold: a spotlight on the world’s most precious colour

For thousands of years gold has symbolised opulence, status and spirituality in everything from architecture to paintings, jewellery and ceramics. 

Orange: Peeling back the layers of a fruitful history

What was once simply a name for a citrus fruit is now the term used to describe vibrant, sunny orange. The colour has intrigued religions, artists and social movements throughout history.