History of Paint: the Colours

Paint was known from the earliest periods of our history, thousands of years ago. The first ones were black charcoal, yellow ochre and red clay diluted with animal fat. Green could be easily produced from some herbs, but surprisingly no signs of it were traced in cave paintings.

Sometimes Paleolithic artists also applied white color, for which chalk or calcite were used, but it was Egyptians and Ancient Greeks, who brought that palette – black, yellow, red and white – to the most sublime level. Titian is believed to have said once “good painter needs only three colours: black, white and red”.

Nothing has radically changed since that time. Roughly speaking, paint is a pigment, a coloring agent, and its solvent. The only difference is that today they are mainly created synthetically in the laboratories, becoming a true miracle of chemical engineering.

Organic pigments are produced from plants, molluscas and even worms; not-organic ones – from minerals. Even now a lot of carriers, where earth pigments are quarried. The paints they are used in are named after the place of their first discovery – natural Sienna, natural Umber, Shakhnazar red, Gutankar lilac, Prussian blue (or Berlin blue).

Reading old treaties, dedicated to the nuances of making paint, we find some amusing recipes. For instance, to get verdigris the author of the manuscript of the 16th cent. advices to put sour milk into the copper pot and to cover it with something copper as well; the milk should be mixed with copper crumbs and herbs and kept in the pot for a months in a warm place.

Methods of producing paints were often a secret passed from father to son. For instance, in some regions of Russia, lapis lazuli was soaked in sauerkraut soup for 2-4 days and specific golden color was achieved by combining saffron and bile of pike. Such weird paints are used till our days in conservation of old icons.

paints and brushesThe first breakthrough in history of artistic materials took place thanks to the Flemish masters in the 15th century during the Renaissance. Greeks and Romance already had an experience in adding olive oil into the paint’s compound, but they had troubles with drying. The first successful employment of oil paints was demonstrated by a prominent master Jan van Eyck around 1410. He wasn’t a pioneer in this sphere, yet he is credited to be the author of the stable lacquer as a binding material. This innovation gave a powerful impulse to the development of a whole art form, which predominated in culture for a long period of time.

Van Eyck’s lacquer was elaborated later by such outstanding painters like Leonardo da Vinci, Tintoretto and Antonello da Messina. Peter Paul Rubens, who studied in Italy in the 17th century, perfected it – he used the nut oil and followed the Messina’s idea lead oxide. Up to the beginning of the 19th century each artist mixed paints himself. This was how each day started for them, since yesterday paint hardened during the night. It was only during the industrial revolution, when paints began to be produced on factories. Anyway, a special magazine, where everyone can buy pigments and “brew” them to his or her hand, still exists in Venice.
Hundreds of paints exists. But we’ll talk about history of three major color – blue, yellow and red.


Indigo guizhouThe cave people admired blue sky, but they didn’t know blue paint – it was difficult to find out the natural substances for making it. Egyptians learnt how to do it, but their formula was forgotten. In the Middle Ages the choice of color was rather a question of finances than of taste. Ultramarine was the most expensive pigment then and was praised higher than gold by Renaissance artists. It was applied for the clothes of Christ and Lady Mary, and Leonardo da Vinci painted with it only when the customer insisted.

The most wide-spread and available blue pigment was Woad (Istasis tinctoria) – Europeans colored their textile with it from the Neolithic epoch. After Vasco da Gama had discovered the sea route to India in 1498 and brought the pigment from indigo plant in Europe, the dyer’s business occurred under the threat. That’s why the German king called it “the devil’s color” in 1654. One could have been punished to death for using it.

But textile, painted with indigo were brighter and more attractive, so French aristocracy wear it, meanwhile dull “woad blue” was the servant’s color. All in all, the paint was legalized. Indigo’s synthetic analogue was invented by the end of the 19th century.


Indian YellowIn the famous Lascaux cave, a sort of “museum” of the prehistoric painting, which is 17 thousand years old, the artists already used yellow pigments from ochre. Another source of yellow was saffor. 8000 of flowers gave 100 grams of the dry fibers, from which the pigments are made of. It is used not only in painting, but in cooking and cosmetics (Romans even added it to bathes).

Indian yellow was brought to India from Persia in the 15th century. In 1786 the amateur artist Roger Dewhurst in his letter to friend noted it was made from an organic substance made from the urine of animals fed on turmeric. Nobody knew if it was true. One of British journals undertook an investigation to find the truth out. The reporter came to Calcutta and found a group of the farmers, who fed their cows only with mango leaves and water. And indeed the cow’s urine was of intense yellow color. Later the production of the pigment was declared as cruelty to animals and prohibited by the law.


red paintIn antiquity you had to push hard to get natural red pigment: first you would need to gather marine snails or cochineal – a form of insects, whose females are brightly red. As it’s commonly known, only the Emperor and his family had the right to wear it. Red remained the privilege of aristocracy during the Middle Ages. However, the technical development made its creation affordable – so the whole armies dressed in red uniforms in the 19th century.
Red was the favorite color of the alchemists. They developed preparation of cinnabar (vermillion) from sulfur and mercury in details. Cinnabar was the first step in creation of the philosophical stone. That’s why they called the stone “The red lion” or “Great Red Water”.

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