The Evolution of Artists’ Colors

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Throughout history, the pigments used in artists’ paints sprang from a variety of surprising sources. For instance, did you know that the color carmine red was created from crushed cochineal insects, or that there was once a form of brown paint called “mommia” that was made from human corpses?

The colors that artists have used throughout the ages were dictated by what was available at the time. The earliest pigments used by our prehistoric ancestors were ochres and iron oxides. Colors like yellow ochre, red ochre and charcoal black were commonly used in Paleolithic cave paintings as well as for body decoration.

Up until the past few centuries, the colors that artists used were limited to those made from earth and mineral pigments. Pigments were made from bugs, plants, animals and animal waste, mollusks and the ink from squids, and many other natural sources. Some colors were made from materials that were so rare that they were extremely expensive and therefore used only sparingly. Examples include Ultramarine Blue, which was made from lapis lazuli, and Tyrian Purple, which was made from the mucus of a snail.

The Industrial Revolution significantly expanded the range of colors in the artist’s paintbox. As science and technology advanced, synthetic pigments were produced via chemical processes, allowing manufacturers to create a wider variety of colors. These days nearly any color can be produced synthetically and purchased in a tube, and an infinite more can be created by mixing those commercial colors in any number of ways.

For instance, recent centuries have seen great advancements in the color blue. Prussian Blue was the first modern synthetic pigment, which was followed by French Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue, Cerulean Blue, and Phthalo Blue. Each of these pigments brings a new color to the artist’s repertoire, allowing for wider range of visual expression.

In addition to offering a wider variety of affordable colors to artists, modern science also allows for more homogeneity in colors, in terms of substance, quality, and hue. Synthetic pigments are more consistent in quality and tone than natural pigments, where slight fluctuations in hue can occur even in pigments extracted from the same source.

Thanks to modern science, artists now enjoy easy access to a range of paints that are much more colorful and consistent in quality than the pigments of the past.

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