Articles

The Colorful Stories of 5 Obsolete Art Pigments

by Allison Meier on July 2, 2013

Paints-640

The colors of art change not just with trends, but availability as well. For reasons of being incredibly poisonous, expensive, or just involving way too many snails, here are five pigments that have disappeared from art.

Maya Blue

Mayan Mural, involving the Maya Blue pigment (via Wikispaces)

Mayan Mural, involving the Maya Blue pigment (via Wikispaces)

On murals, pottery, even possibly painted on the hapless bodies offered as human sacrifices, a sky-blue color has been found in artifacts of the Maya and Aztec. It disappeared around colonial times in Central America, just like the pre-Columbian civilizations themselves. Known as Maya Blue, it’s long been recognized as a mix of a natural clay and a dye from the indigo plant, but how it was so durable in not being subject to fading or even the deterioration of solvents and acids has been a mystery. Earlier this year, however, some chemists announced they may have found the secret in careful variations in the preparation temperatures.

Tyrian Purple

Burial Shroud of Charlemagne (early 9th century), made of Byzantine silk colored with Tyrian Purple (via Wikimedia)

Burial Shroud of Charlemagne (early 9th century), made of Byzantine silk colored with Tyrian Purple (via Wikimedia)

The most prized, prestigious pigment of the ancient world was actually made from a rather slimy source: a predatory snail. Tyrian Purple got its name from the best of the marine shellfish used to make the pigment being found off the shore of Phoenicia’s Tyre, according to Pigment Compendium. Not only was it a properly royal color of rich, slightly red purple, it was said to get even more beautiful and brighter when exposed to the sun and the elements. Yet since you needed a whole pile of snails to have enough mucous secretions to make it, it was very expensive, and eventually disappeared.

White Lead

vermeerglassofwine

White Lead in Johannes Vermeer’s “The Glass of Wine” (1658), oil on canvas (via WikiPaintings)

The luminosity of classical European oil paintings was due in large part to White Lead, a pigment of lead carbonate and sulfate. Artists like Vermeer used it to create a special kind of light that radiated from the canvas, the traces of which we can see in its grainy texture. Unfortunately, its striking brightness was rather poisonous. Yet as Applied Polymer Science explains about the lead paint: “Toxicity was recognized, but accepted.” It’s since been largely replaced by Titanium White, a less hazardous, although not as structurally strong, pigment, yet some artists still seek out the White Lead for its believed superior color and permanence, even if it is more difficult to find and still toxic.

Lapis Lazuli

Lapis Lazuli used in a detail of "The Ascension," attributed to Jacopo di Cione (1371) (via The National Gallery, London(

Lapis Lazuli used in a detail of “The Ascension,” attributed to Jacopo di Cione (1371)
(via The National Gallery, London)

Widely believed to be the most expensive pigment ever created, more pricey than even its weight in gold, the Lapis Lazuli pigment was made from grinding up Lapis Lazuli semi-precious stones. Its use goes back to the 6th century in Afghanistan, but its popularity really took off with wealthy Renaissance patrons who wanted the stunning blue on the robes of Mary and Jesus in religious paintings. The “ultra marine” color, as it was also known, largely disappeared as it was so incredibly expensive and required quarries to collect the stones. However, you can actually buy it at the Kremer Pigmente store in Manhattan for $360 for five grams.

Dragon’s Blood

Mural in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, said to incorporate the Dragon's Blood pigment. (via Wikimedia)

Mural in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, said to incorporate the Dragon’s Blood pigment. (via Wikimedia)

The pigment known as Dragon’s Blood had the most epic and ridiculous of origin stories, a supposed mix of actual dragon’s blood and elephant’s blood. Andrew Dalby’s Dangerous Tastes chronicles this incredible story from the 16th century navigator Richard Eden:

“[Elephants] have continual warre against Dragons, which desire their blood, because it is very cold: and therefore the Dragon lying awaite as the Elephant passeth by, windeth his taile, being of exceeding length, about the hinder legs of the Elephant, and when the Elephant waxeth faint, he falleth down on the serpent, being now full of blood, and with the poise of his body breaketh him: so that his owne blood with the blood of the Elephant runneth out of him mingled together, which being colde, is congealed into that substance which the Apothecaries call Sanguis Draconis, that is Dragons blood, otherwise called Cinnabaris.”

As freaking exciting as a battle between an elephant and dragon would be, the pigment was in actuality made from a Southeast Asian tree — though the story certainly helped hype it to outside buyers, and its blood red color was popular in the ancient world. It faded out of mainstream popularity around the 19th century, probably alongside the very much waning fascination with elephant vs. dragon battles.

 

UPDATES:

Mummy Brown

Martin Drölling, "L'intérieur d'une cuisine" (1815), believed to have been painted with Mummy Brown (via the Louvre)

Martin Drölling, “L’intérieur d’une cuisine” (1815), believed to have been painted with Mummy Brown (via the Louvre)

A fantastic Twitter tip from Art vs Artifact informed us of another vanished pigment with an incredible story: Mummy Brown. The pigment, a favored shade of the Pre-Raphaelites, was first made with Egyptian mummies, both cat and human, that were ground up and mixed with white pitch and myrrh. It had a great fleshy color, but due to the actual fleshy components it would crack over time. Martin Drölling, who painted the work shown above, reportedly used the mummies of French kings dug up from Saint-Denis in Paris. According to a 1964 Time story, the Mummy Brown pigment didn’t last due to a shortage of its name defining ingredient. Managing director of the London based C. Roberson color maker told the magazine:

“We might have a few odd limbs lying around somewhere, but not enough to make any more paint.”

Indian Yellow

Here’s another curious, and unsettling, pigment tip from Twitter on Indian Yellow. According to Philip Ball’s Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, the vivid color of Indian Yellow was a source of mystery until the late 19th century. It turned out that the yellow color came from the urine of cattle in the Bihar province of India that were fed only mango leaves and water. The mistreatment of the animals led to the color being illegal and it vanished by 1908.

Scheele’s Green

From the comments, we got a tip on Scheele’s Green. The yellow-green pigment was a cupric hydrogen arsenite, which was very toxic, yet made it into not just paintings, but candles, wallpaper, and children’s toys. In one incident at a Christmas party, a candle dyed with the color poisoned children, and other 19th century incidents include women in green dresses passing out and those using it to print newspapers suffering from its effects. The arsenic vapors also are believed by some to have played a role in the death of Napoleon, who lived in a room paintly brightly green, his favorite color, as traces of arsenic were found in his hair.

And and we continued this investigation into obsolete colors with “More Vibrant Tales of Obsolete Pigments.”

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  • Flood

    Scheele’s Green is another pigment that is no longer in use because it is deadly.

    • Allison C. Meier

      Added it to the list! Poor Napoleon.

  • yak yakker

    Re: Indian Yellow — it could also be made using dung of cows fed sunflowers. See image of painting (from Mewar, Rajasthan at National Museum, New Delhi): https://twitter.com/yakyakker/status/351095544413827072/photo/1

  • Katherine

    I love this -but- white lead is far from an obsolete pigment! flake white, and other lead whites, are still quite popular among many groups of artists. They are still in production by major paint companies… so why are they even on this list?

    • Allison C. Meier

      While some artists may still use White Lead, it’s not like it was during Vermeer’s time when it was the only white. The “obsolete” refers not to paints that have vanished, but that have gone largely out of favor. And in some places, White Lead has been banned. Here’s more info from the Royal Society of Chemists:

      “All lead paints have been banned then?

      Almost. For the vast majority of uses, lead pigments have been replaced with titanium dioxide, which is so safe it’s also used in food colourings as well as in sunscreen. In the EU, lead paint can now only be used for the restoration and maintenance of works of art and historical buildings. In the US, lead paint can be used in limited industrial settings, such as to coat ships hulls.” http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/News/2007/August/21080701.asp

      • Katherine

        Hm. I did not know that it had been banned in the EU, thank you for the info.

        I found use of lead white amongst artists to be very common when I was in art school, and when I was working in art supply stores, we were often asked for it specifically. While it isn’t THE STANDARD white paint anymore, it still doesn’t strike me as nearly as obsolete as the rest of the pigments on this list. You can’t buy any of these pigments from windsor and newton… except for lead white, which is readily available, at least here in the US.

        http://www.winsornewton.com/resource-cente/product-articles/spotlight-on-colour-flake-white-colour

        • Allison C. Meier

          Be that as it may, I thought it was interesting to include one that may not have had as an outlandish story, but was once the main source of “light” in painting, even though it was widely known to be toxic. I like the idea of people using something so hazardous to create their art, consequences be damned!

          • Katherine

            fair enough. thanks for the prompt follow up!

          • Iris Lavy

            Lead based paint was also widely used as house paint until the late 70’s

            http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/program_offices/healthy_homes/healthyhomes/lead

          • Stephanie Burns

            Don’t you have to eat or smear lead paint on you to be poisoned?

          • Truly S.

            No; inhaling the dust will also poison you. For example, if an old window frame was painted with lead paint, just opening and closing the window can create inhalable dust. Lead also seeps into water and soil and can poison from contact with those.

    • Allison C. Meier

      & here’s some more detailed info on White Lead in history from “Human Lead Exposure” by Herbert L. Needleman: http://books.google.com/books?id=e9fel0gM3j0C&pg=PA10&dq=white+lead&hl=en&sa=X&ei=izfUUbfpOOW_0gGKm4GwDA&ved=0CFQQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=white%20lead&f=false

      • http://www.royforget.com/ Roy Forget

        I live in Paris, France, and I can confirm that it is near impossible to find lead white, “blanc d’argent” as they call it here. It took me many days to find perhaps one of the last large canisters of lead white made by Old Holland here in town, and I always pick up a large tube when I am in the US, where art stores carry lead white from Williamsburg Paints, or from Holbein Paints. Now you know why so many people here in France think so poorly of a federal state . . . all these rules and regulations from Bruxelles.

  • ElizabethGrammaticas

    The radiolab podcast did a great feature on color a bit back. In particular, they mention the bullets found in raw Gamboge. Gamboge is still around, but greatly decreased. http://www.radiolab.org/2012/may/21/perfect-yellow/

  • http://louiscooper.com/ Louis

    Anyone interested in this subject should read Victoria Finlay’s book “Color.”

    • Marc Dalessio

      Philip Ball’s book The Bright Earth (mentioned in the article) is much, much better.

      • http://louiscooper.com/ Louis cooper

        Thanks Marc, I’ll check it out.

        • Traditionalist

          This is the most important thread in the entire conversation. There is a great deal of thorough and well-founded literature on the history of pigments in published form with bibliographical notations supporting what is written. This little blog is a bit like reinventing the wheel, and is full of speculation and misinformation. It’s a good example of how information gotten from the web without benefit of fact-checkers and editors is misleading generations of people into believing they have found facts when they have only found opinions. Unfortunately, as illustrated here in the confusion surrounding lead white, many of the supposedly informed opinions found online are unsupported and erroneous.

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            You have not pointed out what is actually incorrect. Perhaps you think you have authority because you have a stodgy username. Go on, dinosaur, go on.

          • http://louiscooper.com/ Louis cooper

            True, the blog entry only scratches the surface of a deep topic. But it is nice to see that it sparked such interest in the origin of pigments which I’m sure so many artists take for granted. I am no expert on the subject but I have done a fair bit of reading on this topic. For the sake of others who might want to delve a little deeper, here’s a list of books I would suggest. You might have others you would recommend as well.

            “Color.” Rebecca Finlay
            “Mauve.” Simon Garfield
            “Madder Red.” Robert Chenciner
            “Colour.” Francois Delamare
            “Bright Earth.” Philip Ball (mentioned above)
            “Colour and Culture.” John Gage
            “Indigo.” Jenny Balfour-Paul

  • TommyG

    You may want to take a look at cobalt blue. Used in pottery, it caused health effects to potters who did not take precautions.

  • Ioana Simileanu

    There is also a unique colour, it is found on a Romanian monastery built in 1488, the colour’s name is Voronet Blue (Albastru de Voronet in Romanian) and the chemical composition is 2Cu Co3 Cu(OH)2 which is azurit, is a really beautiful colour and because of the humidity the chemical composition transformed in CuCO3 Cu(OH)2 which is malachit, the site is UNESCO patrimony.

  • Andrew Forrester

    Like Lead White, Cadmium Red and Yellow are deprecated as well.

    • thom thomy

      I am sorry but I don’t think that is true.

  • Ciaran Taylor

    I remember being fascinated by the story of Indian Yellow when I read it in Mayer’s “Tha Artist’s Handbook” years ago. More recentley I read Victoria Finlay’s 2004 book Colour: A Natural History of the Palette, where she casts doubt on the story and returns Indian Yellow to mystery: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_yellow.

  • Iris Lavy

    Very interesting article!

    On a side note: I find it comical that the word ‘painting’ has become practically a dirty word, as the opening paragraph as well as the title refer to ‘colors’ used in ‘art’ when in actuality the reference is to *paints* used in *painting*…. The word ‘pigment’ is used correctly, but the words paint or paintings are not mentioned even once!

    “The Colorful Stories of 5 Obsolete Art Pigments
    The colors of art change not just with trends, but availability as well. For reasons of being incredibly poisonous, expensive, or just involving way too many snails, here are five pigments that have disappeared from art.”

  • Kristopher Johnson
  • Kristopher Johnson
  • BAASICS

    Great little round-up! Thanks!

    I’d like to add that Tyrian Purple was not the only pigment created from the Hexaplex trunculus snail. Tchelet, the significant blue threads/fringes attached to tzitzit (the tassels on a tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl), were not produced for generations because Jews couldn’t figure out how the blue pigment/dye had been made. Only relatively recently did researchers conclude that the Hexaplex trunculus snail was used…and, while it may be expensive, the snails are again being used by some Israelis to produce the dye. File under information lost and found! :)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hexaplex_trunculus#Human_use

  • roughplacesplain

    The lapis lazuli that comes out of Afganistan these days is nowhere near as clear and blue as in years past; it’s much duller and grayer, albeit still expensive.

  • Mike Boyce

    Hello I have some of the old mummy brown from Winsor and Newton you talk about made from the mummys.
    I live in Oregon and welcome all info or questions.
    From the estate of E Barchus.
    I also have large Barchus painted with medium
    Thank you Mike.
    Mgboyce1@gmail.com

  • Jringstad

    Nifty article. Made me remember enjoying using a black oil paint called Asphaltum.

  • Apelles1

    Great article! One reason I still use lead white, is that it is the only white I have used that can go from opaque to transparent, scumbling (opaque to transparent in action) is only really possible with lead white. If you look at a 17th century painting in the flesh you will see what I mean, look at both clouds and lace to see the full effect. This really is only apparent when you look at the painting first hand as this is too subtle to see in reproduction but is one of the many things that make true painting so hypnotic.

    I would also add Naples Yellow to this list, like lead white only yellow-instant light.

  • patrickdieter

    Dragon’s Blood is NOT Cinnabar. Cinnabar is Mercuric Oxide, and is of course toxic.

  • Rob

    The real question is how do we get modern safe analogs of these pigments and colours?

  • Paul g

    Wondered if anyone had mentioned Anatolian bole. Another obsolete pigment from the world of ceramics. Fascinating story,http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/iznik-tile-artists-briefly-paint-the-town-red.aspx?pageID=238&nID=57207&NewsCatID=438

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