After our first installment of obsolete pigments, we had such a strong response that we realized we’d only hit the tip of the curious history of vanished colors. Below are a few more pigments that have mostly gone out of favor, due to them being hazardous to the health of their manufacturers or artists, having a shortage of their weird material (antlers, for example), or just advances in technology replacing them with synthetics.
Made from arsenic and sulphide, orpiment was naturally very toxic. According to New Scientist, the vivid “King’s Yellow” as it was known was very popular with 17th century Dutch masters, sometimes mixed with blue to make their landscapes green. Yet not only were the fumes poisonous, it also apparently smelled horrid. Furthermore, it would react with the then-common lead pigments. As John Emsley’s The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison describes, “not all artists were so enamoured because it caused other pigments to turn black if it was painted over, and this was especially so if they were using white lead, which slowly reacted with the sulphur in the orpiment to form black lead sulphide.”
One pigment that could mix with the above mentioned orpiment was Hartshorn. Yet the rustic-feeling white got its natural color from calcined deer antlers, which are hard to keep in abundant supply.
Hartshorn, however, is not the only bone-based pigment that was once popular. Ivory Black, which was made from singed elephant tusks and other ivory, and bone char, were also used, and were particularly fond of artists like Rembrandt who would paint swathes of black on their work. According to Art in the Making: Rembrandt by David Bomford, the blacks the artist used were “almost always provided by bone or ivory black, prepared, as the name suggests, from animal bones or waste ivory by charring in a closed crucible.”
To go along with those infamously poisonous pigments is the notorious Paris Green. The incredibly toxic pigment was an effort to improve Scheele’s Green, a copper arsenite, with Paris Green involving arsenic and verdigris (see below). It gets its name from being used to kill rats in the sewers of Paris, and it was also used as an insecticide, but that was all after it had already been used as a pigment in art and other uses, including, most hazardously, wallpaper where when combined with moisture it released an arsine gas.
For a less deadly green, illuminated medieval manuscripts were frequently colored with the iris flower in a color called Iris Green. As the Pigment Compendium by Valentine Walsh and Tracey Chaplin describes, the juice from petals of plants such as parsley, nightshade, rue, and honeysuckle were frequently used, but it was the iris that gave a nice color from its blue and purple petals. Yet it was a time consuming process and required a whole heap of flowers to have enough juice to pull out the pigment (sourced from chlorophyl) with scraps of linen.
Sepia color has far from vanished, although its original main ingredient is not so common. The sepia pigment was originally made in the 18th century from ink sacs taken from animals, particularly cuttlefish (cuttlefish bones were also sometimes used in pigments). According to Painting Materials by R.J. Gettens and G. L. Stout, “the secretion from one cuttle-fish [was] able to turn a thousand gallons of water opaque in a few seconds.”
The powder blue color of Cobalt Blue glass found its way into a pigment called Smalt. It was an affordable color as it was made from ground up blue glass, and the Renaissance painters frequently used it to add a shimmer to their work. You can also see it in Vermeer’s early pieces, like “Diana and her Companions,” as well as some portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger.
Uranium gives off an entrancing glow, and that characteristic made an appearance as a pigment in glass and ceramics. Although the radioactivity of Uranium Yellow wasn’t as hazardous as, say, eating White Lead paint or using Paris Green, it was enough to stop its use.
Gamboge, a yellow resin-based pigment sourced from trees in Cambodia, has a rather macabre story as it progressed from the 19th century into the 20th. As Radiolab reported in “The Perfect Yellow,” during that century’s wars, unspent bullets and mud from battlefields were getting mixed into the Gamboge collected.
The chemistry of the canvas also resulted in the once widely prevalent Verdigris, a bluish green, almost entirely disappearing. It was used in the Middle Ages through the 19th as a popular vibrant green, made with copper plates and acetic acid. This tactic made it very unstable, however, and it would get darker with age. However, as Philip Ball points out in his book Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, this may have been a result of mixing it with resin, and that organic addition later turning it black.
Get Hyperallergic in your Inbox!
Subscribe to our email newsletter. (Daily or Weekly)