Articles

More Vibrant Tales of Obsolete Pigments

by Allison Meier on July 8, 2013

Vintage paint tubes (photograph by Jody Morris/Flickr user)

Vintage paint tubes (photograph by Jody Morris/Flickr user)

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.

Orpiment

Detail of Jan Davidsz. de Heem's "Festoon with Flowers and Fruit" (1660s), oil on panel, said to have been painted with orpiment (via Wikimedia)

Detail of Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s “Festoon with Flowers and Fruit” (1660s), oil on panel, said to have been painted with orpiment (via Wikimedia)

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.”

Hartshorn

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.

Ivory Black

Rembrandt, "Old Man with a Gold Chain" (1631), oil on panel (via Wikimedia)

Rembrandt, “Old Man with a Gold Chain” (1631), oil on panel (via Wikimedia)

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.”

Paris Green

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.

Iris Green

The Antichrist on the Leviathan, from "Liber Floridus" (1120). Illuminated medieval manuscripts regularly used Iris Green. (via Google Books)

The Antichrist on the Leviathan, from “Liber Floridus” (1120). Illuminated medieval manuscripts regularly used Iris Green. (via Google Books)

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 Ink

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.”

Smalt

Smalt used in Hans Holbein the Younger's "Sir William Butts" (1540–43) (via National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia)

Smalt used in Hans Holbein the Younger’s “Sir William Butts” (1540–43) (via National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia)

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 Yellow

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

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.

Verdigris

Veronese's "Allegory of love," where the fabric pattern in the background painted with Verdigris has turned from green to brown over the years (via Wikimedia)

Veronese’s “Allegory of love,” where the fabric pattern in the background painted with Verdigris has turned from green to brown over the years (via Wikimedia)

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.

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  • Kristopher Johnson
  • Sarah Portland

    Thanks for posting these. I’m fascinated by color, and I’ve been sharing these stories with non-artist friends as well.

  • Helen Glazer

    Here’s another good one — carmine red, made from boiled insects:
    “To prepare carmine, the powdered scale insect bodies are boiled in ammonia or a sodium carbonate solution, the insoluble matter is removed by filtering, and alum is added to the clear salt solution of carminic acid to precipitate the red aluminium salt, called ‘carmine lake’ or ‘crimson lake.'” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carmine)

  • Jim Nawara

    Thanks for the two good articles regarding pigment history and
    sources.

    The following pigments that were discussed are currently available in oil
    and/or watercolor artist grade paints from a few suppliers: Lead White (aka
    Flake White, Cremnitz White, Flemish White, etc.) Maya Blue, Lapis Lazuli.
    Ivory Black (genuine, made from charred ivory), Smalt, and Genuine Vermillion
    (made from mercuric sulphide).

    Of these the Maya Blue is a researched and reconstructed pigment that is a
    duller blue than the original “sky blue” color. The ancient mine
    sources for Lapis lazuli are played out and the best ore is not available, so
    the current paint available is a ghost of the original. Smalt is available in
    watercolor and produces interesting granular washes. Not surprisingly these
    specialized paints are pricey. Genuine Vermillion is extremely costly and it
    can darken when exposed to strong sunlight (I saw this in a test that I did).

    Lead White oil paint is desired by painters because of its excellent properties
    and handling on the brush. It is an excellent and relatively rapid drier that
    produces a strong paint film that is historically proven. Lead white
    “feels” good and is a joy to paint with. Less opaque than Titanium
    White, it does not easily overpower colors ( While more opaque, Titanium White
    produces a weaker paint film and can make a painting look chalky.

    Overall, along with the durable historical pigments, the newer pigments
    available today for artists are a great improvement. However it is most
    important to remember that the art is in the artist, not the paint.

  • Nancy Lebovitz

    All I’ve done is check at wikipedia, but I think cadmium is being used less.

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