Pigments and Dyes: Where Do Colors Come From?

Our contemporary world is dominated by digital images on movie screens, computer monitors, smart phones and tablets. The millions of colors we see there are nearly all the result of electronic magic.

Surrounded by all these new ephemeral images it is easy to overlook, or even forget, that artists’ materials originally came from very real sources. Some of those sources were, and are, common, but some are quite exotic. In future posts I’ll talk about other art materials but for this blog post let’s take a quick look at pigments and dyes – the substances that produce the colors used to make paints and inks as well as for coloring fabrics.

Pigments differ from dyes in that they are generally insoluble, meaning they don’t dissolve in the water, oil, varnish or other medium used to make up most of what we call paint or ink. Tiny particles of pigment are merely suspended in the medium. Dyes, on the other hand, are either liquid already or they easily dissolve in the surrounding medium.

This definition generally holds true but there are exceptions (It can be confusing, I know).

The most basic pigments come from plentiful sources and produce what are often called “earth tones.” Burnt wood, for example, produces charcoal used to make black. Different clay soils are used to create ochre and browns such as burnt umber and raw sienna.

cave painting of animals

Charcoal, soot, clay and iron ore were common pigments used by pre-historic people creating images on cave walls. Looking at these cave paintings we can see the limited range of colors produced by those commonplace pigments.

Throughout history other pigments were discovered or developed and it’s usually quite interesting to learn about their origin. Let’s look at a few examples…

Lead-tin-yellow dates back to the 13th century. It was developed by artisans working to create crystal glass and was a common yellow used in oil painting until the 18th century when it was replaced by Naples yellow.

Lead-tin-yellow obviously contains lead and is not a healthy product. Lead, however, is only one of the poisonous substances artists have used for pigments. Vermillion, for another example, is a warm red color verging on orange. It was originally made by grinding the mineral cinnabar which contains mercury, a substance that is toxic even to touch.

Other colored pigments were originally produced using minerals and various organic substances that are quite rare and were traditionally used very sparingly. Lapis lazuli, for example, is a semi precious stone used to make the color ultramarine blue. Because it is rare, 16th century artists charged extra for a painting that featured that color.

In this painting by Johannes Vermeer you can see the use of both lead-tin-yellow and ultramarine blue.

Oil painting by Johannes Vermeer

An even more exotic coloring agent was the dye used to make Tyrian Purple. It was harvested from the mucus of a species of snails. The use of Tyrion Purple dates back more than 3,000 years to the ancient Phoenicians. Because this dye was so rare and difficult to make, the color purple was reserved for the garments of royalty and extremely wealthy individuals.

Indian yellow is another of these exotic pigments and was very popular with Dutch painters in the 17th and 18th centuries. Indian yellow was the basis for the pale, luminescent depiction of sunshine in many of their landscape paintings. The pigment, however, did not originate from an equally romantic source. It was made from the urine of cattle who had been fed an exclusive diet of mango leaves. The practice of essentially starving cows in order to acquire a small amount of coloring agent was eventually outlawed in the early 20th century.

Our final example of an organic source for a coloring agent is carmine that produces a deep red crimson color. Carmine is one of those agents that can be either a pigment or a dye and that’s partially what has made it so valuable. Extracted from ground up cochineal insects common to Central and South America, carmine became very popular with painters and garment makers in Europe after it was introduced by returning Spanish explorers during the 16th century. This is the dye used to color the robes of Catholic Cardinals and it was the color source for the English army’s redcoats.

oil painting portrait that uses the color carmine

You might think that carmine would have fallen by the wayside in today’s world of synthetics but that’s not the case. Even though there are alternatives, carmine is still used in paint as well as cosmetics and food coloring.

These are only a few examples of the coloring agents used by artists over the years. Today there are synthetic versions of most of the colors we use but nearly all of them refer back to colors originally developed from more organic sources.

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