A Brief History of Color in Art
Artists invented the first pigments—a combination of soil, animal fat, burnt charcoal, and chalk—as early as 40,000 years ago, creating a basic palette of five colors: red, yellow, brown, black, and white. Since then, the history of color has been one of perpetual discovery, whether through exploration or scientific advancement. The invention of new pigments accompanied the developments of art history’s greatest movements—from the
First employed in prehistoric cave paintings, red ochre is one of the oldest pigments still in use.
Found in iron-rich soil and first employed as an artistic material (as far as we know) in
For hundreds of years, the cost of lapis lazuli rivaled even the price of gold.
Ever since the Virgin Mary in a bright blue robe, choosing the color not for its religious symbolism, but rather for its hefty price tag. Mary’s iconic hue—called ultramarine blue—comes from lapis lazuli, a gemstone that for centuries could only be found in a single mountain range in Afghanistan. This precious material achieved global popularity, adorning Egyptian funerary portraits, Iranian Qur’ans, and later the headdress in color became the French artist’s signature. Explaining the appeal of this historic hue, Klein said, “Blue has no dimensions. It is beyond dimensions.”
Turner used the experimental watercolor Indian Yellow—a fluorescent paint derived from the urine of mango-fed cows.
Few artists in history have been known for their use of yellow, though
Green pigments have been some of the most poisonous in history.
While the color green evokes nature and renewal, its pigments have been some of the most poisonous in history. In 1775, the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented a deadly hue, Scheele’s Green, a bright green pigment laced with the toxic chemical arsenic. Cheap to produce, Scheele’s Green became a sensation in the Victorian era, even though many suspected the color to be dangerous for artists and patrons alike. The French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom wallpaper even featured Scheele’s Green, and historians believe the pigment caused the revolutionary’s death in 1821. By the end of the 19th century, Paris Green—a similar mixture of copper and arsenic—replaced Scheele’s Green as a more durable alternative, enabling
The Impressionists—especially Monet—so adored the new hue that critics accused the painters of having “violettomania.”
“I have finally discovered the true color of the atmosphere,”
The darkest pigment of the Old Masters, “bone black” is produced by burning animal bones in an air-free chamber.
The darkest pigment found in
Of all the pigments that have been banned over the centuries, the color most missed by painters is likely Lead White.
Of all the pigments—Chrome Yellow, Scheele’s Green, Paris Green—that have been banned over the centuries, the color most missed by painters is likely Lead White. This hue could capture and reflect a gleam of light like no other, though its production was anything but glamorous. The 17th-century Dutch method for manufacturing the pigment involved layering cow and horse manure over lead and vinegar. After three months in a sealed room, these materials would combine to create flakes of pure white. While scientists in the late 19th century identified lead as poisonous, it wasn’t until 1978 that the United States banned the production of lead white paint. In this era,