The Evolution of Pigments Through the Ages

Feb 6, 2023

People have appreciated beauty and sought to make their own beautiful art since the beginning of time. Whether they wanted to document a hunt on a cave wall or create something to honor the gods, people have found various ways to make lasting art. To do so, they have used pigments for hundreds of thousands of years. We still use pigments in various types of art today, from putting glow-in-the-dark pigments in resin jewelry to mixing custom paints for a wall hanging. The evolution of pigments through the ages and understanding how we got from those first cave paintings to seemingly magical glowing paint is fascinating and worth learning about.

First Pigments

The first pigments were earth tones that early humans could easily make. They used these pigments to paint on the walls of caves; you can see some of the most well-preserved and famous cave paintings in the Lascaux caves near Montignac, France.

You’ll notice that most of the colors in these pigmented pictures are red, yellow, black, and white. This is because those colors are the easiest to make with natural substances. People found red and yellow clay deposits in various locations and used that clay as paint, sometimes mixing it with animal fat to stick it better to the cave wall. Black pigments were made with soot from burning charcoal or animal fat. White pigments often came from chalk.

Early Pigments

As humans developed civilizations, they continued to make art. However, they now had more canvases to paint on than just cave walls, which made them want better pigments with more colors. First, the ancient Egyptians and Chinese artists learned how to clean pigments so their colors would appear brighter and last longer. Then various cultures, including the Egyptians and Chinese, began experimenting with new minerals and other pigment ingredients to make more colors.

Ancient Egyptians created what we now call Egyptian blue with a combination of ground sand and copper. Some people consider the ground sand closer to glass since glass is just melted-down sand. Regardless, the combination of sand/glass and copper creates a brilliant shade of blue that the ancient Egyptians used in various art forms, from pottery to wall hangings.

The ancient Chinese discovered that the mineral mercury sulfide, or cinnabar, can create a brilliant red that we now call vermillion. While the Chinese weren’t the only people to discover this red mineral, they were one of the first civilizations to use it in art. You can also see vermillion or cinnabar in Turkish and Mayan art, especially at burial sites.

One of the most iconic colors created during this time of rising civilizations was purple. Ancient Greeks and Romans discovered that the marine murex snail produced a mucus that could eventually make a brilliant purple. The only problem was that they had to gather thousands of these snails and boil them for days. Since this process of gathering snails and boiling them was so intensive and long, purple was expensive to make, and only the elite could purchase it. We still associate purple with wealth and royalty today because of this early pigment process.

Artistic Pigments

As trade routes opened and civilizations rose into countries full of pomp and circumstance, art and pigments continued to evolve. Cultures temporarily abandoned their love for art as they focused on more practical skills such as building cities and winning wars. However, the lack of art eventually led to an artistic revolution we now call the Renaissance. The Renaissance started in Italy but swept through much of Europe, and artists rose in their professional standing within society.

Earning that higher professional standing meant creating new pigments and hiring assistants to make them. Italian artists learned that roasting earth pigments like sienna could create deeper, more vibrant shades that looked wonderful in paintings. Other artists expanded from burning earth pigments to grinding precious stones to make rich colors, such as using lapis lazuli to create ultramarine. Assistants mixed these pigments with various solvents, most commonly linseed oil, to create oil paints that stuck well to canvases.

Distributing Pigments

Several hundred years after the Renaissance, Europe began to expand across the globe. Various European empires wanted more opportunities, more land, more spices, and even more pigments for art. Europeans discovered that North America had chrome deposits they could use to make a more opaque yellow than they had previously used.

Science was also developing as the world widened, which led to the discovery that scientists could isolate zinc. Isolating zinc could create the color white in a less hazardous way than the previously popular lead white. People also discovered that scientists could create synthetic paints, which were often faster and easier to produce than the paints Italian assistants had to mix by hand during the Renaissance.

Synthetic and natural paints required storage as they traveled throughout the world in the expanding European empires. Businesses learned how to package these materials for sale and travel purposes, making them more accessible to the masses, not just artists.

Pigments Today

Pigments have continued to evolve, even as trade routes have stopped evolving and we’ve settled into the 21st century. Some scholars believe that this settling has led to a second Renaissance. The world is appreciating beauty again, which means people are making more art and exploring new ways to make that art, including with new pigments.

We have discovered most natural and synthetic pigments. However, artists and scientists are continuing to work together to create new artistic possibilities. For example, chemists at Oregon State University accidentally created a new, vibrant shade of blue in 2009 while experimenting with yttrium, indium, and manganese. And when there are no new colors to be found, people continue to give pigments exciting new properties, such as the ability to glow in the dark or color shift under different lights. Artistic evolution never stops.

Humans remain artistic and curious through the ages, which means pigments and their properties continue to evolve. We’re proud to be part of that evolution here at Eye Candy Pigments, creating mica powder pigments that are both colorful and safe. We even have glow-in-the-dark pigment powder for the artistically adventurous who want to experiment with all pigments have to offer. These pigments charge in sunlight so that when it gets dark, they glow a new or different color, giving your art an incredible new look. The artistic cavemen who first discovered red, yellow, black, and white could only have dreamed of this.

The Evolution of Pigments Through the Ages