Pigment: a new series looking at pigments in paintings

Artists’ materials have been a major influence on the history of art. Impressionism couldn’t have followed the Renaissance, because the high chroma colours and portable painting kit simply weren’t available.

Painting centres on the application of pigments to the ground. Whatever the intent of the artist, what the viewer sees is determined by the painter’s skill in using and combining the right pigments. As pigments have changed, so art has been able to change.

I have previously looked at the effects of changing availability of pigments on the type, style, and look of paintings. Over the coming weeks I am going to attempt something complementary, but quite different: I will look at the history and use of different pigments, and the paintings in which they have been used.

Ultramarine is a well-known example. Once more expensive than gold, it was the ultimate deep blue pigment for several centuries. Its use determined the price of paintings, and its cost was often an extra specified in a commission and paid for separately by the customer. The colour of fine quality natural ultramarine dominates the look of many paintings of the Virgin and Child, and has come to be almost inseparable from that motif.

The first article, to appear here very shortly, looks at Cobalt Blue, a pigment little-known to those who don’t paint, but greatly valued by artists since its introduction at the start of the nineteenth century. More than any other blue pigment, its use has determined the look of many of Turner’s works, those of the Pre-Raphaelites, and the Impressionists.

I hope that you enjoy this series, and that it proves as interesting and revealing as it has been to research.


Cobalt Blue, the 19th century sky

Technical Note: How do we know which pigments an artist used?

Most art materials, particularly pigments, have been the subject of instructional books, compilations of recipes for preparation and use, secrecy, and great speculation. As you will see in some of the articles, pigments have sometimes been claimed to have been used, but objective evidence of their use is either very limited, or lacking altogether.

Unless I indicate otherwise, where a specific pigment is reported as being used in a given painting, it means that conservation specialists have demonstrated its presence using specific and reliable techniques. The methods now include chemical analysis of paint samples, their examination under a microscope, X-ray diffraction, various forms of spectroscopy, X-ray and gamma-ray emission methods, even a Star Trek-like instrument known as XRF.

There are also written records, contemporary and later, by artists themselves, their assistants, and others who may be more of less familiar with the artist’s palette and techniques. Unfortunately, these are often much less reliable. Where it has been claimed that a particular painting was made using a pigment, but that is not currently supported by physical or chemical evidence of the presence of that pigment, I will make that clear, and where possible give the source of that claim.

References given for each article will take you to the technical source which I have used when compiling the article. These are normally chapters in the superb series Artists’ Pigments, A Handbook of their History and Characteristics, sometimes supplemented by others, such as detailed discussions of written records and other claims. If you want more information, please ask in a comment or send me an email.