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. This series looks at something complementary, but quite different: 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.
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.
Robert L Feller, ed (1986) Artists’ Pigments, vol 1, Archetype. ISBN 978 1 904982 74 6.
Ashok Roy, ed (1993) Artists’ Pigments, vol 2, Archetype. ISBN 978 1 904982 75 3.
Elisabeth West Fitzhugh, ed (1997) Artists’ Pigments, vol 3, Archetype. ISBN 978 1 904982 76 0.
Barbara H Berrie, ed (2007) Artists’ Pigments, vol 4, Archetype. ISBN 978 1 904982 23 4.
Margriet van Eikeina Hommes (2004) Changing Pictures, Discoloration in 15th-17th Century Oil Paintings, Archetype. ISBN 978 1 873 13239 5.
The first three volumes of Artists’ Pigments are available as free downloads (large PDFs) from:
Articles in Chromatic Order
11, The Forgotten Yellow of the Masters (lead-tin yellow)
From about 1300-1750.
22, What used to be Naples Yellow
From about 1600-1930.
3, A tale of two yellows, Indian and Chrome
Indian Yellow – used between about 1600-1910.
Chrome Yellow – used between about 1800-1900.
6, Arsenic, Orpiment and Realgar
Orpiment – used between about 1275-1890.
Realgar – used between about 1500-1800.
19, Controversial Cadmiums, yellow to red
From about 1845 to the present.
16, Red Lead, protective but poisonous
Used between about 1-1960.
4, Vermilion, the red of heaven
Used between about 1300-1900.
8, Crimson, Madder and Alizarin
Madder Lake – between about 1450-1870.
Alizarin – from 1891 to the present.
20, Azurite Blue, the mainstay
From before 1300 to about 1800.
1, Cobalt Blue, the 19th century sky
From about 1806 to the present.
From before 1500 to the present.
13, The first modern pigment, Prussian Blue
From 1710 to the present.
14, The blue from over the sea, Ultramarine
From about 1300 to the present.
From before 1450 to the present.
21, the green earth of Cyprus (Green Earths)
From before 100 BCE to the present.
17, The unusual green of Malachite
Used between about 600-1900.
15, Poison Greens, Scheele’s and Emerald Greens
Scheele’s Green – used between about 1780-1830
Emerald Green – used between about 1814-1960
18, In Monet’s shadow, Chromium Oxide and Viridian
From about 1840 to the present.
5, Copper rust, Verdigris and Copper Resinate
Verdigris – used between about 1300-1850.
Copper resinate glaze – used between about 1400-1880.
2, Asphalt, an unfortunate habit
Used intermittently between about 1600-1900.
From the dawn of painting to the present.
23, Two whites, lead and chalk
Lead white – used between about 300 BCE to c 2010
Chalk white – used mainly for grounds from about 1200 to the present
12, A white less toxic, Chinese white
From about 1780 to the present.