Pigment: an introduction and contents

Sassoferrato (1609-1685), The Virgin in Prayer (1640-50), oil on canvas, 73 x 57.7 cm, The National Gallery (Bequeathed by Richard Simmons, 1846), London. Courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

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:
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3

Articles in Chromatic Order

11, The Forgotten Yellow of the Masters (lead-tin yellow)

From about 1300-1750.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), Belshazzar’s Feast (c 1635-1638), oil on canvas, 167.6 x 209.2 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

22, What used to be Naples Yellow

From about 1600-1930.

Gabriel von Max (1840–1915), Monkeys as Judges of Art (1889), oil on canvas, 85 x 107 cm, Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

3, A tale of two yellows, Indian and Chrome

Indian Yellow – used between about 1600-1910.

Artist Unknown, Mongol Chieftain and Attendants, folio from the Gulshan Album (Rose Garden album) (Mughal, c 1600), opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper, 42.3 x 26.5 cm, The Freer & Sackler Galleries (https://www.freersackler.si.edu/object/mongol-chieftain-and-attendants-folio-from-the-gulshan-album-rose-garden-album/), The Smithsonian, Washington, DC. Courtesy of and © 2018 The Freer & Sackler Galleries, The Smithsonian.

Chrome Yellow – used between about 1800-1900.

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), The Railway Cutting (c 1870), oil on canvas, 80 × 129 cm, Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

6, Arsenic, Orpiment and Realgar

Orpiment – used between about 1275-1890.
Realgar – used between about 1500-1800.

Antoine Watteau (1684–1721), The Italian Comedians (c 1720), oil on canvas, 63.8 x 76.2 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

19, Controversial Cadmiums, yellow to red

From about 1845 to the present.

Claude Monet (1840–1926), Stacks of Wheat (Sunset, Snow Effect) (1890-91), oil on canvas, 65.3 x 100.4 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

16, Red Lead, protective but poisonous

Used between about 1-1960.

Jan Miense Molenaer (c 1610-1668), A Young Man playing a Theorbo and a Young Woman playing a Cittern (c 1630-32), oil on canvas, 68 x 84 cm, The National Gallery (Bought (Clarke Fund), 1889), London. Courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

4, Vermilion, the red of heaven

Used between about 1300-1900.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Descent from the Cross (centre panel of triptych) (1612-14), oil on panel, 421 x 311 cm, Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal, Antwerp, Belgium. Image by Alvesgaspar, via Wikimedia Commons.

8, Crimson, Madder and Alizarin

Madder Lake – between about 1450-1870.
Alizarin – from 1891 to the present.

Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675), Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (c 1654-56), oil on canvas, 158.5 x 141.5 cm, The National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland. Wikimedia Commons.

20, Azurite Blue, the mainstay

From before 1300 to about 1800.

Albrecht Altdorfer (1480–1538), Christ taking leave of his Mother (c 1520), oil on lime, 141 x 111 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.
Albrecht Altdorfer (1480–1538), Christ taking leave of his Mother (c 1520), oil on lime, 141 x 111 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

1, Cobalt Blue, the 19th century sky

From about 1806 to the present.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up (1839), oil on canvas, 90.7 × 121.6 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

7, Ground glass (Smalt)

From before 1500 to the present.

Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588-1629), Jacob Reproaching Laban for Giving him Leah in Place of Rachel (1627), oil on canvas, 97.5 x 114.3 cm, The National Gallery (bought, 1926), London. Courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

13, The first modern pigment, Prussian Blue

From 1710 to the present.

Jean-Baptiste Perronneau (1715/16-1783), A Girl with a Kitten (c 1743), pastel on paper, 59.1 x 49.8 cm, The National Gallery (Presented by Sir Joseph Duveen, 1921), London. Image courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

14, The blue from over the sea, Ultramarine

From about 1300 to the present.

Sassoferrato (1609-1685), The Virgin in Prayer (1640-50), oil on canvas, 73 x 57.7 cm, The National Gallery (Bequeathed by Richard Simmons, 1846), London. Courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

9, Indigo the unreliable

From before 1450 to the present.

Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck (c 1600/1603–1662), Portrait of a Girl Dressed in Blue (1641), oil on canvas, 82 x 66.5 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

21, the green earth of Cyprus (Green Earths)

From before 100 BCE to the present.

Michelangelo (1475-1564), The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels (‘The Manchester Madonna’) (c 1497), tempera on wood, 104.5 x 77 cm, The National Gallery (Bought, 1870), London. Courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

17, The unusual green of Malachite

Used between about 600-1900.

Watanabe Kazan 渡辺崋山 (1793-1841), Portrait of Sato Issai 佐藤一斎(五十歳)像 (1824), ink and colour on silk mounted on panel, 212.2 x 67 cm, Freer Gallery of Art (Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment), Washington, DC. Courtesy of the Freer Gallery and the Smithsonian Institution.

15, Poison Greens, Scheele’s and Emerald Greens

Scheele’s Green – used between about 1780-1830
Emerald Green – used between about 1814-1960

Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), Arlésiennes (Mistral) (1888), oil on jute, 73 x 92 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

18, In Monet’s shadow, Chromium Oxide and Viridian

From about 1840 to the present.

Édouard Manet (1832–1883), The Balcony (1868-69), oil on canvas, 170 × 124.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

5, Copper rust, Verdigris and Copper Resinate

Verdigris – used between about 1300-1850.

Michael Pacher (1435–1498), Altarpiece of the Church Fathers (detail, St Ambrose) (1471-1475), colour on wood, 103 × 91 cm, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Copper resinate glaze – used between about 1400-1880.

Tintoretto (1519–1594), Saint George and the Dragon (c 1555), oil on canvas, 158.3 x 100.5 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

2, Asphalt, an unfortunate habit

Used intermittently between about 1600-1900.

Gerrit Dou (1613–1675), The Young Mother (1658), oil on panel, 73.5 x 55.5 cm, Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

10, Blackest Black

From the dawn of painting to the present.

El Greco (1541–1614), The Disrobing of Christ (1583-84), oil on canvas, 165 x 99 cm, Alte Pinakothek, Maxvorstadt, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

23, Two whites, lead and chalk

Lead white – used between about 300 BCE to c 2010

Raphael (Rafael Sanzio de Urbino) (1483–1520), The Miraculous Draft of Fishes (c 1515-16), bodycolour over charcoal on paper, mounted on canvas, 319 x 399 cm, The Royal Collection of the United Kingdom, UK. Wikimedia Commons.

Chalk white – used mainly for grounds from about 1200 to the present

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and possibly Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), Deborah Kip, Wife of Sir Balthasar Gerbier, and Her Children (1629-30, reworked probably c 1645), oil on canvas, 165.8 x 177.8 cm, The National Gallery of Art (Andrew W. Mellon Fund), Washington, DC. Courtesy of The National Gallery of Art.

12, A white less toxic, Chinese white

From about 1780 to the present.

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Plain near Auvers (1890), oil on canvas, 73.5 x 92 cm, Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.