A History of Pigments Review

by Adam Pursell, Honorary Secretary, SDC North of England Region.

‘A History of Pigments – Cave painting to Modern Day’ was the title of this recent event organised by SDC’s North of England Region.

The evening started with a hot buffet, once again spoken very highly of by all in attendance! Conversation flowed and was enjoyed by all, a mix of attendees from all aspects of industry and academia, even a couple of officers of the Midlands region!

Dr Christine Holdstock was introduced by Dr Muriel Rigout, Honorary Chair of the North of England Region. Christine started the evening by showing the group a ‘hand-crocheted-space-dyed’ cardigan.

The talk, held on a similar theme to last year’s Mike Crabtree memorial lecture, went through the discovery, development and use of pigments.

Pigments, insoluble matter used to colour materials, have been dated back to around 75,000 years old, with an early cave drawing found in South Africa. Red Ochre, a natural pigment has its earliest evidence dated to 30,000 BC. Cave paintings have been found all over the world, with the pigments used being local to the cave. The earliest colours were earth tones.

The ancient Egyptians started to use pigment to add detail and desirability to tomb artwork, green and blue was introduced to highlight the sky and the Nile. Green pigment was derived from malachite, a copper carbonate hydroxide, with yellow coming from orpiment, an arsenic sulphide. Dr Holdtsock showed us an image of Tutankhamun’s famous death mask, and told us how the brilliant blue was a pigment called Lapis Lazuli, a precious stone from Afghanistan. This blue pigment was worth more than the gold it was painted on to.

The first synthetic blue, Egyptian Blue, calcium copper silicate was a blend of sand, malachite and heat (up to around 1000oc!)

Ancient Greeks started to develop more synthetic pigments around 1500BC, developing a red, yellow and white. One example of production is quite interesting, and leads you to ask…how did anyone ever think of that! Lead would be steeped in open jars of vinegar, and placed in a sealed room full of dung. The result would be lead carbonate, which when dried created a white pigment.

The ‘ancient’ methods of production still existed and this was how all pigments were manufactured up until around 1600AD. It was around this time that the Pope decreed that as Lapis Lazuli was so expensive, that it may only be used on depictions of the Virgin Mary (hence why we always see her in blue).

In the 1700s, synthetic pigments became more popular and important; Prussian Blue, Scheeles Green, Zinc White and synthetic ultramarine were now available. Around 20 pigments were available, with 12 of them being ‘modern synthetic’. One interesting synthetic pigment is Klein Blue, referred to as the truest form of blue possible. It gives a thick velvety quality with a deep intense ultramarine tone.

The lecture wrapped up with Christine highlighting that thanks to all the previous developments, we now have the modern 4 colour printing system of CMKY.

SDC events offer a great mix of education and networking. Come and join us! For future events please check the website.

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Comments (2)

  • Avatar

    Martin Bide


    Wish I’d been there to hear it!
    A typo, probably, but orpiment is a yellow pigment


    • Avatar



      Well spotted Martin! Typo duly corrected. We were just checking you were paying attention… You missed a great evening!


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