“The Fascinating History and Origins of Pigments and Colors – Exploring the World of Color”

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When you go to the store and pick up a box of oil paints or acrylics, you do not think twice about its provenance or the history of pigments and colors. We take it for granted, but picking up an infinite array of colors has only been available in recent centuries.  

Origin of Pigments and colors

In 1992, an excavation in a cave (Blombos Cave) East of Cape Town in South Africa revealed the first paint kit, “paint-making kits, sitting in the cave in a layer of dune sand, just where they had been left 100,000 years ago. The find is the oldest-known example of a human-made compound mixture, said study researcher Christopher Henshilwood, an archaeologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg“.

The paint found in South Africa shows that minerals have been used as colorants. Yellow earth for ocher tones, red dirt, white chalk, and carbon black from the soot. One of the earliest examples is the art found by pure chance by 18-year-old Marcel Ravidat at the Lascaux caves near Montignac in the department of Dordogne in France. The art in the Lascaux cave contains nearly 6,000 figures and is dated between 50,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Lascaux France Cave Prehistoric Painting
Lascaux France Cave Prehistoric Painting

Early Civilizations

Greek and Egyptian civilizations, 5000 years ago, started using beeswax, gum Arabic, linseed oil, acrylic polymer, and egg yolk (Egg tempera was a primary method of painting pigment additives until after 1500) to their pigments. Pigments were produced on a larger scale by the Egyptians and the Chinese.

Earth colors were cleaned and washed, increasing their strength and purity, and new pigments appeared from minerals such as malachite, azurite, and cinnabar – prized as the first known bright red. Egyptian blue was made by grounding into a powder blue glass made from sand and copper. It requires lots of grounding and hard work; thus, it is costly.

First recorded uses of oil in painting. 

The earliest surviving oil paintings are Buddhist murals in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Bamiyan was a settlement along the Silk Road known for the Bamiyan Buddhas, two colossal statues carved directly into the cliff holding guard to hiding rooms and tunnels. It is in these rooms that the first murals with oil painting were discovered (6th and 7th A.D.).

Europeans adopted the technique only in the fifteenth century with the Early Netherlandish image in Northern Europe. Like Jan Van Eyck and Rogier Van de Weyden. Jan van Eryck had been incorrectly credited with the invention of oil painting. He did expand on the technique and its usage in art. Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin were the first to make oil the usual painting medium and explore the use of layers and glazes. 

Importance of Trading Routes.

The Silk Road was a network of trade routes connecting China, the Far East, the Middle East, and Europe (130 B.C.- 1453 A.D). Trading along the Silk Road included grain, leather, hides, tools, religious objects, artwork, color pigment, spices, language, culture, religious beliefs, philosophy, and science. The trade of new color pigments expanded the artists’ palette; Holland was a major trade port, so it is not surprising that the Flamish Artists were the first to use oil in their pigments as additives. The Early Netherlandish painting of the 15th century saw the rise of panel painting purely in oils, oil painting, or works combining tempera and oil painting.


During the Renaissance, artists used paints made from natural materials like minerals, such as azurites and malachite, plants, like saffron and Brazilian wood, ground-up insects, and seashells. Some colors were made with expensive ingredients and used sparingly and in particular areas of a picture. The Entombment of Christ, by Pieter van der Werff in 1709, is the oldest known painting where Prussian Blue was used.

Pieter van Werff Flemish artist.
The Entombment of Christ, by Pieter van der Werff

The renaissance Master artist had their studio where a myriad of apprentices prepared the pigments by grounding each pigment by hand, carefully mixing the binding oil or Egg tempera in the proper proportions to be ready to use. The lack of portability kept most painting activities confined to the studio. This changed when tubes of oil paint became available following the American portrait painter John Goffe Rand’s invention of the squeezable or collapsible metal tube in 1841, supplanting pig bladders and glass syringes until then used to hold and carry paint. For the first time, the artist could leave his studio and take his paints and paintbrush to paint outdoors.

Artist Studio of the renaissance.
Artist Studio of the Renaissance.

Synthetic Pigment. 

Like most incredible inventions, In 1704, Johann Conrad Dippel accidentally created the world’s first synthetic pigment. He was trying to produce a red pigment but instead invented Prussian Blue (also known as Berlin Blue); I can imagine his surprise and delight. As chemistry advanced, the creation of artificial paint colors evolved. Synthetic colors are cheaper for the consumer. Oil paint was first marketed to house paint and other household commodities. It was a matter of time before the artist used it, too. By the end of the 19th century, almost any color could be purchased relatively cheaply. 

Pigments and Colors
Prussian Blue dark blue pigment produced by oxidation of ferrous ferrocyanide salts

Industrial Revolution and Paint manufactures

The first recorded paint mill in America was Established in Boston in 1700 by Tomas Child, and in 1867, D. R. Averill of Ohio patented the first ready-mixed paints in the United States. By the nineteenth century, with the Industrial Revolution, paint factories began appearing nationwide. Paints were now produced in bulk and sold in tin tubes with a cap. The cap could be screwed back on, and the colors preserved for future use, providing flexibility and efficiency with the extra benefit of painting outdoors. The manufactured paints had a balanced consistency that the artist could thin with oil, turpentine, or other mediums.  

The Impressionists

Paint in tubes also changed the way some artists approached painting. The artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir said, “Without paint tubes, there would have been no impressionism.” For the impressionists, tubed paints offered an easily accessible variety of colors for their Plein air palettes, motivating them to make spontaneous color choices. 
The use of paint continued to increase, and manufacturers of industrial paints began to make emulsions, glossy enamel, and house paints. Artists like Pablo Picasso & Jackson Pollock liked to use industrial paints alongside the more traditional oil brands. 

A growing Industry.

Acrylic paint was invented in the 1940s and transformed painting, quickly replacing oil; it is water-based, cheap, holds color well, and dries quickly. It is the preferred choice of visual artists. Today, colors and finishes continue to grow due to scientific developments, such as the creation of iridescent and fluorescent paints. The paint industry continues to grow; in 2021, the global paint and coatings industry was valued at 160 billion dollars.