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Much ado about pigment

By August 22, 2016No Comments


Simply put, color. Pigments have a lengthy and rich history, especially in regards to use by humankind, and there is a surprising amount of nuance to the substances we use for color. 


The first pigments used by humans were the most easily obtained, from the earth.  Ochres and oxidized minerals yielded a palette of browns, blacks, yellows, and red. Chalk would commonly have been used for white

It is possible that some organic materials may also have been used, perhaps heavily staining colors from plants or insects, but organic matter does not always have the best longevity, so we cannot say for sure which materials might have been used. One known example is Carmine, which was originally formulated from a crushed red insects native to Mexico and South America. Initially the color was bright and vibrant, but over time proved to be unstable and unenduring.

Up until technological innovations that would change the way pigments were acquired, all pigments were from naturally occurring substances, whether organic or inorganic. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the ways color was procured changed. Now, pigments could be refined and synthesized from natural sources, and manufacturing was upped to a larger scale. This brought about a much larger spectrum of colors for artists to dabble with, and made colors much more affordable that were previously intimidating in cost. A well-known instance is in the case of the color ultramarine.

Ultramarine, meaning “beyond the sea,” was so called because it was imported to European painters from far away, from the Middle East and parts of Asia. Originally, the color could only be achieved by grinding down the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, making it monstrously expensive, to some worth even more than gold. And because of its high cost, it was most often used for special projects, like royal portraits and depictions of important religious figures.

An ample amount of effort was expended in trying to find an alternative formula that would yield the same rich color. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that a synthetic alternative was found, by chemists racing to win a contest from a French industry society, to produce an alternative to costly ultramarine.


Pigment is rarely used by itself. A pigment is extracted or made, and then ground down into fine particles, at which point it is ready for use. Most often it is mixed into a binder, for adhesion and mobility. Binder is also referred to as the “vehicle.” Commonly used binders include linseed oil, gum arabic, and acrylic polymer. As opposed to a dye, pigments are not part of a homogenous mixture, they maintain their structure and are not dissolved in the vehicle. Many factors can alter what the final product looks like. The concentration in the mixture can affect color and transparency. The treatment that the pigment receives beforehand can alter its color. Some pigments can be altered to produce a very vast array of colors by chemical processes from just one pigment. One such example is red iron oxide. Depending on how the pigment is treated, it can produce yellows, browns, reds, and even purples. A very versatile pigment, it is widely used by many manufacturers of art supplies.

Notable pigment-related terms often on labels:

Phthalocyanine (often called ‘Phthalo,’ and pronounced “thay-lo”)- colors with high tinting power and a strong staining characteristic. Tend to be transparent.

Cadmium, Cobalt, Titanium, etc.– colors made from heavy metal pigments. Very strong colors, tending to be more opaque, especially titanium. Toxic, practice safe studio habits.

Hue– refers to a color created from alternative pigments, in an effort to imitate another with the same name. Usually made as less expensive and/or toxic alternatives.

(Traditionally, when a manufacturer creates a substitution for another color, it should have “hue” at the end of the name, to designate that it is an alternative formulation intended to mimic the original. While the color might at first glance look the same, or be very close, a different pigment composition means that the product may behave very differently. Granulation, drying rates, tinting strengths, and transparency may be affected.)

Lightfastness– a pigment’s ability to endure exposure to light and weather, while still upholding the color they showed at the time of application. “Fugitive” pigments or colors are those that fade quickly, often because they are derived from unstable material, like organic matter.


Though such an integral part of the way we make art, (and extending outside of artistic applications) pigment is frequently a detail that is glossed over when an artist chooses their materials. People often buy color without regards to its chemistry. Perhaps this is due to many innovations in the industry, now we need not grind and mix our own paints, because it now they come neatly packaged and ready to use.

By knowing more about the pigments that make up your art materials, you will have a better understanding of the material’s handling properties. In the case of some colors, like multiple-pigment mixture paints, you may decide to mix them from colors you already have. Knowing the pigments in your paint can also be helpful when you search for replacements for a discontinued product or substitute for a color you want. The more you understand a pigment, the better you can appreciate as well as master it.


Some exciting pigment news for lovers of blues…

A new blue pigment was recently discovered at Oregon State University, and is now available from Gamblin Artist Colors!  

More on YInMn Blue here:

YlnMn Blue pic

And, while we’re on the subject of color, we are loving our new Sennelier Artists’ oil paints here at Art Central! They’re highly packed with pigment and made with safflower oil for a satin finish and to resist yellowing. They’re still on sale, 50% off to members until the end of August!