The History of Color in Art
The history of color in art is a fascinating topic. It is also a tale of human creativity, invention, and discovery. From prehistoric cave color drawings to modern masterpieces and vibrant, premium-quality palettes that are now within our reach, artists have obtained and used color in interesting and innovative ways. The journey was often fraught with peril, as many of the most coveted pigments had potentially fatal effects.
When Was Paint Invented?
Recent findings of ancient pigments in 1.1-billion-year-old rocks found deep beneath the Sahara Desert which had been produced by ocean organisms suggest that bright pink is the oldest biological color.
Art history is not exclusive to our ancestors. Evidence suggests that it was not the evolved Homo Sapiens but Homo Neanderthalis that created the first works of art. Cave drawings found in a part of Spain inhabited by Neanderthals prove that the sapiens-centered idea is wrong.
But what about the first pigments that were deliberately made by humans? In addition to charcoal, the earliest pigments were invented 40,000 years ago and consisted of soil mixed with animal fat. Other ingredients included burnt charcoal and chalk. The earliest artists would mix these ingredients to create a very simple, basic palette of colors which included black, white, yellow, red, and brown. The artists that followed thousands and hundreds of years later would build on that.
Since then, the history of color has been a colorful and exciting journey of perpetual discovery, both through exploration, creative invention, and deliberate development, but also through scientific advancement. At times, the tireless pursuit of vibrant, lasting colors required artists to tread treacherous paths and it was not uncommon for these experiments with colors to take a toll on the creators’ health and lives.
Inventing new pigments was a slow, painstaking process, but it paved the way for the development of some of the most influential art movements. Long before the arrival of super vibrant paints made today, artists, like alchemists, were on a quest for rich new colors that would enable them to create sublime works of art and unlock the full potential of their skill and creativity.
What Colors Make Colors?
There are only three primary colors: red, blue, and yellow. By combining these, we get secondary colors: green, purple, and orange. Black, which is not a color, and white, which is, help create various shades on the spectrum.
Widely symbolic, red has been one of the most important and sought-after colors for centuries.
What we believe is the first pigment ever used is known as “red ochre”, commonly found in iron-rich soil, which was discovered in cave paintings. It is also one of the oldest pigments still used to this very day.
The most popular red pigment in the 16th and 17th centuries came from the cochineal insect native to tropical and subtropical South America through North America. The insect lives on prickly-pear cacti and produces carminic acid to deter predators. The natural dye carmine is derived from the acid. Today, the pigment is used mainly in the production of lipstick and blush, but also as a colorant in food. During the colonial period, it was often used for coloring fabrics.
The potent, non-toxic red pigment was in such high demand among artists and patrons at the time, that it became among the most important export goods of the New World, second only to precious metals (gold and silver).
Masters such as Rembrandt, Rubens, and Raphael used this pigment as a glaze, adding to the intensity of other reds, such as those based on red ochre.
Blue appears to be the youngest color, at least judging by the fact that ancient languages didn’t even have a word for the color.
Royal blue ranges from slightly greener and cooler hues to redder and warmer shades of blue. But for many centuries, the original royal blue pigment held gold-like qualities because it required an invaluable ingredient: the mesmerizing, rare, and scarce gemstone lapis lazuli.
For hundreds of years, the ultramarine blue pigment, which is a deep blue color pigment, was made by grinding lapis lazuli into a powder. The gem was in such high demand among artists and patrons that it frequently matched the price of gold. It was a luxury that only the privileged could afford. The blue derived from the stone was used to depict Virgin Mary’s robe, and it was also employed for other important works of art, such as the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s famous “Girl With A Pearl Earring” (1665).
The synthetic version of ultramarine blue was not developed until the 1950s, and it was owing to the collaboration between a Parisian paint supplier and the French artist Yves Klein, who made it his signature color.
The color yellow in art has not been held in such high regard as some of its predecessors on this list, but a few major artists have managed to change that. The first one that comes to mind is Vincent van Gogh with his “Sunflowers”, 1899. He became known for drawing inspiration from this particular tone.
Another notable example is the British painter J.M.W. Turner who was even exposed to ridicule on account of his heavy use of yellow in his sunlit seascapes, which critics likened to jaundice. Turner often experimented with pigments, and one memorable experiment involved using a fluorescent water paint dubbed Indian Yellow, which was obtained from the urine of mango-fed cows. Another questionable pigment Turner used was the synthetic paint Chrome Yellow, which was lead-based and, by extension, delirium-inducing.
This vivid, vibrant hue was also Van Gogh’s color of choice because he thought of it as a happy color. Despite the rumors, many art historians do not believe that he did indeed eat yellow paint. Painting may have been the best remedy for the artist’s psychiatric disorder, but his exposure to lead-based paint and consumption of absinthe may have contributed to his mental health deterioration.
It is ironic that green pigments, often associated with nature, rebirth, and renewal, may have been some of the most poisonous, possibly fatal, in history. Potent green pigments were used in the creation of vidid emerald landscapes, some of the most iconic in art history.
A Swedish chemist by the name of Carl Wilhelm Scheele created one such pigment back around 1775. The bright green pigment called simply “Scheele’s Green” was a sensational discovery. Unfortunately, it also contained a now-notorious toxic chemical: arsenic. The new arsenic-laced hue quickly became popular among artists and patrons because it was vibrant yet so inexpensive.
Some historians believe that Scheele’s Green was responsible for the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, because it was used for his bedroom wallpaper.
A more durable pigment called Paris Green, a combination of copper and arsenic, took the place of Scheele’s Green by the end of the 19th century. Not surprisingly, it was used by some of the greatest French artists of the time: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, and Paul Cezanne.
The great artists’ first-hand exposure to the highly toxic paint may have led to their physical demise, considering the fact that Cezanne suffered from diabetes, Renoir developed rheumatoid arthritis, and Monet developed a cataract and went blind. Paris Green was finally banned in 1960.
Claude Monet and other Impressionists used purple so much that critics said they suffered from violettomania, a term they coined for the excessive use of the purple hue. For Monet, violet was the color of fresh air and the atmosphere. Violet, lavender, and other shades of purple predominated Impressionist works.
But it was John Goffe Rand, an American portrait painter seldom mentioned in art history, who enabled the widespread use of purple in the 19th century. It was he who came up with a collapsible paint tube made of tin. He devised the tube as a replacement for pig bladder, a common method of storing paint and preserving pigments. This form of storage was messy, whereas the tin tube enabled artists to paint in the fresh air, and easily take paint with them when painting outdoors, which Impressionists usually did. This development meant that artists were finally able to procure pre-mix paint shades available in tin tubes. They no longer had to mix red and blue themselves to make purple. Manganese Violet was the very first affordable mauve-colored paint, and Impressionists adored it.
Orange is a combination of red and yellow. Orange is a color most associated with amusement, warmth, fire, energy, excitement, and the unconventional. Pre-Raphaelite painters and Impressionists loved the color orange for its ability to capture the effects of natural light. Famous French artists like Monet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Gauguin relied heavily on various shades of orange.
The darkest pigment found in Old Masters paintings is ominously yet aptly named Bone black. As the name implies, the pigment was produced by burning animal bones, which were then left to dry without any air around them for several days or weeks at a time until they become brittle enough so that they can be crushed into powder. Old Masters also used charcoal. For centuries, black was an incredibly powerful tool for painters.
The Impressionists turned their back on black. They preferred to use colors to depict darkness.
But black made a huge comeback in the form of monochromatic black paintings in the 1950’s and 1960’s. American artists such as Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella, and Richard Serra went all out to prove that not only is black back, but that it can be as rewarding and rich in texture, tones, and nuance as any other color. They went to great lengths to prove that black could be a worthy subject matter all by itself.
When artists need to capture the play of light and shadow, they often fall back on whites. But perhaps the most potent of all the colors that would later be banned is Lead White. The pigment was in high demand because of its uncanny capability to capture and reflect white.
But things were nowhere near as glamorous behind closed doors. In the 17th century, the Dutch method of producing the pigment required combining three ingredients. The process was fairly simple: cow and horse manure would be layered over lead and vinegar. But it would take 3 whole months for the ingredients to combine and deliver the end result: flakes of pure, glorious white.
In the late 19th century, it became a well-known fact that lead was poisonous, and this technique was eventually phased out in favor of more modern methods of creating white paint. But it was not until 1978 that the United States banned the manufacture of lead-based white paint.
In the meantime, artists turned to safer alternatives: titanium and zinc whites. These were used to create monochromatic white paintings. Monochrome or monochromatic painting brought simplicity into art.
Reliance on just one color or hue marked an important stage in art history, having served as an essential component of avant-garde visual art throughout the 20th century, but also well into the 21st.