“Colour-Making” history

Human being have been marking walls, stones, the ground likely since before we can accurately date and certainly since we have any record. In geographical locations where chalk is present , this crumbly rock has been used to make markings, drawings and ground works. Charcoal has equally been employed to create marks, arguably the earliest drawing materials and pigments for the colour white and black.

When we think of the earliest use of pigments we tend to think of cave paintings, where traces of Iron oxide in various states of heating and cooling have created an array of colours from yellows through reddish oranges into deep brown.12Colour history 01

Cueva de las Manos, Santa Cruz province Argentina. Courtesy Mariano

Colour in pre-industrial times can largely be categorised in terms of geography as well as chronology. Early indigenous cultures all over the world have particular colour associations, many of which are intricately bound to our associations with that culture. Imagine the Ancient Egyptian without the first developed synthetic blue pigment, created from crushed blue glass, or the early Aztecs without sumptuous red cloth derived from the cochineal beetle found on the leaves of cacti, or the 100 000 years old ochre slates at Blombos in South Africa , the first known use of markings as human language, without which we would have no idea that human kind was so complex so long ago. The use of lead white is synonymous with the Ancient Greeks, and Vermillion with the Romans. Colour also travelled. Reds found in Ancient Chinese temple didn’t make it to the West until the twelfth century.

Mineral pigment gained popularity throughout the Middle Ages with their new found applications in art. Ultramarine and azurite were particularly popular with artist such as Michelangelo utilising these earth pigment initially for drawing and the most basic from of painting, using egg tempera (mixture of pigment, water & egg).

Early naturally-occurring pigments:

12Colour history 02 12Colour history 03

Synthetic pigments: timeline c.1300-1900

12Colour history 08

These methods gradually became obsolete with the development of paints into the Renaissance period, with a new-found understanding of pigments and their applications. Painters and alchemists alike became familiar with how to manipulate materials to their advantage, with artists such as da Vinci and Raphael becoming akin to this. Artist began to use the materials differently, applying them to canvases and understanding the science behind the art, creating different hues and saturations and furthering them in many uses.


Colour in the making, Black dot publishing, UK,2013


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