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How Pigments Create Color

In the language of the scientist, pigments - whether those used by the artist, the dyer or other colorists, are called "colorants " (substances that produce color) to distinguish them from colored light.

This distinction helps to understand how physicists and chemists think about the many aspects of color.

As a rule of thumb, However, artists are not concerned with the scientific approach to color.

To painters everywhere, color is color, whether light, pigment or the reflected light of a pigmented surface.

How do artist work with color?

How do they produce color anyway?

This is a discussion of color from the artist's viewpoint. This is a discussion about pigments and the way artists use them to create their master pieces.


The use of pigments for painting would seem to be as old as humankind.

No one really knows when human beings first discovered that by mixing together certain materials we could create a substance with which to adorn ourselves, our clothing and and surroundings.

But the discovery of the cave paintings in southern France, in Spain, and in Africa has revealed that we learned to paint with reds, yellows, browns and blacks made from iron oxides and manganese at least 20,000 years ago.

If we skip from the mysterious artists of pre-historic times to the more familiar ancient civilization of Egypt, we find that there are still in existence wall paintings two to five thousand years old, many remarkably well preserved, showing that Egyptian artists made excellent use of copper-based blue and green pigments as well as whitewash, soot black, and red, yellow and brown ochres.

Through the centuries, other pigments have from time to time been added to the colors available to the artist. Some of them - genuine ultramarine made from lapis lazuli, for instance - are very beautiful but extremely expensive.

Others, like emerald (Paris green), are poisonous if swallowed (and more than one artist has been known to touch the tip of his brush to the tip of, his tongue).

Worst of all, however, are those which appear beautiful when the painting is first finished, but quickly fade or change color on exposure to light.

Many paintings of the past have been ruined by the lack of permanence of the colors used or by the painter's lack of knowledge of the chemical interaction of his pigments.

During the first half of the 20th century, modern chemistry added a surprising number of new pigments to the artist's palette. Some are exceedingly beautiful, many of them appear to be absolutely permanent, and several are excellent replacements for less reliable colors.

To make paint, pigment is ground up into a powdered substance and mixed with liquid.

In oil paint, the powdered pigment is mixed to a thick consistency with oil, usually linseed.

In watercolor paint, the pigment is ground up with water-soluble gums, usually gum arabic.

Other mediums are egg albumen for tempera, and size for distemper.

In the past, artists usually served an apprenticeship of several years during which they learned to grind and mix colors for the master.

Today, some painters still prefer to prepare their own colors, but the majority of artists today - professionals as well as students and amateurs - usually buy the colors, already prepared, of one of the reputable manufacturers.

For anyone interested in a detailed discussion of how raw materials are turned into artists' colors, we recommend one of the excellent books devoted to the craftsmanship of the painter.

Max Doerner's The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting, Ralph Mayer's The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques, and Painting Materials by Gettens and Stout, are classic reference works.

In these volumes you can find detailed analyses of hundreds of colors.

Many of those listed are simply synonyms - names used in different countries or at different periods or by various manufacturers - for the same pigment. One book gives 11 names for White Lead alone!

With such an array of colors and color names, it is no wonder if the student painter is confused and uncertain about which to choose for his own palette.

Done with Pigments? Click Here to Go Back to the Color Theory Page.

Rokeby Venus, by Velazquez


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