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Pondra Zigler
Professor Elliott
October 14, 2012

Pigments are the foundation of all paints, and have been used for thousands of years dating back to prehistoric times. More than 15,000 years ago cavemen began to use colour to decorate cave walls. These colours were called earth pigments - yellow earth, red earth and white chalk. In addition they used carbon black by collecting the soot from burning animal fats. These colours were all that were needed to produce the sensitive and exquisite drawings and stencils which we are still able to see today (Winsor & Newton. 2003).
According to Douma, M. (2008), the first paintings ever found were cave paintings. Ancient peoples decorated walls of protected caves with paint made from dirt or charcoal mixed with spit or animal fat. In cave paintings, the pigments were able to stick to the walls because the pigments became trapped in the porous wall and also, because the spit of fat dried and adhered the pigment to the wall.
It is hypothesized that the way that the paint was applied was through brushing, smearing (using their fingertips), dabbing and using spraying techniques. Brushes were made from horsehair, and paint spraying (similar to air brushing) was accomplished by blowing paint through hollowed animal bones. Historians found the shoulders of animals, as well as other animal bones in caves stained with color presumed to have been used as mortars for pigment grinding. The pigment was made into a paste with various binders such as water, juice from vegetables, urine, blood, animal fat and etc. Common binders that were used historically by Native Americans include human spit, hide glue, bone marrow fat, and other animal fats such as bear grease, prickly pear cactus juice (may leave a green residue or tint), and soapy juice from yucca roots or leaves. California Indians also used a local plat called soaproot (Chlorogalum pomeridianum). Egg whites were used (bird eggs), milkweed (Asclepias sp.) sap and other plant saps, also urine (Harper, P., 2007).
Pigments have advanced through the many different time frames – prehistory, antiquity, medieval, renaissance & baroque, modern age, industrialization, and the contemporary age (Douma, M. 2008). By 4,000 BC the Egyptians showed evidence of serious colour manufacture. The earth colours had been cleaned by washing - increasing their strength and purity, and new pigments appear from the use of minerals. Perhaps the most famous is Egyptian Blue, first produced around 3,000 BC. This was a blue glass made from sand and copper which was then ground into a powder. It was replaced in the 16th century by Smalt which was itself finally superseded by Cobalt in the early 19th century. Not only did the Egyptians play a major role in the advancement of colours, but the Chinese, the Greeks, the Romans, the Italians, the Germans and the French did as well.
As previously stated, early pigments were simply ground earth or clay, and were made into paint with spit or animal fat. Modern pigments are often sophisticated masterpieces of chemical engineering (Douma, M.2008). We are certainly lucky in being constantly provided with pigments of better permanence and an ever widening choice of handling properties. In less than 200 years the finest quality ranges have gone from around 30% permanent to 99 - 100 %, as well as providing two or three times the number of colours to choose from (Paul Robinson, 2003 – 2011). The isolation of new elements in the late 18th century also played a part in providing new colours. Deposits of chrome in the USA in 1820 facilitated the easy manufacture of Chrome

Yellow - a highly opaque low cost colour available in a variety of hues. Similarly, the isolation of Zinc in 1721 eventually gave rise to Zinc Oxide by the end of the 18th century. This was utilized as an artists' white in preference to lead white as it was less hazardous and more permanent particularly in water colour. In 1817, the metal Cadmium was discovered by Stromeyer but it was not until 1846 that Cadmium Yellows were introduced to the artists' palette. And finally, this part of pigment history could not be complete without mentioning two famous colours in the artists' palette. The first, Indian Yellow was a beautiful, transparent colour with excellent light fastness. It was produced by feeding cows exclusively on mango leaves and using the resultant urine to manufacture the colour, wow…Using the cows in this way was unacceptable in India and by the early 20th century the practice had ceased. Indian Yellow has since then been made with a variety of pigments but it took until the 1990's to find pigments which provided the light fastness of the original (Robinson, Paul. 2003).
Nearly every industry uses colorants in one way or another. In fact, we consume and use colors every day. About 7,000 different dyes and pigments exist and new ones are being patented every year. Dyes are used extensively in the textile (fabric used in clothing) industry and paper industry. Other examples include leather and wood which are colored with dyes. Food that we consume on a daily basis is often colored with natural or with synthetic dyes that have been approved by a federal agency. Petroleum-based products such as waxes, lubricating oils, polishes, and gasoline are colored with dyes. Dyes are also used to stain biological samples, fur, and are used to color our hair. Special dyes are added to photographic emulsions for color

photographs. Plastics, resins, and rubber products are usually colored by pigments (Dyes and Pigments 2012).
From early, early times, man have left an imprint on their environment in the form of painted images (cave paintings), which made their world more beautiful and expressed their thoughts, and showed how they felt about certain events or situations in the time in which they were living in. Maybe the primitive man scratched trees or rocks with stones as a way of indicating a source of food and water, or maybe marking their territory. At some point though, man discovered that pigments worked more effectively when mixed with water or saliva - thus painting was born. After that recognition, there was no stopping man and the creativeness that he was born with. According to Patsy Harper (2007), color is the most basic form of human artistic expression, and pigments are the simplest forms of color-in essence, they are all reflections of light. Dr. Solveig A. Turpin, who is a recognized authority on the rock of the lower Pecos Region, with a P.H.D. in anthropology from the University of Texas, says that “The dominant color used in the paintings, no matter their age or subject material, is red. This is true in all the styles, from the earliest Pecos River shamans to the latest historic autobiography (The names given to two of the styles-Red Linear and Red Monochrome-attest to this overwhelming popularity). Some of the selectivity can be attributed to obvious factors-such as availability and durability; other factors are more esoteric and aesthetic...the first response that leaps to mind when asked about the color red is blood, the essential fluid that courses through the veins of all humans and animals. Of course, early people were aware that loss of blood meant loss of life, but they also knew that new life arrives in blood as well...Psychologist and linguists studying people who still live at a very elemental technological and social level have found that the first colors to be distinguished are black, white, and red. These we could call 'all color', 'no color', and red. The strongest impulse on the chromatic wavelength is red so we are in a sense hard-wired to react to red before any other color...To me, it is not merely a coincidence that the most sophisticated art-and the most clearly rooted in a ritual context-uses more than one color...we can envision the Pecos River and Bold Line Geometric styles as developing within a trance-oriented religion, where multi-colored visions since these ancient artists are long gone from this world, we may never know the true spiritual significance of the colors in their rock art.” According to this observation, we can see how deeply color affects our own mood, our self-esteem, and our sense of beauty; and how it touches our soul. And we can take care to learn these ancient methods and traditions and preserve them for generations to come, after we are long gone as well (Patsy Harper, 2007).


BBC on the internet. (2000). British Broadcasting Company. Retrieved September 15, 2012 from Douma, M., curator. (2008). Pigments through the Ages. Retrieved September 15, 2012 from,

Harper, P., (2007). Natural Pigments. Retrieved October 13, 2012 from,
Robinson, Paul. (2003). The History of Pigments. Retrieved September 23, 2012 from


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