Have you ever wondered where paint colours came from? Nowadays we can walk into any art store and purchase a huge variety of colours in various hues and vibrancies. But before the invention of synthetic pigments, our ancestors had bazaar, dangerous and sometimes outrageous ways to achieve colours in their paints.

Join us as we get a glimpse into the ancient world of colour!


Red pigments were historically obtained from a variety of sources. One notable example is the cochineal insect, a small parasitic bug found on cacti. Crushing the dried insects produces a deep red dye known as carmine. This insect-based red dye was highly prized and is still used today as a dye for textiles, food colouring and cosmetics.


Orange pigments were often derived from lead compounds, specifically lead(II) oxide or lead(II,IV) oxide. These pigments, known as lead red and lead orange, were used to create shades of orange. However, they were highly toxic due to the lead content.


Yellow pigments have a problematic history, and were created from a variety of sources. One popular method involved using arsenic sulfides, such as orpiment, which produced a bright yellow hue. Arsenic-based pigments were highly toxic and posed serious health risks to artists and craftsmen.

Indian yellow was another hue with a troubling past. This bright shade of yellow was said to be made from the urine of cows on a strict diet of only mango leaves.


In the past, green pigments were often derived from copper compounds. For instance, verdigris, a green/blue pigment, was made by corroding copper sheets or objects with vinegar or wine. Scheele’s Green was a gorgeous green hue that was also highly toxic, emitting arsenic. There is even evidence to suggest that Napoleon was poisoned by inhaling fumes from his wallpaper, that was painted in his favourite colour - Scheele’s Green.


Blue pigments were historically quite challenging to create. One prominent example is ultramarine blue, which was made from the semi-precious gemstone lapis lazuli. Ground into a fine powder, then extracted through a complex technique, lapis lazuli produced a deep blue pigment highly valued for its rich lightfast qualities. However, the process was labor-intensive and expensive, making it a pigment reserved for the wealthy. Legend has it that Johannes Vermeer went broke from his love of ultramarine blue.


Indigo, a dark blue pigment, was traditionally obtained from the plant called Indigofera tinctoria. The leaves of this plant were fermented, and then the resulting solution was mixed with a base to produce the denim blue coloured dye. Traditional indigo pigment is still used today by people after an organic natural colour.


Tyrian purple was extracted from the glands of the murex snail. Extracting the dye was an extensive and expensive process, making it a colour that only the extremely wealthy could afford. This is why purple is historically associated with royalty. The extraction process involved large quantities of snails for a single drop of purple dye, leading to a decline in their populations.

In 1856, a British chemist named William Henry Perkin was trying to create a synthetic treatment for malaria. In a twist of fate, his experiments led to the creation of the first ever synthetic dye - mauve. This invention revolutionised the textile industry, and made the colour purple accessible to the masses for the first time in history.

Colour is a fascinating subject!

Historical pigments were often made using a variety of toxic and problematic substances, including insects, lead, arsenic, copper, and minerals. These pigments provided vibrant colours, but their production and use came with significant health risks and environmental concerns. Thankfully, advancements in chemistry and technology have allowed for the development of safer and more sustainable pigments in modern times.

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