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History of Paint

History | 9-14 yrs | Interactive, Learning Pod

Introduction of Paint:

Humans have felt the need to leave their mark on the world in the form of painted images since prehistory. If we look at how art evolved over the years we can know a number of things about the people that created them and the societies they lived in. At some point, early man figured out that by mixing colour giving particles known as pigments into a medium like water or saliva- paint could be created!

If you look at paint under a microscope you will see that paint is coloured pigment that is suspended in a medium. Pigments come from multiple sources such as minerals or elements, plants and vegetables, and some are even extracted from insects. The medium could be a variety of substances from oil or egg-yolk in paintings, plaster in frescos or plastic alloys in the case of automobiles.

Prehistoric Painting

We began using colour pigment as early as prehistoric times when humans drew on the walls of caves and their own bodies. They used moss, chewed ends of branches and their own fingers to apply mixtures of natural materials as paint.

The prehistoric palette of paints were all made from pigments obtained from the earth. The earliest pigments were earth pigments (ochre and umber), charcoal (carbon black and bone black), and white (calcium).

Man was willing to travel long distances in order to maintain his supply of earth pigments. All prehistoric sites of cave paintings have trails leading to hematite deposits. Historians believe that the reason behind the mining industry is man’s quest for earth pigments. The earliest cave paintings where colour was extracted from the earth for art are in the Bimbetka rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh. Paintings in these rock shelters date back to 12,000 years ago.

Earth pigments were red ochre- the pigment red ochre is made from a mineral oxide of iron called hematite. Like red ochre, its yellow cousin is a hydrated form of iron oxide known as yellow ochre. Named after Umbria, the part of Italy from where it is was originally extracted from, umber is derived from a clay containing iron and manganese oxides.

Carbon black is a black pigment obtained from partially burning wood. Another black pigment that is no longer in use is bone black, where the material that is burnt to get the pigment is bone. White historically has been made from calcium and called lime white.


The period of time when man began to record his own history starts with antiquity. Man had begun growing crops, domesticating animals and living in permanent settlements. The majority of art produced during this time was also on walls for decorative purposes. Except the walls they painted on were on architectural wonders such as the pyramids, palaces, and temples.

The basic Egyptian palette added blue and green to prehistoric palette. They made green pigment from a mineral of copper known as malachite. The blue hue known as ultramarine was being produced as far back as antiquity. This pigment was extremely expensive because it was only produced from the lapis lazuli mines in Afghanistan.

The Egyptians discovered a cheaper alternative made from a copper mineral known as azurite. And although this was cheaper than the pigment from Afghanistan, they went further to make the first synthetic paint called Egyptian blue. Its exact chemical formula is unknown.

The Egyptians also created new techniques of producing pigment called lake making. Through this process they created a new red called carmine.

In later antiquity, around 700 AD, a red pigment produced from a mineral called cinnabar called vermillion was invented. Its resemblance to blood lent it the nickname- the colour of life. Another name for it is China red because it is an important colour in Chinese culture and even has its place in a special red ink that was solely reserved for use by emperors.

In India the Ajanta and Ellora caves in Maharashtra, and the Bagh caves in Madhya Pradesh are classical examples of art during Indian antiquity. The process of creating these murals began by first treating the wall with a smooth batter of limestone mixture after which paint was quickly applied over the next couple of days while the wall was still wet. The colours and shades varied from earth ochres, to terra verte (green earth clays found in iron silicate), and lapis lazuli, to name a few.

Medieval Age (5th – 15th CENTURY)

Painting had become a highly technical form of art by the medieval ages. A new medium used during this time called egg tempera was made by mixing pigments with water and egg. This mixture had a very short shelf-life but it allowed the artist to develop new effects that were never seen before. The meticulous process of applying paint in thin layers to prevent it from cracking is why medieval painting has a highly polished finish.

The colour verdigris, a highly toxic copper mineral came into use in the medieval age. It was made by chemically removing the thin green layer formed when copper mixes with oxygen. From its discovery until the 19th century, verdigris was the most vibrant green pigment.

In the Indian subcontinent painting took a backseat to history. A large amount of manuscripts were created that included miniature paintings that illustrated the text. The process of mixing carbon black or bone black with glue to make India ink dates as far back to China in the 11th century BC.

Renaissance (15th – 17th CENTURY)

The Renaissance was a period when art flourished. This in turn increased the demand for paint and pigment. A great number of techniques were a product of the Renaissance. Instead of using egg as a base for pigment, artists began to use linseed or walnut oil which dried more slowly. Since paint took longer to dry, artists now had the luxury to experiment with depth and perspective, but more importantly they began to mix different paints to make new shades and hues.

Apart from the already existing pigments, artists had three new pigments to experiment with: Naples yellow, smalt, and carmine lake. Even though Naples yellow had been around before, it began being used by the Dutch and Italian masters during the Renaissance. It became an important colour because when applied correctly it gave the effect of a retreating sun. Smalt is a blue hue made from potassium that was a cheap and worthy alternative to other blue pigments available during that period.

The discovery of the New World brought the colour carmine to Europe and the rest of the world. Carmine was important because it was the first animal dye used on a massive scale. It is also the secret behind the beautiful deep shadows that came to be indicative of the Renaissance period.

In India a style of painting called Madhubani art developed during this period. Pigment was extracted from vegetable and fruit dyes such as turmeric and fig leaves (yellow), the woad plant (blue), along with existing earth elements for red and green. Another style that developed during the same time but in a different part of the sub-continent is Tanjore Painting. This technique had a mixed media approach to art where images were embellished with semi-precious stones and the negative space was filled in with vegetable dyes.

Modern Age (18th CENTURY)

Up until the modern age paint was made mostly by the artists themselves. Watercolour became popular when art became a hobby of the wealthy. In 1776 William Reeves began a company that produced cakes of watercolour. In his process he realised that the cakes of colour he produced could be kept from cracking by adding small amounts of honey into the formula. By the early 1700s producing paint became a profession.

The first of the two new modern day pigments was Prussian blue, derived from Iron. It is important because it tends not to fade, unlike pigments made from lapis lazuli. The second pigment of the modern age is cobalt green. This green hue made from the chemical element from which it gets its name never entered the mainstream palette because it was largely unaffordable, and not worth the money because its green hue fades easily. An interesting fact about cobalt is that only recently scientists discovered that what people have been using to make pigment for centuries has magnetic properties that are ideal for computer storage!

Industrialization (19th CENTURY)

Industrialisation changed the world of colour completely with the paint-tube. Paint companies figured out a way of suspending pigments in linseed oil, and also keeping the paint from drying too quickly. Artists now had a convenient and portable set of pre-mixed colour.

The advances in chemistry during this time led to many inventions within the paint and dye industries. A variety of colours such as Cobalt blue, viridian green, Cadmium yellow, cerulean blue, cobalt violet, and emerald green were all invented within 50 years of each other. The increased demand for dyes in the early 1800’s had nothing to do with dye. The industry scale production of textiles demanded new and interesting dyes, and two old dyes were synthesized to make a new one. In fact paint took a back seat to the industry of dyes.

The evolution of colour as we know it today comes from man’s need to capture the vibrant world around him. Till today advances in science and technology aid the development of paints and pigments that can be applied better, and last a lifetime for generations to appreciate.

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Read here Science Of Electronic Colour, visit: http://mocomi.com/science-of-electronic-colour/


Comments2 reactions

  1. Hi Kathy,
    The marketing department will get in touch with you shortly regarding the permission.

  2. Dear Sir/Madam
    The Australian Academy of Science seeks your permission to embed your History of Paint interactive into its Chemical Patterns unit being developed for free distribution to Australian high school students and teachers. Please contact me