Overview of Pigments

In the several thousands of years of art history there are three major technological advances that have changed painting and drawing for all time. The first major technological development occurred when metal tools were developed during the latter part of the Bronze Age (1500 to 1000 B.C.) and minerals in rock form could for the first lime be easily processed into pigments. Before this time an artist’s palette consisted of several shades of brown and brownish yellows. as well as black and white. The Bronze Age brought with it a deep red (cinnabar), a bright orange-red (realgar), a brilliant yellow (orpiment), a deep blue (lapis lazuli), a pale blue (azurite), and a green (malachite). The transition in painting must have been like the later transition from black-and-white to color photography.

The next major development did not occur until the age of industrialization in the nineteenth century, when the technology to synthesize mineral salts was developed. Almost all of the mineral pigments used today were developed between 1800 and 1910. Aureolin, chrome yellow, lemon yellow, zinc yellow. cadmium orange, cadmium yellow, cadmium red, alizarin crimson, chrome red, chrome green, chromium oxide green, cobalt green, emerald green, viridian, cobalt blue, synthetic ultramarine, and cobalt violet were all introduced during this period. These new pigments allowed the creation of paintings that could never before have been produced. Without the development of these pigments it would be safe to assume that the Impressionist, Luminist, or Expressionist movements could not have occurred.

The last major transition is happening right now with the development of new synthetic organic pigments, which have broadened the artist’s palette beyond most painters’ abilities to cope. There are so many potential new colors that most manufacturers are unable to make them all available. For every phthalocyanine, azo, anthraquinone, quinacridone, indanthrone, and dioxazine pigment now in use as an artists’ pigment, there are at least five others that could be. This vast spectrum has taken issues like the nature and use of color, as well as the nature of perception, from academic speculations to practical concerns.

Painters tend to see pigments as colors rather than as chemicals. Pigments are, however, chemicals that possess many characteristics in addition to their ability to absorb light and reflect a particular color of the spectrum. The painter must take these chemical characteristics into consideration to avoid such disastrous results as the cracking of paint films, the fading of colors, and serious injury to his or her health. This section includes all the latest information available on more than one hundred of today’s most significant colors, their pigment composition, and their chemical properties, with emphasis on practical information, including pigment compatibility, permanence, and toxicity.

A pigment by itself is of little use. Dry pigments have no inherent adhesive quality. To be kept in place, pigments must be mixed with some type of binder. Attempts have been made to rub dry pigments into textured surfaces, but the results are often of poor quality and cannot be considered durable. Although this might seem fairly obvious, many established artists have attempted to sprinkle pigment on surfaces, or to use a water-soaked brush to apply dry pigments.

Over the centuries, several successful methods of mixing a binder with a pigment have been developed. The pastel is an example of a dry mixture. To produce a soft pastel, pigments are mixed with water and a gum binder and then dried. Because there is so little binder, soft pastels are not durable and have to be used on textured surfaces. Soft pastel drawings are delicate and easily disturbed; therefore, they require extensive protection and must be stored and framed in specific ways. (See Framing and Storage.) Oil pastels and colored pencils are more durable and can be applied to smoother surfaces because their binder is wax. The most popular method of making a pliable mixture of pigment and binder is the making of paint. Paint is produced by grinding or mixing a pigment with a medium such as linseed oil for oil paints, or a water solution of gum resins for watercolor.

When a binder and pigment are mixed together, this is called a medium. For example, if linseed oil were used as the binder, the medium would be oil paint; if an egg binder were used, the medium would be egg tempera. Pigments take on various characteristics depending on the particular binder.

Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artists’  Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987 All rights reserved.  Reproduction  forbidden without written permission.