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Blue of the ultramarine variant, similar to the International Klein Blue used by Yves Klein
Blue of the ultramarine variant, similar to the International Klein Blue used by Yves Klein

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

A pigment is the material that changes the color of light it reflects as the result of selective color absorption. This physical process differs from fluorescence, phosphorescence, and other forms of luminescence, in which the material itself emits light.

Many materials selectively absorb certain wavelengths of light. Materials that humans have chosen and developed for use as pigments usually have special properties that make them ideal for coloring other materials. A pigment must have a high tinting strength relative to the materials it colors. It must be stable in solid form at ambient temperatures.

For industrial applications, as well as in the arts, permanence and stability are desirable properties. Pigments that are not permanent are called fugitive. Fugitive pigments fade over time, or with exposure to light, while some eventually blacken.

Pigments are used for coloring paint, ink, plastic, fabric, cosmetics, food and other materials. Most pigments used in manufacturing and the visual arts are dry colourants, usually ground into a fine powder. This powder is added to a vehicle (or matrix), a relatively neutral or colorless material that acts as a binder.

The worldwide market for inorganic, organic and special pigments had a total volume of around 7.4 million tons in 2006. Asia has the highest rate on a quantity basis followed by Europe and North America. In 2006, a turnover of 17.6 billion US$ (13 billion Euro) was reached mostly in Europe, followed by North America and Asia.

A distinction is usually made between a pigment, which is insoluble in the vehicle (resulting in a suspension), and a dye, which either is itself a liquid or is soluble in its vehicle (resulting in a solution). The term biological pigment is used for all colored substances independent of their solubility. A colorant can be both a pigment and a dye depending on the vehicle it is used in. In some cases, a pigment can be manufactured from a dye by precipitating a soluble dye with a metallic salt. The resulting pigment is called a lake pigment.


Naturally occurring pigments such as ochres and iron oxides have been used as colorants since prehistoric times. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence that early humans used paint for aesthetic purposes such as body decoration. Pigments and paint grinding equipment believed to be between 350,000 and 400,000 years old have been reported in a cave at Twin Rivers, near Lusaka, Zambia. Before the Industrial Revolution, the range of color available for art and decorative uses was technically limited. Most of the pigments in use were earth and mineral pigments, or pigments of biological origin. Pigments from unusual sources such as botanical materials, animal waste, insects, and mollusks were harvested and traded over long distances. Some colors were costly or impossible to mix with the range of pigments that were available. Blue and purple came to be associated with royalty because of their expense.

Biological pigments were often difficult to acquire, and the details of their production were kept secret by the manufacturers. Tyrian Purple is a pigment made from the mucus of one of several species of Murex snail. Production of Tyrian Purple for use as a fabric dye began as early as 1200 BCE by the Phoenicians, and was continued by the Greeks and Romans until 1453 CE, with the fall of Constantinople. The pigment was expensive and complex to produce, and items colored with it became associated with power and wealth. Greek historian Theopompus, writing in the 4th century BCE, reported that "purple for dyes fetched its weight in silver at Colophon [in Asia Minor]."

Mineral pigments were also traded over long distances. The only way to achieve a deep rich blue was by using a semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli, to produce a pigment known as ultramarine, and the best sources of lapis were remote. Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, working in the 15th century, did not ordinarily include blue in his paintings. To have one's portrait commissioned and painted with ultramarine blue was considered a great luxury. If a patron wanted blue, they were obliged to pay extra. When Van Eyck used lapis, he never blended it with other colors. Instead he applied it in pure form, almost as a decorative glaze. The prohibitive price of lapis lazuli forced artists to seek less expensive replacement pigments, both mineral (azurite, smalt) and biological (indigo).

Spain's conquest of a New World empire in the 16th century introduced new pigments and colors to peoples on both sides of the Atlantic. Carmine, a dye and pigment derived from a parasitic insect found in Central and South America, attained great status and value in Europe. Produced from harvested, dried, and crushed cochineal insects, carmine could be, and still is, used in fabric dye, food dye, body paint, or in its solid lake form, almost any kind of paint or cosmetic.

Natives of Peru had been producing cochineal dyes for textiles since at least 700 CE, but Europeans had never seen the color before. When the Spanish invaded the Aztec empire in what is now Mexico, they were quick to exploit the color for new trade opportunities. Carmine became the region's second most valuable export next to silver. Pigments produced from the cochineal insect gave the Catholic cardinals their vibrant robes and the English "Redcoats" their distinctive uniforms. The true source of the pigment, an insect, was kept secret until the 18th century, when biologists discovered the source.

While Carmine was popular in Europe, blue remained an exclusive color, associated with wealth and status. The 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer often made lavish use of lapis lazuli, along with Carmine and Indian yellow, in his vibrant paintings.

Development of synthetic pigments

The earliest known pigments were natural minerals. Natural iron oxides give a range of colors and are found in many Paleolithic and Neolithic cave paintings. Two examples include Red Ochre, anhydrous Fe2O3, and the hydrated Yellow Ochre (Fe2O3.H2O).

Two of the first synthetic pigments were white lead (basic lead carbonate, (PbCO3)2Pb(OH)2) and blue frit (Egyptian Blue). White lead is made by combining lead with vinegar (acetic acid, CH3COOH) in the presence of CO2. Blue frit is calcium copper silicate and was made from glass colored with a copper ore, such as malachite. These pigments were used as early as the second millennium BCE

The Industrial and Scientific Revolutions brought a huge expansion in the range of synthetic pigments, pigments that are manufactured or refined from naturally occurring materials, available both for manufacturing and artistic expression. Because of the expense of Lapis Lazuli, much effort went into finding a less costly blue pigment.

Prussian Blue was the first modern synthetic pigment, discovered by accident in 1704. By the early 19th century, synthetic and metallic blue pigments had been added to the range of blues, including French ultramarine, a synthetic form of lapis lazuli, and the various forms of Cobalt and Cerulean Blue. In the early 20th century, organic chemistry added Phthalo Blue, a synthetic, organometallic pigment with overwhelming tinting power.

Discoveries in color science created new industries and drove changes in fashion and taste. The discovery in 1856 of mauveine, the first aniline dye, was a forerunner for the development of hundreds of synthetic dyes and pigments like azo and diazo compounds which are the source of a wide spectrum of colors. Mauveine was discovered by an 18-year-old chemist named William Henry Perkin, who went on to exploit his discovery in industry and become wealthy. His success attracted a generation of followers, as young scientists went into organic chemistry to pursue riches. Within a few years, chemists had synthesized a substitute for madder in the production of Alizarin Crimson. By the closing decades of the 19th century, textiles, paints, and other commodities in colors such as red, crimson, blue, and purple had become affordable.

Development of chemical pigments and dyes helped bring new industrial prosperity to Germany and other countries in northern Europe, but it brought dissolution and decline elsewhere. In Spain's former New World empire, the production of cochineal colors employed thousands of low-paid workers. The Spanish monopoly on cochineal production had been worth a fortune until the early 19th century, when the Mexican War of Independence and other market changes disrupted production. Organic chemistry delivered the final blow for the cochineal color industry. When chemists created inexpensive substitutes for carmine, an industry and a way of life went into steep decline.

New sources for historic pigments

In The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer (c. 1658). Vermeer was lavish in his choice of expensive pigments, including Indian Yellow, lapis lazuli, and Carmine, as shown in this vibrant painting.

Before the Industrial Revolution, many pigments were known by the location where they were produced. Pigments based on minerals and clays often bore the name of the city or region where they were mined. Raw Sienna and Burnt Sienna came from Siena, Italy, while Raw Umber and Burnt Umber came from Umbria. These pigments were among the easiest to synthesize, and chemists created modern colors based on the originals that were more consistent than colors mined from the original ore bodies. But the place names remained.

Historically and culturally, many famous natural pigments have been replaced with synthetic pigments, while retaining historic names. In some cases the original color name has shifted in meaning, as a historic name has been applied to a popular modern color. By convention, a contemporary mixture of pigments that replaces a historical pigment is indicated by calling the resulting color a hue, but manufacturers are not always careful in maintaining this distinction. The following examples illustrate the shifting nature of historic pigment names:

  • Indian Yellow was once produced by collecting the urine of cattle that had been fed only mango leaves. Dutch and Flemish painters of the 17th and 18th centuries favored it for its luminescent qualities, and often used it to represent sunlight. In the novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, Vermeer's patron remarks that Vermeer used "cow piss" to paint his wife. Since mango leaves are nutritionally inadequate for cattle, the practice of harvesting Indian Yellow was eventually declared to be inhumane. Modern hues of Indian Yellow are made from synthetic pigments.
  • Ultramarine, originally the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, has been replaced by an inexpensive modern synthetic pigment, French Ultramarine, manufactured from aluminium silicate with sulfur impurities. At the same time, Royal Blue, another name once given to tints produced from lapis lazuli, has evolved to signify a much lighter and brighter color, and is usually mixed from Phthalo Blue and titanium dioxide, or from inexpensive synthetic blue dyes. Since synthetic ultramarine is chemically identical with lapis lazuli, the "hue" designation is not used. French Blue, yet another historic name for ultramarine, was adopted by the textile and apparel industry as a color name in the 1990s, and was applied to a shade of blue that has nothing in common with the historic pigment ultramarine.
  • Vermilion, a toxic mercury compound favored for its deep red-orange color by old master painters such as Titian, has been replaced in painters' palettes by various modern pigments, including cadmium reds. Although genuine Vermilion paint can still be purchased for fine arts and art conservation applications, few manufacturers make it, because of legal liability issues. Few artists buy it, because it has been superseded by modern pigments that are both less expensive and less toxic, as well as less reactive with other pigments. As a result, genuine Vermilion is almost unavailable. Modern vermilion colors are properly designated as Vermilion Hue to distinguish them from genuine Vermilion.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Pigment" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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