History of Pigments
With a history going back to the prehistoric times, paint is among the oldest form of synthetics known man. It is believed to have been made more than 35,000 years ago by the ancient man by creating a mixture of clays, chalks, dung, and animal fats to depict their hunts on cave walls. Over time, the manner in which paints and pigments were made changed significantly. The Egyptians had a massive influence on the creation of synthetics by 2500 BC when they invented a bright blue dye by crushing azurite. Using their advanced technology, they substituted animal fats with wax, gum, and egg white to create solvents and binders for their paints. Since then, the technology has improved considerably as people learned how to blend paints with hot wax instead of using water, and made thicker paints that were easier to spread and blend with other colors. Chemistry and technology have continued to play instrumental roles in the creation of paints, resulting in the emergence of both synthetic and natural paints that have been used by artists for centuries. In the ancient times, the technology that was used in creating paints and pigments was passed down from one generation to the next by travelling artisans. Advancement in technology resulted in the emergence of paint factories in America and Europe during the industrialization era in the nineteenth century, which allowed for the mass production of paints in different textures and pigments for various purposes. Given the vast range of colors and synthetics that are available today, it is evident that the chemistry used in the manufacture of paint has evolved from an art developed in the ancient times into a science.
The introduction of the slow-drying oil medium allowed artists to gain control over their paintings and gave rise to an artistic revolution that exists to date. Developed in Northern Europe in the 15th century before being embraced in Italy and France, the oil paint superseded almost all other paint mediums that had been in existence since the ancient times (Ball 2). The oil paint has slow-drying properties that provided artists with better control over their paintings, which gave realism an unprecedented dominance over two-dimensional art. The changes that were introduced to the technology used in creating paint at the time resulted in unexpected consequences for the new type of paint. The pigment contained in the paint supplied new colors that resulted in artists introducing more focus in their painting. Through the inception of new colors, realist artists were able to create sculptural relief, which gave rise to the creation of the three-dimension painting. The new oil painting allowed for the emergence of a believable depiction of both depth and sculpture in still-life paintings (Ball 61). The new technology that was used in the creation of oil paints made it possible for Renaissance artists to accurately reproduce the shape of their subject and to alternatively use light and dark colors to render relationships and connections between objects correctly. At the same time, the oil painting allowed artists to establish their abstract ideas, which permitted them to show the intellectual side of art (Ball 60). The inception of new pigments and colorants through the oil paints made it possible for Renaissance art to gain more proportion and perspective by making it easier for artists to outline the geometry of their compositions, which required thorough conceptual and mathematical organization. While the Renaissance artists were considered to be great colorists, the introduction of oil painting allowed them to gain a more intellectual attribute as they could now turn a flat surface on a canvas into a three dimensions illusion. It also allowed for the emergence of bright colors that allowed the artists to depict common sensual experiences in a manner that could easily appeal to the human instinct, something that was quite difficult to attain in the past. As stated by Berrie, the emergence of the oil paint changed art from a simple act of drawing into a highly sophisticated form of expression (441). The oil paint made it easier for artists in the Renaissance period to refine and modify reality by taking advantage of their intellect and facility in creating their art forms. The easy access to paint made it possible or the artists to concentrate on the human form by recreating personal images in an articulate and highly precise manner that allowed them to define their ideas and sentiments. As a result, they triggered the prominence of drawing in Italy, which resulted in the institution of new art academies that sought to assist artists to refine their drawing skills. Thus, the introduction of the oil painting resulted in the emergence of a liberalized era in art in which artists gained access to more color and paint with better qualities that allowed them to make quality three-dimensional paintings that are associated with the Renaissance era.
Standardization of the painting application following the emergence of the academic painting technique in the 19th century influenced the texture and combination of colorants, dyes, and pigments. At the time, academic painting was greatly influenced by its focus on the classical Greek sculptures and geometric drawings. However, the emergence of more colorful tones and high-quality paints resulted in artists taking advantage of the new colors to created detailed art forms. As depicted by King, the artists learned to take advantage of the paints of to make their paintings as realistic as they could (233). Given the fact that paint was now available in different textures, artists sought to make their pictures as solid as possible by applying it in several layers. They applied oil paints on the entire surface of their canvas to eliminate any detail that could destroy the illusion that they sought to create. Per the academic technique of painting, the artists created their paintings over three layers of paint. The first layer was made of paint that was made of a monochrome reddish-brown color, which was also referred to as le sauce (King 237). The layer of sauce was painted hurriedly and freely over the entire surface of the canvas to create a composition that would create a contrast between light and dark tones to create depth and sculptural respite. The second layer was meant to establish the basic color of the objects that were included in the painting, which was known as the ebauche. This second phase of painting was also referred to as dead coloring since it mostly involved the use of cheap, opaque pigments that were available in white, black, and earth tones (King 238). In an almost similar manner to the sauce, the ebauche was done with very minimal detail. Some areas of the canvas would be painted in a compact opaque tone in preparation for the thin layers of paint that were applied in the third stage in order to attain a specific effect or color, a step that was mostly used on strongly colored regions that used green and dark red pigments that were otherwise to transparent to be used on their own. The last step involved the application of thin layers of paint aimed at modifying the painting and ensuring that it attained a high degree finish. This stage was done after the total drying of the ebauche layer during which any brush marking on the surface of the painting would be scrapped off. A thin layer of paint would then be applied on the smoothened surface in a manner aimed at modifying the painting to ensure that it attained a high-quality finish. At this stage, oil, varnish, and other special components were mixed into the paint to give it a more fluid texture (King 241). The presence of the varnish and oil in the paint was aimed at altering its chemistry to make it more fluid to ensure that it leveled as it dried, hence, reducing the brush markings on the final product. The introduction of the special mediums into the paint used in the final layer was essential in maintaining the tonal transitions in a painting and ensuring that the objects appeared as seamless as possible. Following the introduction of highlights, the final layer was followed by the inclusion of impasto to provide a sense of immediacy to the completed work. Varnish is also considered to be an important innovation in the art revolution as it could be applied between the different layers and on the final surface of the completed painting to give it a smooth finish.
The rise of the Industrial Revolution and modern science in the 18th century had a massive impact on the art scene. Initially, art was heavily influenced by the government and other art schools that existed throughout Europe. In France, for instance, the government had control over all forms of art, which resulted in artists having to observe the rules and traditions set during the Renaissance. At the same time, they had to make due with a paint palette that had only undergone subtle changes in over four centuries. A revolution in the artistic world occurred following a decision by young artists to introduce change to the traditionally confining modes of academic painting. Artists such as Camille Pissarro, Claude Manet, and Alfred Sisley followed in the example set by the maverick painters that lived before their time to invent new paint pigments, which resulted in the emergence of the Impressionism style (King 109). As the Industrial Revolution took root and more industries emerged throughout continental Europe, there emerged new industries that focused on the creation of new pigments and fibers. In the 19th century, these industries had a huge impact on the colors that could be included in artists’ palettes through the creation of more than twenty intense shades of red, orange, blue, yellow, and green pigments, which were all made between 1800 and 1870 (Ball 4). The birth of these new colors changed the artistic scene, particularly the impressionists who took advantage of the new physical and chromatic properties that accompanied the new pigments. The new pigments were preferred due to the act that they saved the artists from the initial laborious techniques that were employed in the creation of paints and textures, hence, resulting in an improved painting technique that contained bright and popping colors. The impressionist revolution was further facilitated by more inventions that were facilitated by frustrated artists that were seeking ways to make their work easier. John G. Rand from South California had a strong influence in the impressionist revolution and the emergence of the contemporary mode of painting through his invention of a paint tube that was made of collapsible metal (Magaloni 35). The new invention made it possible for artists to abandon the confines of the traditional techniques of academic painting that were could only be done in an artist’s studio due to the excessive amount of effort that was required in moving their art equipment, particularly the paints, from one location to another. The collapsible metal tube made it easier for the impressionist artists to abandon their studios and move outdoors, where they could take advantage of natural light to capture nature and the exciting life that surrounded them. However, art critics were not impressed by the new changes that were being embraced in the art scene. While the contemporary society is quite impressed with the impasto and bright colors that were used in the impressionist paintings, the initial exhibition of these paintings in the 1870s elicited a hostile response from the public and art critics alike. Having been used to the traditional palettes and techniques, the new impressionist paintings were scorned and condemned for their use of bold colors and unprecedented techniques (Magaloni 37). Nevertheless, there is no denying that these changes had a huge impact on the new art form that continues to influence artists to the present day. Indeed, it is through the inception of technology and modern science that the impressionist artists were able to take advantage of the Industrial Revolution to change and improve the art scene into what it is today.
Modern chemistry emerged during the Industrial Revolution and triggered massive changes in the creation of pigments and colorants. The new industries employed chemical scientists that were assigned the role of determining the most effective ways of adding color to their products. As scientists started gaining more insight into the chemical interaction and identification of basic elements, the discovered more than 40 new items in addition to the fewer than 20 pigments that existed in the past (Lowengard 87). The new advances resulted in the inception of brightly colored products in the market, which somehow seemed to attract more customers and better pricing than in the past. The chemical scientists further investigated other potential pigments, which resulted in the discovery of more than 20 intense colors in yellow, red, green, orange, and blue. Also, the scientists invented new pigments, such as cadmium, chrome, and cobalt that added to the list of available colors that could be used in both the art world and the rapidly expanding manufacturing industry (Lowengard 88). The newly introduced pigments were quickly embraced by colorists, who turned them into paint and distributed them to other artists at an affordable price. While the introduction of new materials in the past gave artists an opportunity to explore their artistic boundaries, the introduction of the innovative pigments resulted in the emergence of an unprecedented shift in the history of painting. The novel pigments had a more opaque quality and provided a better tint than the colorants that they had in the past. Some of these pigments were better than the hues that were available in the past while others had dramatic improvements that did not exist in the past (Berrie 455). Additionally, the manufacture of paints during the industrial era made chemically stable paints easily available to the artists, which allowed them to explore beyond the already established artistic limits that have revolutionized art into what it is today.
The inception of chemistry in the manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution era resulted in the emergence of a vast range of colors and synthetics that have revolutionized the art scene. The modern society boasts of a wide range of colors and synthetics that have developed from the ancient brown hues used in making cave paintings to the 15 pigments used in the Renaissance era to hundreds of readily available tones in different shades and colors, which clearly depict the evolution of paints from the ancient times to the present world through science. The Industrial Revolution gave rise to chemical science whereby scientists started gaining more awareness into the chemical interaction and identification of essential elements that resulted in the introduction of new colors than the few that existed in the past. As science continues to progress, there is no limit the number of colors and pigments that would be available to artists in the future.
Ball, Philip. Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color. University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Ball, Phillip. “The Invention of Color.” Interfaces, vol. 33, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-32.
Berrie, Barbara H. “Rethinking the History of Artists’ Pigments through Chemical Analysis.” Annual Review of Analytical Chemistry, vol. 5, no. 2, 2012, pp. 441-459.
King, Ross. The Judgment of Paris: Manet, Meissonier and the Birth of Impressionism. Walker & Company, 2006.
Lowengard, Sarah. The Creation of Color in Eighteenth-Century Europe. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Magaloni Kerpel, Diana. The Colors of the New World. The Getty Research Institute, 2014.
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