colors used throughout history

You will find in reading that many of the early pigments caused problems for the painters due to fading or darkening, trouble mixing certain colors together, or in their toxicity, not to mention the artists' labors in purifying and preparing each pigment by hand. Modern pigments that have replaced them are often less toxic, more stable, and chemically treated to be easily intermixed. They also offer the convenience of being pre-prepared using the best ingredients. Modern pigments also offer a greater selection of purer hues from which to choose, including better quality preparations of many of the old tried and true colors.

While it may be of benefit to determine what colors were used to achieve a certain look by a particular artist of the past, the use of a modern pigment of similar hue may be substituted by the contemporary painter. As an example, instead of mixing light ochre with vermilion for skin tones, the artist can today mix yellow ochre or mars yellow with cadmium red, vermilion hue or a Quinacridone or DPP Yellow-Red for a similar effect.

The down side to company prepared tube colors is that the artist is not aware of the exact ingredients or the amount of each used. Thus, it may be more difficult to precisely control layering in a fat-over-lean method.

***If you wish to experiment with ancient colors in their original form, they can again be purchased!! The German firm of Kremer-Pegmente manufactures all historic colors for conservation and artistic use, including such colors as orpiment yellow, true lapis lazuli blue, and genuine Chinese cinnabar (vermillion) red. Good Golly, it's enough to bring tears to my eyes. Other good sources of traditional colors are Williamsburg Paints and Astoria Paints.


Orpiment: Pigment of Gold. It was said that it can only be lightened with white from calcined hartshorn, NOT with white lead as commonly used. There are two arsenic yellows called "yellow orpiment" (King's Yellow or Royal Yellow: arsenic trisulfide) and "red orpiment" (Realgar or Risalgallo: arsenic disulfide). De Mayerne mentions that orpiment should not be touched with an iron knife. Later replaced by an artificial version known as King's Yellow or Auripigmentum, a very bright, opaque yellow. Poisonous and not reliably permanent, having limited compatibility with other pigments. Used from the earliest civilizations and throughout the history of art until they were replaced by cadmiums.

Light and Brown Ochre: made of earth. Light ochre was used in flesh tones. Brown Ochre is a dull variety of yellow ochre (PY 43). The Romans called it Sil, with the finest grade coming from Greece called Attic sil.

Mars Yellow: rust of iron. (PY 42) Today it is factory-made iron hydroxide that usually resembles the tone of the natural earth yellows, such as yellow ocher or raw sienna. It is permanent.

Light and Dark Yellow Lake: vegetable based dyes impregnated upon chalk (white earth). Like all lakes, susceptible to fading. Yellow lake is an unstandardized term used for a number of transparent pigments today and is reliably substituted by Cobalt yellow (PY 40) and the Hansa Yellows (PY 1, 3, 65, 73, 74, or 98).

Massicot (Masticote): (lead tin yellow); Was thought at one time to be a monoxide of lead, but is deeper or more pinkish in hue than litharge. blackens in time and changes when exposed to the sun. Never was considered permanent. Cennini remarks that its tint was injured by much grinding. Italian writers referred to this as giallorino, giallolino, and giallolino de Fiandra.
There seems to be some confusion in literature as to the exact makeup of Massicot. Lead-tin yellow is said by some conservators to be similar in handling and properties to lead antimoniate. (see below - Naples Yellow)

Naples Yellow: Lead Antimoniate (PY 41)- poisonous. The true pigment is infrequently sold today. Around 1700 Naples yellow began to replace the hitherto traditional yellow pigment, lead-tin yellow, and enjoyed its highest popularity between approximately 1750 and 1850. It was itself replaced by the barium chromates and cadmium sulphides. "There is no explanation for the disappearance of lead-tin yellow from the painter's palettes and the replacement with lead antimonate. Lead-tin yellow can, dependent on component ratios and firing conditions, be made of an intense colour. Lead antimonate is often of a rather pale hue. Other wise, the working properties of both pigments are fairly similar. The production methods for Naples yellow are quite similar to those for lead-tin yellow (type I). In the production of Naples yellow the stannate component of lead-tin yellow was simply replaced by antimony."
-- Joris Dik / Arie Wallert
It is a useful color that has many of the characteristics of flake white, such as a rapid rate of drying and good film-forming properties. It shares the disadvantages of flake white -- that is, it is toxic (but careful use prevents harm) and sensitive to sulfur (but can be protected from atmospheric pollutants by varnish and by avoiding combination with reactive sulfide pigments. Modern substitutes sold under the name are usually mixtures of cadmium yellow, zinc white, and ocher. These dry more slowly and have an inferior film quality when compared to true Naples Yellow.
Lightfastness: I
Oil Absorption: Very Low
Oil Film: fast drying, tough, flexible
Toxicity: highly toxic, do not ingest, do not breathe dust

Saffron: An obsolete bright yellow color obtained from the dried petals of Crocus sativus. Fades badly in daylight. Used in Roman times.

Litharge: Lead monoxide. A heavy, yellowish powder (obsolete as a paint pigment) used as a drier when cooking resin-oil varnish mediums.

Yellows were mixed with Vermilion to make a nice golden orange. And transparent yellows were mixed with red browns to glaze in warm shadows over a light ground.


Vermilion: Zinnober (PR 106) from natural Cinnabar, it is chemically known as mercuric sulfide. European use of ore from Spanish mines dates from an early Greek period. Theophrastus says it was obtained from inaccessible cliffs by shooting arrows to dislodge it. Also found in relics of Assyrian and other early cultures. Natural cinnabar has been known since prehistoric times but is much inferior to the manufactured product. It is manufactured from mercury and sulfur or by reaction of sulfides and mercury or its salts. It is an opaque, pure red and is the heaviest pigment in use. Though permanent, some grades are liable to turn black; this change is a reversion to a black form of mercuric sulfide. [manufactured vermilion using sulfur may cause reaction with lead white to form lead sulphide which is black (?) Vermilion from the 17th century was often adulterated with cheap red lead which caused its darkening] It was commonly used by the Flemish for flesh tones. Though other colors may make better flesh tones, none were more durable than vermilion. At times mixed with yellow ochre for flesh. The best grades are made in England, France and China. It is said that true Vermilion will not react with other permanent colors, including white lead. Mercury is regarded as toxic and should be handled with caution. Vermilion may be replaced today with the less toxic Cadmium Red - Vermilion Hue, though this cannot exactly replace its particular hue.
Made Today as:
Orange Vermilion - Natural Cinnabar.
English Vermilion - Geniune vermilion made in England.
Chinese Vermilion - Geniune vermilion made in China.
Lightfastness: I
Oil Absorption: Low
Oil Film: average drying, hard, fairly flexible
Toxicity: not toxic, do not breathe dust
American Vermilion - A heavy, opaque lake pigment, usually made from eosine or scarlet dye on a red lead, orange mineral, or chrome red base. Not permanent. There is great variation of behavior in different specimens.

Minium: red lead, heated litharge, Saturnine Red. Red coloured lead tetroxide (Pb3 O4) composed of lead monoxide and lead peroxide which evolves by heating litharge for several hours at 480 C. It is an orange to brilliant scarlet red, heavy, earthy, poisonous powder. Van Mander suggested avoiding minium, along with verdigris and orpiment. "Minium fades and is not good in oil," according to DeMayerne. In acid surroundings, minium discolours into white; in the presence of sulphur it turns into black lead sulphide and it oxidizes readily forming dark brown lead oxide. But if the salt can be extracted with distilled vinegar, "the remainder does not fade, and dries very well." It is said to brush out poorly. Romans had applied the term to their native vermilion, cinnabar, and to a lesser extent, to a refined red oxide. Perhaps because cinnabar was often adulterated with red lead the term "minium" was gradually more specifically applied to this mixture, and eventually to straight red lead. The word "miniature" derives from its use in illuminated manuscripts.

Brun Rouge: a yellow ochre that had been slightly burnt (ie. Burnt Sienna) Not to be confused with Rouge-brun ou rouge d'Angleterre, which was a mixture of an ochre and an iron oxide pigment.

Indian Red: colcothar of vitriol, natural red iron oxide from ferrous sulfate. Used in theatre rouge. Some sources claim that this was the "caput mortuum" used by the Flemish for flesh tones. Today the name is given to the bluish shade of synthetic red iron oxide (PR 101).

Red Lakes: Zealand madder root and lac lake of India. Rose Madder Lake is the proper name of one. Scarlet Lake was cochineal lake on vermilion base. All red organic dyes precipitated onto a base. As with all lakes, tend to fade.

Face Brown Red: unknown substance.

Folium: English Woad, Biseth of Folium, Bisetus, and Folium Indicum. Folium or English Woad is said to make a blue color, but can also produce a purple and a red. An ancient mulberry color of various vegetable origins. The term was superseded by more exact names of specific lake colors.


Tyrian Purple: Roman Ostrum, Purple of the Ancients. "The celebrated imperial purple of the Romans and that used by the Greeks and other ancient peoples was prepared from the shellfish Murex trunculis and Murex brandaris. In 1908, Friedlaender discovered that the coloring matter of the ancient purple was identical with a purple coal tar color that had been introduced in 1904. Neither this particular synthetic color nor murex purple is in use today because other purples superior in every respect can be made at lower cost. According to Pliny, the most desirable shades of murex purple varied from the reddish or pinkish to the bluish or violet, according to the fashion of the times, and pigments made from it were used principally as glazing colors. The bluish shade was also known as Byzantium purple." --Mayer


Azur: a generic term for blue which was applied haphazardly to lapis lazuli or artificial ultramarine, azurite or even artificial azurite, blue verditer, or even smalt.

Woad: Is the plant Isatis tinctoria which grows widely in Europe. The glucoside indican in the leaves is indoxyl, the chemical precursor to the dye Indigo blue. [see below] when the dead leaves ferment, indican is hydrolysed to indoxyl which is readily oxidised by air to indigo. In India, the plant indigofera tinctoria produces much more of the glucoside of indican than isatis leaves and its importation into Europe from India eventually replaced the use of European Woad.

English, German, and Haarlem Ashes: The ashes are light blues derived either from silver (Indian Bice), from carbonates of copper (Native Malachite, Verdeazzuro, "Mountain Green"), or from smalt (calcined cobalt). German Azure was not cobalt, but a native carbonate of copper; a clear, deep blue used as a pigment since Roman times (Azurite, Azzuro della magna, Mountain Blue). While popular, at least some were very perishable. Some such blues (like Bremen Blue, also called Mountain Blue) were made from Copper hydroxide plus Copper carbonate, a poisonous, impermanent group of colors. While Smalt (Saxon Blue) is a kind of Cobalt blue glass or frit, made by roasting a cobalt ore with other ingredients, much as the Egyptian blue frit was made; in fact, historically, it is considered a direct continuation of the Egyptian color (also known as Alexandrian, Pompeian, Pozzuoli, and Vestorian Blue as it made its way to Europe), the improvement being the substitution of cobalt for the more poisonous and less desireable copper. Cobalt has been found as an ingredient in various ancient blue ceramics, and as an impurity in copper blues, but pigments derived from cobalt ores are usually held to be a Northern innovation. During the height of its importance, before the introduction of artificial ultramarine (PB 29), smalt was most carefully made in a number of standard grades, but today it finds only a limited use in ceramics and as a sign painter's material. Its faults were its coarseness and an inability to mix well with oil, leading to seepage and dripping, its lack of tinctorial power, and the presence of alkaline impurities.

Then there is smalt, which even if the colour is very fine requires adroit handling and that its mixtures be well ordered. Since if what is worked does not come out at first painting [alla prima], to correct by repainting is laborious. Because the oil is seen to ooze from every spot that is daubed with the brush, this covers the brightness [of the colour] and blurring it so that, in short, it turns out yellowish.
De veri precetti della pittura - 1587

Blue Lakes: organic plant dyes deposited onto a substrate of alum or soda. All fade easily and some react badly with a damp environment.

Indigo: A deep, transparent blue originally obtained from plants cultivated in india. It was used in Europe from very early times, principally as a dyestuff. A better grade has been made synthetically from coal tar since the end of the nineteenth century in the form of a dark blue powder, C16H10N2O2. The original was generally condemned, but said to be "rendered safe by steeping it in vinegar, and exposing it to the sun for two or three days; the vinegar is then to be poured off, and the paste when dry may be ground in oil." The complaint was that it changed when exposed to the sun. The newer synthetic is not entirely lightproof and has long been discarded as a permanent artists' color.

Lapis lazuli: Azzuro oltremarino (Blue from beyond the sea), Lazuline Blue, Ultramarine. "Originally this color was made by grinding a semiprecious stone, lapis lazuli or lazurite, and purifying it by a complex and difficult process, thus removing all the gray rock with which it is usually associated. Genuine or lapis ultramarine is a rich, deep "true blue" of practically uniform hue. It has been found in Assyrian and Babylonian relics but only as a decorative or precious stone. Its European use as a pigment began in the twelfth century; it has always been one of the costliest and most precious of painting materials. Lapis lazuli occurs in Iran, Afghanistan, China, Chile, and a few other countries; it is more often found in the form of blue particles and veins scattered through a gray rock than in the solid pieces which are used in jewelry and ornaments. Investigators believe that lapis is the sapphire of the Bible and other early writings, including those of Theophrastus and Pliny. Has been replaced by artificial ultramarine (PB 29)." --Mayer
Synthetic ultramarine is processed with sulfur, making its color fastness when mixed with Lead White questionable. True ultramarine from lapis lazuli stone is the most permanent of colors and was said to keep its color, even through fire. When used mixed with the grayish rock in which it is found it is called ultramarine ash; a bluish-gray pigment of slight tinting strength and limited value.

Prussian Blue: Iron Blue, Milori Blue, Bronze Blue, Steel Blue. Germans call is Paris Blue. (PB 27) A strong tinting strength green-blue mineral (ferric ferrocyanide) color discovered and used only since the 18th C. It is said to fade somewhat in mixtures with white, but in general it is fairly permanent. Chinese Blue is a very high quality variety of Prussian Blue. Milory is also of high quality. The more permanent Phthalocyanine blue (PB 15, 16) can replace it today.
Lightfastness: I
Oil Absorption: Low
Oil Film: average drying, hard, fairly flexible
Toxicity: not toxic, do not breathe dust

Great concern was shown toward the yellowing effect of oil on blue which spoils its brilliance.

Hoogstraten regrets that a good green was not so easily to be obtained as other pigments. "Terra Verde," he observes, "is too weak, verdigris too crude, and green bice is not durable." Beurs remarks that greens were usually compounded; it is in such mixtures that the yellow lake has sometimes ill served the intentions of the Dutch painters, as the yellow fades leaving the blue only. Colors prone to fading were well coated in a balsam resin to prevent oxidation and other effects of nature upon them.

Terra Verde: Green Earth, Stone Green, Verdetta, Verona Green (PG 23) - alkali-aluminum-magnesium-ferrous silicate of varying composition. Used by the Sienese for the cool flesh tones. The best European grades are known as Bohemian (pure green tone), Cyprian (yellowish), Verona (bluish), and Tyrolen (similarly bluish, but dull). It is quite transparent and of extremely low hiding and tinctorial power; therefore, it is of slight value as a body color in opaque oil painting but is used in glazes and as a watercolor wash. It was popular in Italy from the earliest recorded times. Used as a base for some green lakes.
Lightfastness: I
Oil Absorption: Low
Oil Film: slow drying, soft, flexible
Toxicity: not toxic, do not breathe dust

Verdigris: "the Green of Greece," Viride Aeris - Hydrated copper acetate. A gray-green or bluish patina formed on copper, brass, or bronze surfaces, consisting principally of basic copper sulfate. Copper acetate, when mixed in oil, could convert to black copper oxide, presumably reacting with oxygen in the air. It tended to be impermanent, being affected by other pigments and the atmosphere. Distilled verdigris was purified using vinegar. However the saline quality makes it "deliquescent in a moist atmosphere." Da Vinci states that, if not immediately varnished, it could be removed with a damp sponge, especially in humid weather. Attempts were made to protect it with balsams and other varnishes to "lock up" the color and protect it, but without long term success. Without an immediate coat of varnish it turned "an infamous dark brown," according to Spanish painter Palomino. Some painters went so far as to use varnish as the binder when glazing with verdigris. It was used as far back as the Greek empire in the preparation of oils to speed drying time. It was still used to a limited extent during the nineteenth century.

Green Bice: Green carbonate of copper. Also sometimes applied to Green Earth.

Verd de Vessie: bladder green, sap green - the juice of berries of the cervispina (Rhamnus catharticus, buckthorn). Some painters contrived to use it in oil, by means of firm vehicles.


Lamp Black: (PBk 6) A pure carbon in its brown undertone was objected to by Van Mander on the authority of Vasari, who said that it had bad effects in Raphael's Transfiguration.

Terra Verde: Green earth (PG 23) was also used in the realm of browns.

Umber: (PBr 7) Earth from that region of Italy or from Cypress. FeO(OH) containing manganese dioxide.

Cologne Earth: May have included Cassel Earth. Native earth containing organic matter. Not permanent.

Vandyke Brown: Like Cologne and Cassel Earth, it is a native earth, composed of clay, iron oxide, decomposed vegetation (humus), and bitumen. Fairly transparent. Deep-toned and less chalky than umbers in mixtures. One of the worst driers in oil Some specimens fade, and in oil this pigment always turns dark, cracks, and causes wrinkling, exhibiting the same defects as asphaltum, but to a somewhat lesser degree. Not for permanent oil painting. Some of the lightproof grades may be used in watercolor and pastel. Dates from the seventeenth century. Rubens Brown is a variety of Vandyke Brown.

Yellow Lake: brown tones (brown pink) A brownish yellow lake of vegetable origin similar to Dutch pink.

Asphaltum: In mixtures with native earth and humus as Van Dyke Brown, Cassel Earth, and Cologne Earth. In its pure form it comes from bitumen (tar), the pulverized asphaltum was mixed with a drying oil prepared with litharge and "placed in a glass vessel, suspended by a thread in a water bath. Thus exposed to the fire it melts like butter; when it begins to boil it is instantly removed. It is an excellent colour for shadows, and may be glazed like lake; it lasts well," De Mayerne says. There are no complaints, in any of the writers of the time, of the flowing or the cracking frequently complained of by more modern artists. They obviously sought the best native bitumen. Other recipes for its preparation are described by Eastlake, including one of Antwerp Brown that mixed a cinder of asphaltum well cooked with half an ounce of sugar of lead and half a pound of the calx; ground in the strongest drying oil. This treatment probably prevented its flowing, and may also render it less liable to crack. The French painters of the school of David added wax to bitumen to prevent its flow. And Bouguereau, when questioned concerning its reliability, exclaimed, "they make sidewalks out of it!" When used in small amounts it does seem to be acceptable and does make a good shadow on flesh. However, it is still considered impermanent because it never dries completely and softens in heat. It is not recommended, but if used it should be confined to final glazes, where it might do less harm. Ralph Mayer states that it is "one of the most destructive materials ever introduced into oil painting," and that it turns dark and cracks even when used as a glaze. It is best replaced by the umbers.

Mummy: Egyptian Brown. Exactly what it says: Bone ash and asphaltum, obtained by grinding up Egyptian mummies. The color actually came from the Asphaltum with which the bodies were imbalmed. Obviously, this exotic color is no longer available; "its use was suddenly discontinued in the nineteenth century when its grisly composition became generally known to artists."

Prussian Brown: Prussian Blue (PB 27), burnt and filtered to free it from salts, makes "a very fine and durable brown." (18th C.) Today made using a natural red iron oxide (PR 102), also in the form of Prussian Red.


Ivory or Bone Black: (PBk 9) Elephant tusk, walrus tusk, carbonized hartshorn, or animal bone. True ivory is said to produce the best black. The "cornu cervium" black is said to be very intense.

Lampblack: (PBk 6) carbon black condemned by the early painters. It is a very fine, greasy powder derived from the soot produced by the burning of lamp oil. Called Atramentum by the early Romans.

Black Chalk: when ground in oil, according to De Mayerne, "dries easily, is unctuous, and spreads well; for painting satins and similar things it is superior to the ordinary [vine] charcoal black, of which blue black is made. It should be kept in water."

Vine Black: Charcoal Black, Marc Black. "Made by calcining selected wood and other vegetable products. This pigment and the other blacks referred to it are members of a group of rather impure forms of carbon made by burning selected, but rather second-rate materials of vegetable, animal, and petroleum origins. They all have bluish undertones, and when mixed with whites will produce blue-grays. They are inferior to the lamp black (PBk 6) in intensity and pigment properties. While these materials are probably permanent enough for most practical uses, it is wiser to select one of the purer forms of carbon. The vine black group should not be used in fresco or to mix with cement, mortar, etc., because of efflorescence from the water-soluble impurities that they always contain." --Mayer

Common Coal: furnishes a brownish tint. De Mayerne observes: "The shadows of flesh are well rendered by pit-coal, which should not be burnt."
Small cole or charcole [carbonized vine stalks] is a blue black and sea-cole makes a red black.


Lead White: Flake White (PW 1) A heavy poisonous mineral used for centuries. Very drying and flexible. Cremnitz White is a high-quality corroded white lead made by a nineteenth-century variation of the Dutch process, litharge being used as a basic raw material instead of metallic lead. Opaque when fresh, but becomes increasingly transparent with age.

Hartshorn: Calcined Deer antler. Replaced lead white when mixing with orpiment (yellow).

History, Definitions, and Techniques | Drying Oils and Mediums
Resins and Varnishes | Pigments Past |Pigment Chemistry
Supports for Painting | Grounds on Canvas | Techniques of Past Masters
Discussion with National Gallery Conservator