Pigments and colour
from earth and fire to airbrushing
The world we live in is full of colour and there is much of it that can be used to make paints and inks, something our ancestors were familiar with long ago. They discovered that red, brown and yellow ochres can be obtained from the soil, strong blues from lapis lazuli and cobalt, green from malachite, and white from lime and lead. Ash, from their fires, would have been mixed with animal fats to make blacks and greys, and the ashes of the animal and bird bones cooked over those fires make good whites. Many plants and berries are also used to obtain colour, among them woad and indigo which give good blues.
The chosen pigment is ground and mixed with gum, fat, or water to ‘carry’ it and make it flow. The colour resulting from these pigments can then be applied with anything that makes a decent brush, or applicator, whether it be twigs, which can be chewed to fray the ends, animal hair, the mouth or the hands.
Early man often left his signature on drawings by leaving a hand print and some of these are surrounded by colour which looks as though it was blown from an airbrush. We can only deduce that the paint was actually blown from the mouth or, perhaps, from a bladder or gourd with a fine hole in it.
Cinnabar, or minium, the pigment obtained from red lead, was once used for the striking red lettering and decoration often to be found in the opening words of the text of a manuscript and in the page decoration. The Egyptians were among the first to find it striking enough to use in places of importance or emphasis, such as text headings, and it has been used by scribes throughout history. The Latin name for this pigment, minium, gives rise to the term miniature. The person skilled in working with minium was called a miniator and the things he applied his craft to were called miniatures, whether they were tiny or not.
The scribes of old also knew a thing or two about the long-lasting effects of certain chemicals when combined or placed next to each other. Some pigments will combine, where two colours meet on a page, and have a corrosive effect over time. Colours that would have an adverse reaction on each other were often separated by a fine line of a ‘safe’ colour to keep them apart, thus avoiding this destructive process. Where colours would attack the page directly, a coat of a different colour and pigment would be painted on first to protect the vellum or parchment.
A clue to the original pigmentation of a certain colour is often in the names of modern paints. Titanium white, cobalt blue, and viridian green are but a few and the better quality artists paints will even contain that pigment. Many paints still use original pigments but there are more and more chemically produced colours on the market, which offer better light-fastness and permanence.