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Pigment and Color in Art

In its most basic form, paint is a pigment—a colored substance—mixed with a binder—a medium that the pigment particles together, such as egg yolk or linseed oil. The oldest paints date to around 40,000 years ago and were made from commonly available minerals and clays. Soot was commonly used to make black paint, while ochre—an iron-rich rock—produced a range of brown tones. Lead could produce whites and greys. Over the millennia, artists searched for materials that would produce a greater variety of colors.

Madonna and Child with Saints and Angels, Giovanni del Biondo (Italian, active 1356, died 1399) , c. 1380/1390 Since Greco-Roman times, purple and blue were two of the most highly sought-after colors, as natural pigments are rare. As a result of their scarcity, blue and purple took on connotations of wealth and royalty. Moreover, the prohibitive cost of producing paints in purple and blue ensured that only the elite could afford a work of art containing the precious colors. The Romans extracted a purple pigment from mollusks found in the Eastern Mediterranean, however the species went extinct by the 15th century due to over-harvesting. As early as Egyptian times, blue paint was made from powdered lapis lazuli, a stone found only in the mountains of modern-day Afghanistan and Iran. The cost of shipping the mineral from Asia, grinding it to fine powder, removing impurities, and mixing it with a binder made it the most expensive color, even more than gold. When a patron commissioned a work of art, he or she would usually specify the amount of money an artist should spend on the blue.

We can see the characteristic deep blue of ultramarine in Giovani del Biondo’s Virgin and Child with Two Angels and Saints Peter, Paul, John the Baptist, and James the Major. The Virgin was typically cloaked in blue in Renaissance paintings.

Although a few other sources could produce blue, such as the stone azurite, no other material produced as stable or as rich a color as lapis lazuli. It was not until 1704, when a chemist in Germany accidently produced a pigment from cyanide that a synthetic source of blue became available. This came to be called Prussian Blue, and is still in use today.

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