The Path to Plein Air Painting: A Peek at Pigments



The Path to Plein Air Painting

Part I: A Peek at Pigments 


Box, 1880-1939, Metal; Wood, 104.39.1003

Pigment: A substance used for colouring or painting, especially a dry powder, which when mixed with oil, water, or another medium constitutes a paint or ink.


At the Whyte we have approximately 16,000 paintings and drawings. A large percentage of these are attributed to our founders Peter Whyte and Catharine Robb Whyte. In order to understand how it was possible for Peter and Catharine to paint we must explore the materials that allowed them to paint. Without the development of pigments, mediums, and artistic tools, artists, like Peter and Catharine would not have been able to become the artists they were. Join us as we explore the history of that development. 

The long history of pigments has been a deadly, expensive, and continuous endeavour. In the past, artists have used a variety of pigments that were sourced from animals, insects, plants, minerals, and soil. With the continuous development and discovery of new materials, different colours were able to be created. This in turn allowed for artists to incorporate new techniques and styles into their works. 

However, many of these pigments would soon be identified as culprits in many artists debilitation's and deaths. Below are some examples of the most toxic pigments that have been used in the past. 


Chrome Yellow (Lead (II) Chromate):

This colour is artificially made and derives its colour likeness to the mineral, crocoite. However, the pigment was only able to be artificially made after the discovery of the chemical element, chromium (Cr) in 1797. Known for containing high levels of lead, this pigment caused significant cases of delirium. Eventually, it was replaced with cadmium yellow, which is still used today.  

Chrome Yellow (Lead (II) Chromate), 
wikicommons photograph

Emerald Green (Paris Green): 
Developed as an improved version of Scheele's green in 1814, this synthetic pigment was composed of copper acetoarsenite. This toxic pigment contained extremely high levels of arsenic. It was used in the nineteenth century in oil paints, watercolours, and pastels. In the twentieth century, it was further used as wallpaper colouring and fabric pigment. This pigment was referred to by many different names including Paris green. According to Sarah Gottesman's article, A Brief History of Colour in Art, emerald green could have been the cause of Claude Monet's (1840-1926) blindness and Paul Cézanne's (1839-1906) diabetes. 

There are also examples of pigments that were created by extraordinary measures. When one examines the time period in which these pigments were created, we can see the amount of resources and effort required. Below are a few examples of these efforts.


Indian Yellow:

This watercolour was fluorescent in colour and was made from the urine of mango-fed cows. Heavily used by the artist, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), this colour was later banned due to its cruelty to animals.  

Ultramarine Blue (Natural):

Created from the gemstone lapis lazuli, ultramarine blue required an intensive labour process to make. The stone needed to be ground down to a fine powder then mixed with a wax and diluted in a lye bath. The crystals from the stone would then wash out and could be collected. As multiples batches were processed from the same powder, the pigment changed and diluted with each new batch. With this dilution of colour the price went significantly down. In result of this labour intensive process the pigment was very expensive. A synthetic ultramarine blue was created in 1826. 



Developing alongside pigment colours was also the type of tools and mediums being utilized. These changes caused waves of change within the artistic world. Stay tuned for our following blog posts on how these changes occurred!  





Sources and Additional Information:

Colin, Mitchell Rose. "Traditional Paints." Building Conservation/Cathedral Communications Ltd. 2002, Accessed November 22, 2018. http://www.buildingconservation.com/articles/paint/paint.htm

Conservation and Art Materials Encyclopedia Online (CAMEO). "Ultramarine blue, natural." Museum of Fine Arts Boston. September 29, 2017, Accessed November 23, 2018. http://cameo.mfa.org/wiki/Ultramarine_blue,_natural 

Conservation and Art Materials Encyclopedia Online (CAMEO). "Ultramarine blue, synthetic." Museum of Fine Arts Boston. May 1, 2016, Accessed November 23, 2018. http://cameo.mfa.org/wiki/Ultramarine_blue,_synthetic

Conservation and Art Materials Encyclopedia Online (CAMEO). "Chrome Yellow." Museum of Fine Arts Boston. April 29, 2016, Accessed November 23, 2018. http://cameo.mfa.org/wiki/Chrome_yellow

Conservation and Art Materials Encyclopedia Online (CAMEO). "Emerald Green." Museum of Fine Arts Boston. April 30, 2016, Accessed November 23, 2018. http://cameo.mfa.org/wiki/Emerald_green

Douma, Michael. "Emerald Green, Pigment through the Ages." Institute for Dynamic Educational Development. 2008, Accessed November 23, 2018. http://www.webexhibits.org/pigments/indiv/technical/emerald.html

Douma, Michael. "Time Periods, Pigment through the Ages." Institute for Dynamic Educational Development. 2008, Accessed November 23, 2018. http://www.webexhibits.org/pigments/intro/history.html

Gottesman, Sarah. "A Brief History of Colour in Art." Artsy. May 20, 2016, Accessed November 23, 2018. https://www.artsy.net/article/the-art-genome-project-a-brief-history-of-color-in-art


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