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An ancient history Unknowable beginnings
Just when people started using color is impossible to ever know as the earliest use is likely to have been in a form that would not survive more than a few hours. I refer to the universal practice among pre-civilization peoples around the world to dip their finger into wet clay and make marks on the face. For all we know this practice could be 400,000 years old or only 4000, but it seems reasonable to assume an ancient origin. The oldest reliable evidence is the burial of the dead with red ochre applied to the body. Some examples of this are almost 100,000 years ago amongst the Neanderthal. There are unproved claims of cave drawings in ochre and charcoal being as much as 60,000 years in some places including Australia. Clearly people have been making art for a long time.

The colors were simple then, burnt wood from the fire, and yellowish and reddish clays. At first the color was simply applied wet and allowed to dry, but eventually a basic kind of paint developed as it was discovered that the addition of animal fats, or honey or egg would make the colors more durable. Again the origin of this is lost in time but by the time of the late Stone Age there is evidence of the transportation of particular pigments from their place of origin across vast distances. Perhaps they had become a form of currency and were traded as valuable commodities. The colors remained the basic earth colors with the addition of of charcoal and chalk.

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                          Traditional and historic palettes

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Egypt and beyond Civilization brings new colors
Wealth, power, monuments, and corps of state or temple employed artists meant a growing demand for industrial scale production of pigments. Malachite a natural green copper ore was mined along with its blue variant called Azurite. Orpiment a poisonous and impermanent yellow was discovered. It's shortcomings were known but it was the only bright yellow known. The beautiful dark blue we know so well from Egyptian tombs was Blue Frit, also called Egyptian Blue. It was basically blue glass ground up as a pigment. In subsequent millennia a green variety was also made. Gypsum was mined for white. Chalk was also used. The common black was an early form of Lamp Black. The only reds were natural earth minerals such as Red Earth and Cinnabar. Madder and Indigo were known at this time as dyes for textiles. It is not so certain whether they were used as artists pigments as well, but given the limited colors available it would not be surprising if they were.

Greek and Roman
By the Roman period Verdigris (an artificial copper green) and green earth were added as greens, Ivory Black had been developed, White Lead (Flake White) was being made, The yellows Massicot and Naples Yellow were known, Tyrian purple was made into a glazing pigment at times, and the burnt and raw forms of umber and sienna were on the palette. A yellow red was used in the form of Realgar, an arsenic compound that occurs naturally. Bright red was supplied by 'Dragons Blood'. Said by Roman historians to be the blood collected after the fighting of dragons and elephants this very impermanent color was common until the 19th century by which time it had been discovered to really be the gum from a tree in South East Asia. The villagers who collected it surely had one of the most successful marketing campaigns in history.

It is likely that dyes and plant extracts intended for textiles supplemented artists color ranges in many instances.

With the exception of the blacks and earths virtually all of these colors exhibited problems, most were impermanent (or weak and coarse like Blue Frit), and those that weren't tended to be highly toxic.

The Medieval period
The Dark Ages and Medieval times brought 2 important colors from Asia. In the 8th century artificial Vermilion came from China. Although poisonous, it was the first of the modern powerful, bright, and yet permanent colors.

The second equally bright and permanent color was a blue. At first no one in Europe knew what it was or where it came from, only that it arrived on Arab ships from 'over seas', so it came to be called 'Ultra Marine' Pure ground Lapis Lazuli stone had been used for millennia but it was weak and not as useful as Egyptian Blue. Many found it difficult to believe that the older Lazuline Blue and the new Ultramarine were from the same source but gradually the knowledge of how to refine the blue from Lapis spread through Europe. The new rich, deep, and strong blue would revolutionize art. That was in the 12th century. Eventually it would be discovered that it came from Persia and Afghanistan.



The Renaissance Color miracles
We can thank the need to illustrate Bibles and decorate Churches for the survival of Roman methods of color production. So much else from the Roman industrial world was lost during the Dark Ages. Despite this good fortune there were still significant gaps in the color ranges of artists 500 years ago in terms of permanent colors and it is a testament to their skill that they could produce such brilliantly colored works with so few choices at hand. So many colors were either too expensive, too impermanent, or too poisonous.

Considering the huge artistic flowering of this period there were only 2 major pigment developments. Naples Yellow was produced artificially for the first time and Red Lake was developed into a large range of beautiful colors. While the name seems to have often been loosely applied to various reds the name originated with just one color. These days we know this color as Carmine in the studio and as Cochineal in the kitchen. It is derived from certain scale insects in Central America and India. These insects are called in the America's Cochineal, but in India where other scale insects produce a similar dye (in addition to Shellac - the varnish) the insects are called 'Lac'. It seems this is the origin of the term 'lake' used for organic dyes precipitated on an inert base to turn the dye into a pigment. 'Red Lake', or just 'Lake' was the name given to this first lake type pigment.

Late in this period came Gamboge, a bright and transparent yellow that was common until the 20th century. Like Dragon's Blood it was a gum from a South East Asian tree and was also impermanent. It's name derives from Cambodia, the principle source. Later it would become an important item of trade for the East India Company.





1700 - 1899 A colorful industrial revolution
The year 1704 is when Prussian Blue was developed. It was to start the revolution in artists colors that we know today. Some of these 18th century discoveries proved short lived. Bremen Blue hailed as the perfect blue when invented and immediately popular was superseded with a few years by Cobalt Blue. Turner's Yellow was likewise to be supplanted by Cadmium Yellow. Prussian Blue itself has been almost entirely replaced by Pthalo Blue in our own age.

The 19th century was the big century of change for artists. New colors seemed to come along every 4 or 5 years, so many that only the most important can be mentioned. Cobalt Blue arrived in 1802, Cerulean in 1805, Chromium Green Oxide in 1809. Indian Yellow also arrived about this time. It came from India and eventually people would find out that it was made by cruelty to cattle (force feeding on Mango leaves and collecting the urine to concentrate to make the pigment) and would be banned by centuries end. Cadmium Yellow was announced in 1817, to be followed by artificial (and affordable) Ultramarine, Zinc White, Rose Madder, Aureolin, Viridian, and Cobalt Violet. Some mistakes were made. Emerald Green, the favorite green of Vincent Van Gogh, was found to be so poisonous it became a popular insecticide sold in hardware stores as 'Paris Green'!

The 19th century saw 2 developments that were extraordinary, although it was not realized  at the time. Firstly at the beginning of the century the artificial preparation of iron oxides provided pure versions of the natural earths. At first marketed separately as 'Mars Colors' these days a tube of Yellow Ochre is much more likely to contain the artificial version than the natural. Same for the other so called earth colors. Meanwhile the Mars name has been quietly dropped except for the Black commonly used in acrylics.

The other change to have far reaching effects was the invention of the coal tar dyes. The first to be made into a pigment was called 'Mauve'. Several of these colors followed and artists couldn't resist them. Sadly these early Lakes would prove to be very impermanent which gave them a bad reputation which survives today despite the excellent qualities of many modern vat dyes.


The 20th century A full and permanent color range
The 20th century started with new high performance organic pigments (the Hansa colors) a replacement for the poisonous Vermilion (Cadmium Red) and the long awaited non toxic opaque White (Titanium). The Pthalocyanines were discovered in 1935 and soon to follow were the Quinacridones, the Perylenes and all the other laboratory products that would finally give the artist a wide range of beautiful permanent colors. Now the problem is not not enough choice, it is too much choice with many artists buying colors not because they need them, but just because they are a beautiful color. Those artists across the thousands of years would look and marvel at such an opportunity.


More info on traditional and historic palettes


References
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Parkhurst, D B,    The Painter In Oil   1898 (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard)
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