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Traditional palettes Colors available down the ages
This is a listing of all major colors introduced into artists palettes since the beginning of human artistic activities. For the ancient world the list is of all known colors used but from the time of the Greco-Roman age there was an increasing use of colors experimented with for artist's use. In many cases  these were very fugitive plant based  products that did not stand the test of time. Artist's needs for a wide range of bright colors lead to the adoption of less than perfect colors from time to time, but always it was only the best that would be treated as serious colors for important work. Only the most prized colors are recorded here then for artist's since ancient times. This is especially true for recent times when literally hundreds if not thousands of new pigments have come on the market with only a tiny portion being used in any quantity by artists.

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Limited palettes

Ackermann's color list from 1801

Historic and obsolete pigments

Paint ingredients

Paint characteristics


Ancient world Simple earths
A long long time ago an early human made a deliberate mark with either a burnt stick from the fire or red or yellow clay. The earliest archaeological evidence is about 100,000 years old, but the practice could have started any time in the previous 100,000 years, no one will ever know for certain what the beginnings were or why, but we can be certain for almost all of that time these were the only colors used:
  • Red Earth
  • Yellow Earth
  • Carbon Black from the fire
  • White Clay or Chalk (depending on locality)


Ancient Egyptian Beginnings of technology
Ancient Egypt was not the first civilization, but it appears to have been the earliest with an economic base and organized artistic class that was coupled to an industrial culture of mining and manufacturing on a large scale. The royal court and the temple hierarchy both demanded sophisticated artworks for both decorative and symbolic reasons. Most colors were natural in origin, but Egyptian Blue Frit has the honor of being the first truly synthetic color produced by humankind. Indigo and Madder were both textile dyes which may have had a minor usage in artist's palettes. As dyes both would have behaved more like inks than as the pigment colors we are familiar with today.
  • Red Earth
  • Yellow Earth
  • Carbon Black both from fires (wood) and lamps
  • Gypsum and/or Chalk
  • Malachite
  • Azurite
  • Cinnabar
  • Orpiment
  • Egyptian Blue (Frit)
  • Indigo
  • Madder


Greco-Roman Broadening the color range
The Greeks and Romans extended the industrial approach to colors with new artificial colors such as the Lead based red, yellow and White lead the most important pigment produced until the introduction of Titanium White in 1919. Vermilion was produced from about 1500 BC, although it was inferior to the Chinese Vermilion (developed in the 8th century) we are familiar with. Textile dyes such as Indigo, Madder and Tyrrian Purple were used sometimes especially as glazing colors. With minor possible exceptions this is the full range of colors available.
  • Red Earth
  • Yellow Earth
  • Raw and Burnt Sienna
  • Raw and Burnt Umber
  • Lamp Black and Carbon Black (from wood fires)
  • Ivory Black
  • Chalk
  • White Lead
  • Malachite
  • Green Earth
  • Azurite
  • Egyptian Blue
  • Egyptian Green
  • Verdigris
  • Cinnabar
  • Vermilion
  • Red Lead
  • Dragon's Blood
  • Massicot
  • Orpiment
  • Naples Yellow
  • Indigo
  • Madder
  • Tyrrian Purple


Asia / America Mineral and organic beauty
Although modern color ranges are mostly descended from industrial revolution products and research there have been important pigments that have originated in Asia and to a lesser extent in the Americas. As it covers many cultures and varying art practices this list puts together pigments and colors that may not have been found alongside each other in daily usage. Many of these colors are still in use in traditional arts from China to the Andes. There seems to have been a greater acceptance of impermanent vegetable based colors in many parts of Asia and the Americas although their localized nature means that few are on this list. It should be noted that some Oriental pigments are used for their textural or other qualities other than as just pure coloring agents.
  • Red Earth
  • Yellow Earth
  • Carbon Black
  • Chinese Vermilion
  • Carmine (Cochineal lakes)
  • Azurite
  • Malachite
  • Indigo
  • Quartz White
  • Mica White
  • Calcite
  • Shell White
  • Saffron
  • Genuine Ultramarine


Renaissance Better binders and ideas for new colors
The development of oil paint changed everything. Previously painting had tended to be mural oriented and water based although the Greeks had developed wax based painting (encaustic) for easel pictures. Oils and then the adoption of canvas meant paintings were used for a wider variety of situations and subject matter gradually broadened. The final understanding of perspective encouraged a greater desire for more realistic effects and illusions. Artist skill levels increased and while only a few new colors were available all colors were used in increasingly sophisticated ways. By the 17th century all the major traditional paint forms (oil, tempera, watercolor, gouache) were being used. This list is complete with the exception of the many plant based colors available but rarely used by the important studios due to their known imperfections.
  • Red Earth (wide variety of versions from dark purplish to light)
  • Yellow Earth
  • Green Earth
  • Ivory Black
  • Lamp Black
  • Vine Black
  • White lead
  • Chalk
  • Malachite
  • Verdigris
  • Azurite
  • Indigo
  • Egyptian Blue
  • Genuine Ultramarine
  • Ultramarine Ashes
  • Cinnabar
  • Chinese Vermilion
  • Red Lead (Saturn Red)
  • Red Lake
  • Dragon's Blood
  • Orpiment
  • Massicot
  • Naples Yellow
  • Lead-Tin Yellow
  • Gamboge
  • Raw and Burnt Sienna
  • Raw and Burnt Umber


17th, 18th and 19th centuries Discovery rush starts
The industrial revolution lead to many changes in artist's ranges. The good news was that development of new and more permanent colors came, first as a trickle then as a flood as chemists became involved in the search. prussian Blue was the first of these industrially produced revolutionary new colors. The bad news was that as the Renaissance studio system broke down, artists understanding of the permanency and other issues surrounding color suffered. A perusal of Robert Ackermann's offerings at his artists supply shop in 1801 is insightful. Along side the new Prussian Blue is the traditional Azurite (now called Bremen Blue) and various extracts from flowers and berries. Bizarre colors like Mummy existed which was literally ground up Egyptian mummies, or the disastrous Ashphaltum used in the belief it imparted an 'old master' look to pictures.

The 19th century saw the synthesization of Ultramarine and the development of most of the metal based colors with which we are familiar today and the beginnings of the organic color revolution that would sweep the 20th century.

This list only includes the major new color introductions and most of the colors available during the Renaissance were still available until quite late in this period, in addition to numerous impermanent plant extracts.
  • Prussian Blue
  • Cobalt Blue
  • French Ultramarine
  • Cerulean Blue
  • Mauve
  • Emerald Green
  • Viridian
  • Chromium Green Oxide
  • Cobalt Green
  • Zinc White (Chinese White)
  • Rose madder
  • Alizarin Crimson
  • Cadmium Yellow
  • Chrome Yellow
  • Aureolin
  • Zinc Yellow
  • Strontium Yellow
  • Lemon Yellow (Barium Chromate)
  • Indian Yellow
  • Egyptian Brown (Mummy)
  • Ashphaltum


20th century A permanent rainbow of color at last
The century started with the introduction of the Hansa Yellows and the introduction of Cadmium Red and Titanium White. As the automotive revolution gathered pace vast resources were poured into the color industry in the search for new colors able to withstand permanent outdoor use on cars. Artist's benefited as these high performance pigments became widely available and older more poisonous and impermanent colors started to decline in use. Universal standards such as ASTM accelerated the process.

Hundreds, if not thousands of new colors have become available, especially since 1930. Only the most important new ones to be adopted by artists are listed here.
  • Titanium White
  • Cadmium Red and Orange
  • Quinacridone Reds, Violets, Rose, and Magenta
  • Pyrrole Reds
  • Dioxazine Violet
  • Mars Black
  • Pthalo Blue
  • Manganese Blue
  • Indanthrone Blue
  • Arylide, Azo and Hansa Yellows
  • Pthalo Green


References
Alberti, L B,    On Painting    1435 (Penguin Classics)
Cellini, B,    The Life Of Benvenuto Cellini,    finished 1562 but not published until 1730 (Heron)
Cennini, C d'A,    The Craftsman's Handbook.    1437 (Dover)
Doerner, M,    The Materials Of The Artist And Their Use In Painting,    1921 (Harcourt Brace)
Eastlake, Sir C L,    Materials For A History Of Oil Painting,    1847 (Dover)
Feller, R L,    Artists Pigments    1986 (National Gallery Of Art / Cambridge University)
Gottsegen, M D,    A Manual Of Painting Materials And Techniques,    1987 (Harper & Row)
Maire, F,    Colors: What They Are And What To Expect Of Them,    1910 (Drake)
Mayer, R,   The Artists Handbook Of Materials And Techniques,    fifth edition 1991  (Faber & Faber)
Merrifield, Mrs M P,    Medieval And Renaissance Treatises On The Arts Of Painting    1849 (Dover)
Muther, R,    The History Of Painting From The Fourth Century To The Early Nineteenth Century,    1907 (Putnam)
Parkhurst, D B,    The Painter In Oil   1898 (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard)
Patton, T C,    Pigment Handbook,    1973 (Wiley)
Pliny, The Elder (Gaius Plinius),    Natural History,    77AD (Penguin Classics)
Taubs, F,    A Guide To Traditional And Modern Painting Methods,    1963 (Thames & Hudson)
Theophilus,   On Divers Arts,    1125 (Dover)
Various,    Encyclopedia Britannica,    fifteenth edition 1981  (Encyclopeadia Britannica, Inc)
Various,    Paint And Painting,   1982,  (Winsor & Newton / The Tate Gallery)
Various,    The Artist's Colourmen's Story,    1984 (Winsor & Newton)
Vasari, G,   The Lives Of The Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors And Architects,    1568 (Penguin Classics)

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