The history of how we obtain and use color is so very fascinating. Oftentimes, we take for granted the source of a color on a brightly glazed porcelain mug or the rich hue of a painted sunset, our modern exposure to the readily available paints, stains, and glazes leaves us to forget about the journey to this point of convenience.
1. Egyptian Blue
The story of Egyptian Blue is the story of what is arguably the world’s first synthetic pigment. Blue was a color most revered by the ancient Egyptians and was widely used in artistic endeavors. The color of the Nile and the sky seemed appropriate to echo shades of divinity in art, which began to appear in the 3rd millennium B.C.E..
Composed of silica, lime, copper, and alkali, Egyptian Blue is a pre-cursor to true glass by virtue of its chemical composition and is a captivating hue. Perhaps most interesting about this pigment compound is its extraordinary luminescence when exposed to red light. Using a process known as Visible-Induced Luminescence, a red spotlight is shone on the object for a period of time, after which an infrared camera (aka “Night Vision”) is used to take a visible image of that light emitted from the pigment remnants.
Remember all those classical statues that everyone upheld for their pure beauty in stark white marble? Archaeologists have long speculated about remnants of paint on ancient marbles and thanks to this technique, we can say with confidence that they probably looked more like something out of a Chuck E. Cheese – every inch covered in bright polychrome.
2. Tyrian Purple and Aniline Purple, aka “Mauveine”
In Ancient Rome, purple was the color of royalty. Why, you ask? As with most things, it was all in the getting of the stuff. In those days, indeed for many days, the purple pigment was obtained through a humble marine snail. The process of extracting the pricey dye from the shells of the murex trunculus involves a tremendous amount of labor.
A small gland from this small creature known as the hypobranchial gland contains the secretion, which when exposed to oxygen becomes purple. This antimicrobial secretion is used as a predatory defense as well as a lining on egg masses. Antimicrobial you say? Yes, this dye was also used in traditional medicine for thousands of years and studies have found many properties of this compound to support its efficacy for medical uses, including an anti-cancer drug. 1
Just how labor intensive was it to obtain this dye? Modern researchers have determined that it would require 12,000 snails – yes, three zeros, to dye the trim of a single garment 2. By the time the 19th century rolled around, most people were pretty bummed out on having to either crush snails or milk them – yes Focher, you can milk a snail. A young upstart scientist named William Henry Perkin, just 18 at the time, was challenged by his professor to synthesize quinine – a useful anti-malarial drug. When he started in to mixing his potions, he ended up with purple instead of quinine. As an example of profiting from perceived failures, Perkin’s dye business became a stellar success. More vibrant than the previously used natural dyes, the process of chemical dye synthesis was born. Interestingly enough, aniline purple is a food safe dye also known as violet paste – you’ve probably eaten it!
3. The Forbes Pigment Collection, a museum of color
And so it came to pass, that the process of making color became more and more pedestrian. The industrial revolution enabled more people than ever access to goods that were considered luxuries and less thought was given to the mechanics of their making. Enter Edward Waldo Forbes, an historian and conservator. Forbes is considered to be the father of American art conservation and his work in the early 20th century as director of the Fogg Art Museum led him to exotic places in search of historic pigments for use in the conservation of historical paintings. He came to amass a collection of powders, resins, pastes that are still in use today in Harvard’s Straus Center for Conservation.
These pigments have been used to authenticate – or prove forgeries – in historic art works. A collection of paintings by Jackson Pollock were found to be fake due to an analysis of the pigments that demonstrated they would not have been available in the artist’s lifetime. 3 Other pigments, like Mummy Brown are relics of science and history because they were composed of ground up pieces of ancient human and feline mummies. The mummy component of mummy brown was also used as a medical treatment from the 16th century onward. Unlike the aforementioned snail goo from the purple discussion, mummia provides no discernible positive medical effects. Powdered mummy, used in these preparations continued to be produced into the early 20th century!
Hope you have enjoyed this trip down the rabbit hole of color history. We live in a strange, some might say ‘colorful’, world. Be sure to check out some of our more colorful selections in our web store, we promise nothing was made with ground up mummies, but we’re working on it.
- Benkendorff, Kirsten et al. “Are the Traditional Medical Uses of Muricidae Molluscs Substantiated by Their Pharmacological Properties and Bioactive Compounds?” Ed. Peer B. Jacobson. Marine Drugs 13.8 (2015): 5237–5275.PMC. Web. 23 June 2016. ↩
- Jacoby, “Silk Economics and Cross-Cultural Artistic Interaction: Byzantium, the Muslim World, and the Christian West” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 58 (2004:197–240) p. 210 ↩
- M. Rae Nelson “Chemistry Solves the Mystery”, chemmatters, (APRIL 2011, pp. 15-17) ↩