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Brief History of Color in Art

Artists invented the first pigments—a combination of soil, animal fat, burnt charcoal, and chalk—as early as 40,000 years ago, creating a basic palette of five colors: red, yellow, brown, black, and white.

Since then, the history of color has been one of perpetual discovery, whether through exploration or scientific advancement. The invention of new pigments accompanied the developments of art history’s greatest movements—from the Renaissance to Impressionism as artists experimented with colors never before seen in the history of painting.


Primary Colors and their Brief Bullet point history:

  • First employed in prehistoric cave paintings, red ochre is one of the oldest pigments still in use.
  • For hundreds of years, the cost of lapis lazuli rivaled even the price of gold.
  • Turner used the experimental watercolor Indian Yellow—a fluorescent paint derived from the urine of mango-fed cows.
  • Green pigments have been some of the most poisonous in history.
  • The Impressionists—especially Monet—so adored the new hue that critics accused the painters of having “violettomania.”
  • The darkest pigment of the Old Masters, “bone black” is produced by burning animal bones in an air-free chamber.
  • Of all the pigments that have been banned over the centuries, the color most missed by painters is likely Lead White.

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