How Natural Pigments and Dyes Have Been Used in Art

Natural, earthen pigments have been used since prehistoric times, with the earliest written record of their application dating back to 5000 BC. Civilizations from all over the world have utilized organic material from plants, animals, and minerals to create color they could apply to surfaces to create representational forms. Each civilization has had a unique method for creating and using natural dyes, and we’ve seen these methods transcend generations from antiquity, to the Renaissance, to contemporary practices today.

Natural pigments continued to be the base for oil paints until the 19th century when synthetic and petroleum-based pigments were introduced. Many artists working today use natural materials as they’re environmentally-friendly and surprisingly easier to manipulate. Natural pigments are also used in printmaking, spun into paper threads for weaving and stitching, used to produce oil and wax crayons, and are even used in silk painting in Asian art. Below, we explore the possibilities of natural dyes in art, how some of the most famous painters used them in their body of work, and how you can use natural pigments to create your own designs today.

What is a Natural Pigment?

A natural pigment is one that is found in nature that is ground, sifted, washed, and in rarer cases, heated to create a desired hue. Since their inception, natural pigments served many artistic purposes for ancient cultures around the world. The first paintings, from prehistoric times, were cave paintings applied by brushing, smearing, dabbing, and even spraying techniques. Artists used whatever pigment was available to them through natural resources. This included earth pigments such as red and yellow ochre, charcoal, and white from ground calcite.

A Brief History of Natural Pigments

Pigments were produced on a larger scale by ancient Egyptian and Chinese cultures. The Egyptians were credited with many pigment advances through 1300 BC. They discovered that washing pigments would strengthen and purify the color. They also produced new materials and introduced the process of lake mining, which involves fixing dyes onto a transparent white powder base to produce pigments like madder lake and carmine lake. Ancient Egyptian art often features pigments such as azurite, a blue copper mineral, and realgar, an arsenic sulfide mineral. Chemical tests found traces of alizarin, a pigment extracted from madder plants, in the tomb of King Tutankhamun in Egypt.

Mineral pigments continued to be used by painters through the Middle Ages. Pigments during this period were often mixed with egg and water to create a dried protein that would bind the pigment to the substrate. Natural chalks shaped into sticks produced bright pigments and were used by the likes of Michelangelo and Rembrandt as well. By the 15th century, egg was replaced by walnut or linseed oil, which dried slower and created a more versatile paint.

Before the Industrial Revolution, color options were limited. Pigments were often referred to by the location in which they were produced. For example, Raw Sienna and Burnt Sienna came from Siena, Italy, Egyptian Blue from Egypt, French ultramarine from France, and so on. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, new inventions and methods of extracting pigments continued to change the range of available colors. In 1841, American painter John Rand invented the collapsible tin paint tube, which allowed for pre-mixed colors to be portable and more convenient to use outside the studio. Pigments like titanium white and others made with new binders began to appear.

In 1704, German chemist Johann Jacob Diesbach created Prussian Blue by accident, making it the first chemically synthesized color. As synthetic pigments became more prominent in the 19th century, many gradually switched to this medium to produce art.

Types of Natural Pigments

Natural dyes can be sorted into three categories: natural pigments obtained from plants, natural pigments obtained from animals, and natural pigments obtained from minerals. Many dyes require a mordant, an element that combines with a dye and the fiber so that the dye is absorbed. These dyes are referred to as “adjective dyes.” Those that don’t require mordants are called “substantive dyes.” Common mordants include iron and tin.

Natural Dyes Obtained From Plants

Natural pigments offer tremendous versatility and accessibility; vibrant colors can be made using resources right from your backyard. Plants, roots, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and flowers of all different types each generate a unique color when applied correctly. Below are some common plants used to generate vibrant pigments:

  • Madder: Historically, madder, obtained from the roots of a madder plant, was widely used throughout the 19th century to create ruby reds. These plants were dug up, washed, dried, and ground into powder. Most fabrics during this time had been dyed with madder.
  • Woad: Woad was another common plant-derived pigment that was used to create blues. The color came from the leaves that were also dried and ground like madder. They were then made into a paste.
  • Indigo: Indigo soon replaced woad because it didn’t require mordant to create the vibrant hue.
  • Sumac: Sumac is a small tree whose branches and berries can yield colors from beiges to yellows to reddish pinks to blacks when boiled.
  • Beets: Beets, pickled in particular, yield a vibrant pink color that is ideal for dying fabrics.
  • Safflower: This thistle-like plant was used on Egyptian textiles to create a yellow and red dye extracted from the petals. It is still used today.
  • Blueberries: This popular fruit is used to create a pale blue dye when it’s simmered in water and then strained.

Natural Dyes Obtained From Minerals

Pigments that come from minerals are found in rocks and soil all over the world. Different minerals produce their own unique, often vivid, colors. Many are even roasted to intensify the color. Below are some examples of mineral pigments:

  • Ochre: Ochre is one of the most common mineral pigments. Widely used in Aboriginal art, ochre is usually a red or yellow that is obtained from ore of iron or ferruginous clay.
  • Sienna: This is another common mineral-based pigment. It is a form of limonite clay that is derived from ferric oxides to produce a rich, earthy red. It produces darker shades from creams to browns.
  • Azurite: Azurite is found in many parts of the world in the upper oxidized portions of copper ore deposits. This was one of the most important blue pigments used in Renaissance art.
  • Cobalt: Discovered in 1802, this pure blue pigment was used by artists like Pierre-Auguste Renoir in the 19th century.
    Ultramarine: Ultramarine was obtained from lapis lazuli and commonly used in Europe for jewelry and paint. The expensive blue pigment was artificially manufactured beginning in the 19th century.
  • Spinels: These hard, crystalline minerals generate colors by exchanging certain ions that heat and combine with other minerals. They’re available in yellow, orange, turquoise, and blue.

Natural Dyes Obtained From Animals

There are fewer examples of dyes obtained from animals than those retrieved from plants and minerals. However, many colors were extracted from insects throughout history. A few of the most prominent examples include:

  • Cochineal: This red dye comes from Cochineal insects who live on cactus plants. Pre-Columbian Indians would dry them out in the sun, grind their bodies, and mix with water to produce a red powder. Cochineal is still used in the Canary Islands.
  • Carmine: The blood from Kermes insects produces Carmine red, which today refers to a broad range of red hues that are slightly purple, but closer to red than crimson.
  • Tyrian purple: Murex, a predatory sea snail, is used to create Tyrian purple, which was popular in Ancient Rome. The process involved extracting the dye from thousands of snails and a significant amount of labor, so it was highly valued and even referred to as “royal purple” for this reason.

Natural Pigments Used in Art

Natural pigments were used to create some of the most iconic paintings of art history. Azurite, a carbon mineral, was used in Italian Renaissance painter Raphael’s Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints. Cadmium red, a mineral pigment, was used to create Henri Matisse’s The Red Studio. Today, you can draw inspiration from the greats, and use natural pigments for a wide variety of art projects. Once you start to master your skill, experiment with more complex use of the colors.

Artists choose natural pigments over their synthetic counterparts for a variety of reasons. Aside from the environmentally-friendly characteristics of organic matter, a natural pigment is also one of the purest forms of color and its ability to generate a vibrant hue is unparalleled. From Egyptian antiquities, to iconic Renaissance paintings, to examples in modern art, cultures around the world utilize the capabilities of natural pigments. Draw inspiration from each genre to inspire your own future projects using natural materials.

Sources: Web Exhibits | Recycle Nation | Natural Earth Paint | Quilt History | History of Natural Art Pigments