Pigment categories – Part I

Virtually all of the various artist’s pigments can be grouped into one of four categories, although there are a few that are not quite so easy to nail down. I’ll go through the different kinds, with a word or two about the history of each; I’ll mention a few of the borderline pigments in a later post. The four pigment categories are: natural inorganics; natural organics; synthetic inorganics (sounds almost like a double negative, doesn’t it?); and synthetic organics.

First are the natural inorganic pigments. These were some of the first in earliest human use, dating back many thousands of years and found in the cave paintings and hieroglyphs around the world. They are natural pigments that do not come from any organic source, neither plants nor animals. They are the earths, rocks, minerals, and crystals.

Wildcrafted natural earth pigment

Wildcrafted red ochre

Of these, the earths are particularly attractive to me. These are the yellow and red ochres, the siennas, the umbers and green earths. They are plentiful and varied, subtly beautiful and workhorse-ready. They seem to be an offering from the earth itself: look; take these and make your own works of wonder. For me, no other pigments give a closer connection with the natural world than the earths do. Other, brighter minerals are lapis lazuli, azurite, malachite, cinnabar, orpiment, turquoise. Some of these, such as cinnabar and orpiment, are quite toxic.

Natural organic pigments

Handcrafted natural organic pigments

Next are the natural organic pigments. These are pigments derived from plants and animals. This is the category that holds the most fascination for me, the one with which I spend the most time. The largest group of natural organic pigments are the lake pigments, which are natural dyes combined with a neutral metallic salt base to form insoluble pigments. These are rose madder, stil de grain, weld lake, carmine, etc. Other natural organic pigments are indigo, gamboge, carthamine red, vine black and eggshell white. The three powdered pigments in the picture to the right are, left to right: natural indigo mixed with calcite; brazilwood lake; and weld lake.

The natural organic pigments have given us some of the most beautiful and fascinating artist’s colors ever made. Most of them are also unfortunately impermanent to light – many of them drastically so, earning them the description “fugitive.” Even rose madder, which is far and away the most permanent natural organic lake pigment I know of, is today considered by many to be unacceptably impermanent for fine art work – though it was considered permanent by many in the past.

The natural organic and inorganic pigments are the categories I’ll be focusing on the most throughout this record, so it’s not necessary to write more about them just now – there will be plenty later. I’ll continue with the third and fourth categories in my next post. Happy holidays everyone!

L. Lawrence


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2 Responses to “Pigment categories – Part I”

  1. Pigment categories – the blurry lines « Sunsikell Says:

    […] natural inorganic, natural organic, synthetic inorganic, and synthetic organic. (See the posts here, here and here.) The categories seem straightforward enough once you become familiar with them. […]

  2. What is a sustainable color? « Sunsikell Says:

    […] much until the end of the world. Non-destructive, renewable, natural organic colors (definition here) that can be raised or wildcrafted in one’s own bioregion (geographic backyard), and can […]

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