Pigment categories – the blurry lines

It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve let my blog go for five whole weeks. I never thought I’d be one of those authors who had to post “Sorry it’s been so long since my last post” – and yet, here I am. Sorry, folks. It’s been a tough month. I’m abandoning for this post, and maybe the next post or two, the discussion of classical underpainting techniques; but I am continuing to research and experiment, faithful reader, and I’ll return to the topic soon.

Back to art materials philosophy. Some time back I listed some basic definitions for the four categories of artist’s pigments: 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. However, things can get a bit weird if you start trying to nail down certain pigments.

Take Prussian blue, which is considered a synthetic inorganic pigment, in fact the first modern synthetic pigment. This is a pigment discovered accidentally in the early eighteenth century while attempting to create a carmine lake pigment with what turned out to be some tainted substances. What happened was that some potash contaminated with animal blood was used to precipitate the iron-based lake pigment, accidentally forming iron ferrocyanine, which makes a powerful blue. (Lucky accident!) So, but here’s the question: how is it that when a natural organic lake pigment received an additional natural organic element, it turned into something that is considered a synthetic inorganic? Weird – why is this pigment not considered a natural organic, like the carmine lake? I suppose it’s because in Prussian blue there is no actual dye involved – but still, it seems arbitrary.

A lake pigment is generally thought of as a dye precipitated onto a base of alum; but as indicated above, not all lake pigments are based on alum. They can be based on iron or copper instead, or even other metal salts such as chrome or zinc. Sometimes, even when a natural dye is used, these lakes based on other metals are viewed as synthetic, or semi-synthetic, rather than natural. Why? Why is a natural dye laked onto alum considered a natural pigment, but the same natural dye laked onto copper may not be? Alum is potassium aluminum sulfate, the copper mordant is copper sulfate pentahydrate. Both are metal sulfates, pretty similar stuff. A dyer would consider any dye obtained from natural sources to be a natural dye, regardless of what mordant were used to bind it to fabric, be it alum, iron, copper, tin, chrome or other, and I would agree – and I don’t really think of natural dyes laked onto different metal substrates as being categorically different from one another.

Precipitating copper blue

Precipitating copper blue

But I can easily get myself into more trouble. Green and blue pigments can be made from copper without the addition of a natural dye, and yellow and red pigments can be made from iron – and these are also considered to be synthetic pigments. But why? If laking a natural dye onto alum, iron or copper results in a natural pigment, then why does it become synthetic if I follow exactly the same procedure, but only leave out the organic ingredient?

It’s at this point that the whole question starts to break down. One person to whom I mentioned my interest in natural pigments immediately quipped, “Well, what’s natural”? At the time I confess I was a little irritated by such a flippant-sounding dismissal of what has been a passion for me – but now I see the wisdom in it, regardless of how it may have been intended. What is natural, anyway? Don’t get me wrong: the words “natural” and “artificial” are opposites with real definitions; but as soon as we start trying to identify categories, we have to start drawing lines, and that’s where things get messy. At some point you have to chalk it up to useless semantics and move on to another aspect of the discussion.

This is all a little illustration of why, though my original direction (years ago, now) was almost entirely about natural pigments, and though I still write about my love for colors from natural sources, I now pay little attention to such distinctions when considering my philosophy of materials, just as I now pay little attention to toxicity (other than as a necessary practical concern). Natural, synthetic, doesn’t really matter. What does matter, to me, is whether a particular art material is sustainable – meaning that I think we artists will pretty much never be forced to stop using it. That means no industrial processes required in that material’s production, no hydrocarbon feedstocks are used, no destruction of landbases necessary – and we aren’t dependent for our materials upon the needs of the giant automobile, plastics and textiles industries. In a perfect world, that would mean art materials that could be made locally, from regionally common materials, and without harming the ecolocality in any drastic way. The only pigments that are categorically excluded from my list are the synthetic organics; they are derived from hydrocarbons, and really can’t be considered sustainable no matter how they’re sliced. Also excluded would be any other pigments that absolutely require an industrial process for production. The ones that would not be excluded are the natural earths; the natural organic colors; and artificial pigments easily synthesized from common metals and minerals.

Yes, this is the kind of thing I spend my time thinking about. I think it’s important.

– L. Lawrence


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19 Responses to “Pigment categories – the blurry lines”

  1. Chrissy Says:

    I just want to introduce myself, so I don’t feel too much like I’m blog stalking you today. I’m kind of in limbo at work these days, and end up having loads of time to meander around the internet. Most of the time my internet wanderings have lead me to search for dye and pigment recipes. I was actually searching for a weld lake recipe when I came upon your blog. A post from around july or so came up in my google search, and i was immediately hooked. it is fairly rare that I discover another painter out there looking for the kind of information that I’m exploring. I had experimented with homemade egg tempera around 2002, and have been wanting to go back to it ever since. For that particular project, I also went searching for some original medieval priming recipes/processes for panels. I was working on my BFA at the time, and neither my painting professors nor my art history professors could provide the information I was looking for (though they were able to point me toward books that were helpful). My quest for the techniques and materials of the past kind of found its way to the back burner until September, when I picked up a book titled Color by Victoria Finlay. Color has always been my favorite of the art elements, and combining that element with my interest in the history of materials and techniques has been like magic. I’ve been reading and exploring and looking for ways to create pigments and dyes at home ever since. I’m nearing the end of my first crack at a madder lake pigment – and would love to compare notes and results with you!


    • sunsikell Says:

      Hey Chrissy, thanks for reading and posting! It’s nice to hear from someone with similar interests – color, and traditional art materials and techniques. I’ve read the book Color by Finlay, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. At some point I’ll probably write a review of it, and some other books I’ve read.

      I did a few things with egg tempera and posted a couple of them here – I really liked the medium, and I liked preparing the egg yolk and pigment, and seeing how the pigments behaved so differently than they do in oil or gum. Most of all, I liked that the paint, properly speaking, really needs to be made by the individual artist, or at least locally. Trouble is, I have bad tendons in my wrists, and I need to paint reasonably loosely if I’m going to paint at all. I couldn’t figure out how to make that happen with egg tempera – it seems like a medium that just invites tight painting. I’ll certainly give it another try at some point, and see if I can’t figure out a way to remain a bit more relaxed while doing it.

      Your comment reminds me that a post on making lake pigments is overdue. I may post on that this weekend, or perhaps in a couple of weeks – but certainly soon. Madder lake is a more complex procedure than your average lake recipe, so I’ll probably wait a bit on that one. But I have made some madder lakes I’m happy with. Best of luck with yours – and please stick around!

  2. Chrissy Says:

    yes, I will certainly stick around – i’ve subscribed, and am sure I will enjoy to continue following your color journey in particular! I started reading Bright Earth by Philip Ball yesterday, and although I’m only a few pages in at this point, I am loving it! Have you read that one?

    I am following David Rubio’s recipe for madder lake: http://www.rubioviolins.com/Pages/lake1.html (it was the easiest to follow one that I could find) – although he was a violin maker, and he used this recipe to make a lake to tint his finished violins. I have wondered if that might be different than what a painter would do. I’ve also been posting details of my progress on my own blog: http://una-sorella.blogspot.com/ (if you visit, i’d suggest backing up to about september or so and reading forward from there. i’ve had a lot of time to think and ponder and experiment since around that time, and posted about a lot of it)

    I would certainly love a detailed post on your site about making lakes – i’ve found it strangely difficult to find recipes detailed enough (or comprehensible enough) to be able to follow them, but am quite looking forward to working with it more. I’ve ordered some harvested weld that should be arriving any day now.

    I have yet to grow any of my own dye plants (though I have a barberry bush growing in my back yard, and i’m itching to go out and dig up some of its roots when the weather is tolerable), and i’m planning to plant some indigo in the spring.

    i did read about your entire tempera experience, and i know what you mean about it. i’m wondering how it would act if you added a bit of water to it. might move around a little more like watercolor? it’s been a very long time since i played with it, and i’d have to try it to really know what it would do.

    • sunsikell Says:

      Hi Chrissy. Yes, I’ve read Bright Earth – it’s one of those books that I’ve dog-eared probably 50 or 60 different pages. Definitely a good read for anyone interested in historic color.

      I don’t follow the Rubio madder lake recipe – it probably won’t give you a really bright red, but it’s probably not a bad one to start with. Maybe better for violin varnish than an artist’s oil paint. But I will keep an eye on your blog to see how everything turns out! I agree about the difficulty in finding good, comprehensible lake recipes at first. I remember trying to figure it out! Once you’ve made a few, the chemistry seems more straightforward. Madder is one of the more compex lakes, some of the others are much simpler.

      I don’t know much about barberry except that it makes a green. Sounds interesting, I look forward to hearing your experiments with it!

  3. Chrissy Says:

    I’ve suspected as much as I’ve been working through this recipe – so far it’s quite a bit more orange than I had expected. That’s perfectly fine with me for now though – It will still certainly be exciting to grind it with oil and paint with my own pigment – orange or not. Maybe I’ll rub it into a wood panel while I’m at it! If I dig far enough back in your blog, did you write about your first pigment making experience? Do you ever sit and wonder just how painters lost this knowledge in the first place? It doesn’t seem like it should have been so long ago that painters had to do it, that it would have become so forgotten a skill as it is.

    When I’ve finished with this recipe (which should really just be a matter of days at this point), you’ll have to share the one that you have. I would really like to get a more traditional painter’s color out of it. I’d also like to get a better dye out of it.

    I don’t know much about the barberry either, beyond the fact that I can use it. The plant itself is kind of interesting. I didn’t know what it was when we moved into the house, and I learned about it when I was looking for bushes with thorns that might give my neighbor’s dog something to think about when she comes trotting into my front yard to pee on my herbs – only after thinking that it sounded like a good option did i realize that i already had one! it looked a bit mangled when we moved in, but is now thriving and looking very healthy, though we haven’t done anything in particular to help it along. It’s become my dog’s favorite pee spot – maybe it likes some component of dog pee? 🙂 (I will be sure to dig the roots from the side of the plant near the fence, where the dog can’t go to pee!)

    I recently collected some rose hips and lichen – have you used either of those? I have a rose bush that puts them out like mad, and I’ve got a good size handful of them drying in my studio. The lichen I had a chance to harvest without depleting the natural population when a co-worker brought in some branches (to make wreaths) that fell when we had a bad wind storm a couple of months ago. I’m not sure how much of either of these materials I’ll actually need – but I’d love to try them out!

    I’m still not too far into Bright Earth, but I know exactly what you mean – I feel like pulling out a highlighter for every other sentence I’ve ready.

    • sunsikell Says:

      I have indeed wondered just how and why painters have lost their traditional skills – but actually the path is right there in history. It really began all the way back in the day of Leonardo, when painters were eager to distance themselves from the chemistry of their materials – they wanted to be seen as fine artists, rather than as craftsmen. Then the rise of the colormen, the decline of the apprentice system – then tubed paints – and then, in the twentieth century, a general discrediting of anything to do with craft or tradition. Finally rampant commercialism and the overriding rush to dirt-cheap materials, cracked from hydrocarbons by mega-industries and pushed relentlessly onto a market eager for immediate gratification. It’s been a long road down.

      My first pigment-making experience: it’s in the dim past now, but I think my first one might have been eggshell white – then probably indigo. Lichen – no, I have not used it, nor rose hips. I’m unlikely to ever have a decent source of lichen here (as you indicated, it must be harvested very carefully), but I would be very interested in your results when you work with it.

      As for lake pigments – Chrissy, please see my new post.

  4. Chrissy Says:

    I was just reading about that very thing in Philip Ball’s book the other day (the part about painters distinguishing themselves from craftsmen). I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand I appreciate the respect we’ve earned as fine artists, and I like being put in a different category than the average housewife sitting around making crafty objects with no other reason than to fill the time. I like to think I put a little more purpose, thought, and dedication to my work than that. but on the other hand I can’t help but feel sad and frustrated at the knowledge we’ve let disappear from the modern painter’s studio. (My husband had to listen to me chat about your blog for quite a while when I got home from work the day I found you. He probably didn’t understand quite what I was excited about, but he’s good at humoring me)

    I have students sometimes ask me where colors come from. I love it when they ask me those kind of questions about the materials. I teach them quite a bit about mixing their own colors, and I generally only give them the primaries plus white and make them learn to mix everything else. It’s usually when they start learning how to make some of the other colors that they realize that the primaries must have come from somewhere, and since they can’t mix them – they want to know where to get them. Those are the days that make teaching art a complete joy.

    I e-mailed someone last week who has some experience with making dye from lichen. My trouble with it is two-fold. I don’t know what type of lichen I have (and I don’t have a lot of hope of actually identifying it at this point), so I’m not sure what color I can get from it. It looks like you can get a purple from a particular type w/ ammonia – and I don’t know if that’s what I have or not. The rest look like they’ll probably be yellow and won’t require ammonia. I also don’t know just how much lichen I need to toss in. I’m hesitant to just start blindly experimenting, because I don’t know when I’ll have the opportunity to try again. The rose hips are a different story, since I’m sure my bush will keep producing them. I’ll probably try that one first.

    • sunsikell Says:

      Chrissy, regarding your lichen supply: I wonder if you can take just the smallest amount, like a pinch of herb, and put it into a drop of ammonia? Then after a bit you could touch the drop to a piece of watercolor paper and see if you can get any violet. That might be a way to help determine what kind you’ve got on your hands without wasting too much of your precious stash of lichen.

      I also have mixed feelings about the artist/craftsman thing. For the time being at least, I’m all right with considering myself to be both. I’m really glad you’re enjoying the blog!

  5. Jeremy Says:

    I would say that copper salts and aluminum salts are similar in that they are metal salts. The main difference I see is that copper is a finite material an aluminum is the most abundant metal. Actually I just read this interesting book on how the copper mines in the world will be severely depleted over this century. I am not sure how what I am saying relates, but it seems to me that alum is more readily available and less toxic to humans and animals. I am not sure how historically they decided to call pigments with an alum mordant “natural”. On the contrary we see historical pigments that contain Aluminum a mineral pigment like Lapiz Lazuli. Maybe it is because copper has been know to be toxic for centuries. Alum is benign and a baking ingredient. Other than chronic aluminum exposure potentially causing Alzheimers and neurological conditions, a single Copper exposure can be lethal. Basically do not eat your copper pigments, or your aluminum pigments…but you maybe better off with the aluminum as it is a baking salt. I hope you understand I am just trying to be funny about all of this because I think you raise and interesting question. Truly I think you are asking a great question. I think what makes it “synthetic” is the severe toxicity especially concerning heavy metals. I mean prussian blue , yes from iron fairly benign, but is “cyan” basically cyanide in an acidic solution. Maybe it is the toxicity of the chemical process. I am sure weld and woad do not taste good on toast. I am sure the further the pigment gets altered with heat and metals the more likely it becomes synthetic? Maybe ask someone at Kremer or Natural Pigments…they may have a reasonable answer. By the way I really like your website and your projects. I know how tedious it is to process these pigments and how gratifying it is to use them in your work.
    I am writing a book on sustainable and non-toxic art practices… what you are doing is great! By the way be careful with that copper wear gloves and a dust mask really scary when you get reading the toxicology side of it;)

    • sunsikell Says:


      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I’m always glad to find there are other people out there thinking about more sustainable art materials. I look forward to perusing your blog. You raise some interesting points. As you note, aluminum is in very abundant supply – thank goodness! It will be a dark day indeed for art when the ability to produce lake pigments at home is in question.

      Interestingly, the subject of what qualifies as “synthesis” and what does not has just come up over at Natural Pigments. I plan to ask George O’Hanlon a followup question there, as he is undoubtedly an expert on art materials.

      The sustainability of artificial copper and iron pigments – this is a part of my philosophy that has evolved. I no longer think so much about toxicity, since I’ve come to think that toxicity and sustainability are largely unrelated concepts, and sustainability is what I’m really interested in. But this is probably a larger topic than I can address in a reply to your comment. I think I feel another blog post coming on!

      (Weld on toast? Well, it smells like veggies while it’s boiling – maybe on a plate next to spaghetti!)

  6. Chrissy Says:

    I would have to say that I would happily consider myself both as well. I’ve always loved working with the various methods of priming a canvas – and I’m thoroughly enjoying experimenting with pigment making, and am quite looking forward to finding enough time to grind my new madder lake into linseed oil and doing a little value study with it. As expected, I didn’t quite get the color I was after. I did get a nice luminous, earthy orange, though. (I would still be very interested to know more about how you have worked with it. I think I have figured out I’m missing, but I haven’t been able to find detailed instructions on how to achieve it. Someone should really publish a modern pigment making cookbook of sorts).

    I’ve just begun working with my weld, and another question arose, as I never did find a recipe for that pigment (though I thought what Cennini wrote about it was kind of funny) – and eventually just went about experimenting with it on my own (which seems to be going fairly well). I’m wondering what proportion you typically use alum to an alkali – and does that proportion change depending on the alkali you’ve used? My madder experiment used equal amounts of alum and potash by weight. Using calcium carbonate this time, I simply had to guess.

    Great idea with the lichen! It sounded as though it would need to sit in the ammonia for quite some time to get a purple. I think an experiment is in order!

    • sunsikell Says:

      Chrissy, I am considering a book – though it would be quite a large undertaking.

      For the opaque weld lake: try reducing the amount of alum and increasing the amount of chalk.

      • Chrissy Says:

        thank you once again for the tip! I used 2 oz of each, and was concerned that i might be using too much chalk. it’s lighter than the potash and the alum, so it just visually looked like a lot. Think I should add more to my current batch? (I haven’t rinsed it yet) or next time just use less alum? (I used 4 oz dried weld and about a gallon of distilled water).

        Please do write the book – and if you do, I would be most interested in helping you to do it. I’d love to play guinnea pig and try out the various pigment recipes. I’m also in the midst of a career change from high school art teacher to project manager, and that sounds like about the most awesome project I’d ever be able use my project management skills for.

        Have you tried making other types of pigments? I was reading Cennini’s instructions for pounding and processing lapis lazuli the other day, and i’m curious enough (and he was detailed enough) that i just might try it. i do have a pretty little chunk of it sitting in my studio for inspiration – but i’d probably need a bigger chunk to work with if i go for it. some of the other chunks of rock I’ve got, I had to promise my rock vendor that I wouldn’t attempt to crush them up for pigment before she was comfortable selling them to me, because of their level of toxicity… but as far as I know lapis should be safe with a dust mask?

  7. sunsikell Says:

    Hmmm sounds interesting. What kind of rocks are they? Cinnabar? Azurite? I’ve got some azurite I’m waiting to smash up and levigate.

    I’m not as interested in lapis, just because it’s kind of a rare material and I’m really mostly into using common materials. I understand preparing lapis pigment is quite a process, too. But I look forward to seeing your process on your blog!

    I would use less alum next time with the weld, and maybe a bit less chalk too. But definitely less alum. You want a nice bright opaque pigment – a “pink,” as it used to be called – and it doesn’t take much metal salt to do it, the weld and the chalk like each other just fine.

    There’s nothing wrong with making a more transparent weld lake, either – but in my experience, that doesn’t bring out the best qualities of weld. Buckthorn berries are better for that.

  8. Chrissy Says:

    Funny you should ask – I have a blog post about my rocks. I’ve since added some of the madder and some of the weld to my shelf. 🙂
    I have azurite, cinnabar, and orpiment on order w/ my rock vendor. they’re headed out to shows now through february, and are hunting them down for me. I’m hoping for a call any day now telling me that they’re in!
    with the murex shell on my shelf, i’d be surprised if it’s the right type of murex to produce tyrian purple – but i found it strangely romantic to find out that i had one in my posession after reading about the purple – i’ve had the shell since i was a kid. i had e-mailed someone at Traditions Mexico (http://www.traditionsmexico.com/Featured__Tales-purpura.html) about obtaining one of the posahuanco skirts dyed w/ purpura – he thought it would be possible to commission one, but the estimated price was quite high. I’ve asked about the possibility of commissioning a smaller piece, but have not heard back from him since. we’ll see – i’m trying to talk my husband into taking a trip to Mexico to see the dye.

    I figured that the weld and chalk must like each other fairly well – I had first read about using it with weld from a dyer’s perspective. dyers add it to bloom the color – and I really enjoyed watching it happen when I added the chalk. I’ve been meaning to write about it for the past few days, but life has gotten in the way! I’ll post about it soon though.

    • sunsikell Says:

      Cool about the murex you’ve got. I’ve seen that traditionsmexico page before, amazing how the color changes in the sunlight.

      I left a comment on the shiny rocks page of your blog a while back, hasn’t shown up yet… I like what you’re doing and posting there. We definitely have similar interests.

  9. Chrissy Says:

    Thanks for letting me know – I’m unsure how to get it to alert me that there is a comment pending, and I’ve been meaning to look through the settings to figure it out for a while now. I’ll try to remember to go and do that this evening.

    Yes, we really do have very similar interest – I love reading your blog as well! you’re well ahead of me with experimenting with making your own pigments, and I appreciate all of the information you’ve shared – it’s been very helpful, as well as interesting – and fun just to know i’m not entirely alone in this persuit 🙂

    I’ve been meaning to post a follow up on my lichen project. It was a brilliant idea to try a tiny batch of it to see what would happen. I have a feeling I would have let the dried lichen sit in my studio for ages worrying about screwing it up somehow if you hadn’t suggested it. It’s a lovely shade of red-orange right now, but I’ve noticed that the color is deeper just about every day when I aerate it. It’s been almost a week, and it does seem to still be developing color. I’m very excited to see the end result! I’m unsure if it can be used to produce a pigment. I’ve never read about such a pigment, and have no idea what the result would be if I tried it. I will probably just dye a skein of wool with it and enjoy the color sample. – Thank you again for inspiring me to get to work with it!

  10. Jeremy Says:

    Thanks for your response. I look forward to a book from you also! I would love to hear more recipes and info about your traditional investigations! These blog posts are great…could well work themselves into a book for certain. Regarding the sustainability of copper …it is a finite material. Non-sustainable. The other issue with heavy metals like lead, copper (malachite), and mercury (cinnabar), yes natural rocks with minimal processing, but when disposed of down the drain or landfill can affect aquatic species and human health. NOt to mention the massive mining to find these heavy metals. Sustainability does have something to do with toxicity. It is defined as “using methods, systems and materials that won’t deplete resources or harm natural cycles” (Rosenbaum, 1993) It also means to endure. Finite minerals although natural do have baggage. I am fascinated with lead for example. A lead rock with hay, manure, and vinegar makes lead ash in a cinche. And it is probably safer than titanium in its production but lead is far more toxic in its disposal. “does not harm natural cycles” Lead factories at the turn of the century also were super toxic and non-sustainable places in mass production. I guess a thing to think about when talking about sustainability is scale. If we had every person on earth using either madder or cinnabar. Madder would be sustainable even though and “anthraquinone dye” can be slightly toxic, but the effect it has on ecosystems and humans in production and disposal is far much less than the mercury or cinnabar and can regenerate itself. Thus that is why the FDA outlawed Mercury from thermometers and batteries. But we wind up seeing them in compact fluorescent bulbs “green” …not really! Anyhow mass consumption of a toxic finite natural minerals may have more impact and less sustainability than we think. We see these quaint specialty shops like natural pigment and kremer that house these mineral pigments. But they are mined and do have large scale repercussions. That is why I feel that Weld, Woad, Madder, etc. would fall into the category of sustainable. I am not trying to disuade you from these beautiful and historic materials with serious aesthetic value, just the terminology of sustainable. Good Luck and take care. Look forward to more blog posts!

    • sunsikell Says:

      Thanks Jeremy, you raise some interesting and informed points. I do have a slightly different analysis of some of these materials. The harmful effects of things like lead on the environment have been well documented, of course – there’s a reason we stopped using the stuff in gasoline. However, I’m convinced that toxic materials can be used on a small scale, by artists, in a perfectly responsible way that will not see the waste material dumped into our precious watersheds. I personally make darn sure nothing goes down the drain or into a landfill!

      As far as mercury goes, it has more immediate sustainability issues than just its toxicity: the stuff is basically gone. We’ve managed to deplete it badly. Anyone noticed the price of a tube of vermilion these days? Up to a hundred dollars on Natural Pigments…

      I like the Rosenbaum definition of sustainability you posted, though I have a slightly different one (not a disagreement, just a slightly different emphasis) I’d like to raise in the next post. I also have some issues to raise with woad, so keep an eye out for that over the next few weeks…

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