Colours pigments

History of paints

Paints. Hundreds of kinds. Millions of colours. We use them to cover various surfaces, dye fabrics, dye hair, art, and make-up. However, have you wondered how and when they were created? What was their evolution? Where were the first pigments taken from? Today we will dive into the exciting history of paints.

What are paints? These are substances used to cover surfaces with a given colour. They consist of a pigment that determines the colour and a binder, i.e. an additive that binds the substance together.

People have always shown creativity and willingness to shape their own environment. This is probably why the need to create something that could leave a mark on a rock or a tree. The first dyes were obtained from nature – blood, human or animal, coal, lime, ocher and umber from the earth. The oldest attempts to use such primitive paints were recorded in the areas of today’s Zambia dating back 350-400 thousand. years ago by humanoids.

Over time, primitive humans began to discover pigments and dyes hidden in various plants and animals, mainly insects. They began to be dried, crushed and subjected to various thermal treatments, and thus the colour palette expanded. To make the paint more practical, they began to be combined with saliva, water or animal fat – these were the first binders.

Inspirations were drawn from nature – representations of plants or animals. The oldest preserved wall paintings, which are also the oldest examples of art-rock painting, dating back to 30-40 thousand. years from caves in Altamira, Castillo, Tito Bustilla. A very famous example is also the Lascaux cave (15 thousand years ago) and the caves in the Sahara (12 thousand years ago).

Red bull from Altamira

The first ancient civilizations such as Egypt, the Middle East, India, China began to use minerals and precious stones to create paints, enlarging the rather primitive colour palette. Bird eggs have already been used to combine pigments. Water was also added to make the paints easier to spread.
The ancient Egyptians made a special contribution to the evolution of paints. Already in the 3rd millennium, BCE began to use metal oxides to obtain beautiful and vivid colours such as yellow ocher, red ocher, green malachite and blue lapis lazuli. Gelatin, beeswax and clay were used as binders. Around 1000 B.C.E. Arabic gum was also added to the paints, which made them more durable. The paints were created by rubbing minerals and precious stones, combined with specific proportions of binders, and these recipes were carefully guarded. Today, we can admire the achievements of Egyptians in wall paintings, frescoes of temples, tombs and masks of pharaohs. The Egyptians also developed a method of smelting lead, and from its sulphide, they created a cosmetic for the blackening of eyebrows and eyelashes, so characteristic of the makeup of that time.

Mask of Tutankhamun

In the Middle Ages, the achievements of ancestors in the field of creating paints were still used. The selection and acquisition of pigments, binders, methods of their mixing and proportions have become a specific art. Professionals were educated, they had their own secret recipes and methods. Some families have been involved in it from generation to generation, amassing quite a lot of fortune.
Sacred painting developed in the later Middle Ages. More people have experimented with paints. The possibility of combining pigments with resin was discovered – this is how tempera was created. It has also been tried with vegetable, animal and fish oils. The first oil paints appeared – around the 12th century, however, the permanent formula dates back to the 15th century. These paints helped artists gain more control over the application of paint to the surface.

The Renaissance is an era of great discoveries, also in the field of painting. New needs, inspirations and requirements appeared. The search for new, richer and more durable colours began. Since alchemy was at a high level at the time, representatives of this industry decided to serve the artists. Unfortunately, numerous experiments with harmful substances such as mercury and lead resulted in the death of many scientists, painters who used to wet brush with their lips. Radioactive compounds were also used – because they had interesting effects – such as fluorescence, which also increased the number of victims.

Until the 19th century, basically, the same paints and pigments were used, much has not changed. However, the industrial revolution increased the demand for paints. In 1856, William Perkin accidentally obtained the first synthetic dye – a shade of purple – which initiated the mass production of synthetic dyes. Natural pigments began to be abandoned, and many traditional paint factories went bankrupt in favour of large-scale factories.
In 1878, the Americans Henry Sherwin and Edward Williams began the production and sale of ready-to-use paints in resealable cans. This event has forever revolutionized the world of paints.

Today, we no longer think of paints as meticulously developed recipes by specialists who have been learning this art for years. We can choose from oil paints, acrylic paints, watercolours, dyes, varnishes … Matt, shiny, pearl, in any shades we want. However, some of their names remind us of their noble origins, such as yellow ocher, cochineal red or burnt sienna.

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