From Mummies to Snails…Even Dragons Blood…What The Masters Used As Paint Pigment

By  | August 9, 2017 | Filed under: Interesting Facts, News

There use to be a paint color brown   called Mummy Brown which was made from ground up Egyptian mummies.  It was a favorite color used by Pre-Ralphaelites, but when people found out what it was made from some painters buried the paint and ceased using it.  The paint was manufactured into the 1960’s, when the supply of ancient mummies tapped out at that time the paint was discontinued.

The most prized, prestigious pigment of the ancient world was actually made from a rather slimy source: a predatory snail. Tyrian Purple got its name from the best of the marine shellfish used to make the pigment being found off the shore of Phoenicia’s Tyre.  Not only was it a properly royal color of rich, slightly red purple, it was said to get even more beautiful and brighter when exposed to the sun and the elements. Yet since you needed a whole pile of snails to have enough mucous secretions to make it, it was very expensive, and eventually disappeared.

The luminosity of classical European oil paintings was due in large part to White Lead, a pigment of lead carbonate and sulfate. Artists like Vermeer used it to create a special kind of light that radiated from the canvas, the traces of which we can see in its grainy texture. Unfortunately, its striking brightness was rather poisonous.  Some artists still seek out the White Lead for its believed superior color and permanence, even if it is more difficult to find and still toxic.

Widely believed to be the most expensive pigment ever created, more pricey than even its weight in gold, the Lapis Lazuli pigment was made from grinding up Lapis Lazuli semi-precious stones. Its use goes back to the 6th century in Afghanistan, but its popularity really took off with wealthy Renaissance patrons who wanted the stunning blue on the robes of Mary and Jesus in religious paintings.

The pigment known as Dragon’s Blood had the most epic and ridiculous of origin stories, a supposed mix of actual dragon’s blood and elephant’s blood. It was said the dragon and the elephant warred spilling and mixing their blood,  the pigment was in actuality made from a Southeast Asian tree.

The vivid color of Indian Yellow was a source of mystery until the late 19th century. It turned out that the yellow color came from the urine of cattle in the Bihar province of India that were fed only mango leaves and water. The mistreatment of the animals led to the color being illegal and it vanished by 1908.

Scheele’s Green, the yellow-green pigment was a cupric hydrogen arsenite, which was very toxic, yet made it into not just paintings, but candles, wallpaper, and children’s toys. In one incident at a Christmas party, a candle dyed with the color poisoned children, and other 19th century incidents include women in green dresses passing out and those using it to print newspapers suffering from its effects. The arsenic vapors also are believed by some to have played a role in the death of Napoleon, who lived in a room paintly brightly green, his favorite color, as traces of arsenic were found in his hair.

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