The oil paint used by artists from the 15th to 19th centuries consisted primarily of a single pigment and vegetable drying oil, although gums, proteins and resins were sometimes added for particular passages in a painting. The idea of a “hue” or mixed pigment practically did not exist, because artists chose to mix colors on the palette.
By the late 17th century, an area of trade had come into being, the artists’ colormen, who supplied prepared pigments, made brushes, prepared canvases and other items required by the artist. However, most professional painters continued to prepare their own pigments, possibly through fear of adulteration of pigments. Expensive pigments like natural ultramarine (the pigment obtained from the semi-precious lapis lazuli stone) and vermilion were often adulterated with cheap additives by unscrupulous suppliers.
In the 19th century, artists began purchasing paints from artists’ colormen rather than preparing their own as had been done centuries previously. This lead to the development of “hues” or mixed colors, allowing artists’ colormen to increase the number of colors in their line of paints. The colormen mixed a few pigments together to get new ones, suggesting real pigments. In some cases they chose a different pigment or a combination of pigments to substitute for a color long familiar to artists, because the original pigment was fugitive, performed inadequately or too costly to use.
There are two problems with “hues” or mixed colors. One is the degradation of tone when pigments are mixed together, for pigments do not act in mixture like spectrum hues either in color or tone. The other problem is the name given to the mixture does not give the artist a clear understanding of the pigments used in the color, as these vary according to each individual manufacturer.
We have provided a list of color names, most of which represent mixtures of pigments or “hues” that have been in use since the 19th century:
Jet Black—The name is derived from a geological material considered to be a minor gemstone. Although not a true mineral, it is a mineraloid of organic origin, being derived from decaying wood under extreme pressure. The English noun “jet” derives from the French word for the same material: jaiet (Oxford). Jet is either black or dark brown and may contain pyrite inclusions, which are of brassy color and metallic luster (Pye, 279). The adjective “jet-black,” meaning as dark a black as possible, derives from this material, and hence also the name of the mixed color. Meyer describes this hue as a composition of 10 parts ivory black, one part umber and one part Prussian blue (Meyer, 204). Today, however, some artists color manufacturers offer jet black as a single colorant of aniline black (PBk1). Aniline black is one of the oldest synthetic organic pigments, discovered around 1860, making it a possible candidate for it to be sold under the name jet black since the 19th century.
Blue Black—Blue black appears in the catalogs of artists’ colormen circulated in the 19th century. Some references describe it as charcoal black, which may have been derived from charred vine cuttings or wood charcoal. Meyer describes this color as a mixture of 40 parts ivory black and three parts Prussian blue (Meyer, 204). Other compositions of blue black are listed as nine parts lampblack and one part Chinese or Prussian blue. Another formula gives the following composition as 19 parts drop black and one part Prussian blue (Hiscox, 556).
Neutral Tint—Josef Bersch describes a peculiar grayish violet mixture of Indian ink, Chinese blue and a very small quantity of madder lake that forms the color known as “neutral tint.” Altering the proportions of the pigments produces different shades of “neutral tint” (Bersch, 318).
Payne’s Grey—Named after the watercolorist of the 18th and 19th centuries, William Payne (Long, 3), the color was composed of indigo, crimson lake and carbon black, according one reference (Abney, 148). Later the constituents changed to various amounts of Prussian blue, carmine lake and carbon black.
Golden Ocher or Gold Ocher—This name is given to colors comprising either a single pigment or mixed pigments. It is uncertain whether or not artists’ colors of this name consisted of mixed pigments, as Uebele writes, “The artist when painting a picture will rarely, if ever, place on his palette a golden ocher that is made by mixing yellow ocher and chrome yellow, but the decorator is not so exacting.” (Uebele, 254) Of the mixed hues, an early 20th century formulary gives the proportions as 14 parts French yellow ocher and one part medium chrome yellow for the light shade, and nine parts Oxford ocher and one part orange chrome yellow for the dark shade (Hiscox, 557). Uebele provides several formulas, as there is ‘no standard in the trade’ for golden ocher or chrome ocher. For a pale or light shade of golden ocher hue he recommends grinding 65 parts by weight of J.L.C.E.S French ocher, the pale citron shade, 7 parts by weight of chrome yellow medium and 28 parts by weight of refined linseed oil for 100 parts of paste. For dark golden ocher he suggests 65 parts J.F.L.E.S. French ocher (dark shade) with 7 pounds of light shade orange chrome yellow with 28 pounds raw linseed oil (Uebele, 244).
Roman Ocher—The name Roman ocher is listed in artists’ colormen catalogs of the mid-19th century. It is described as a sort of ‘marigold tint’ that Uebele says is made of a dark French ocher, J.F.L.E.S., 65 parts by weight and two parts by weight of bright Italian burnt sienna mixed with 32 parts of poppyseed or walnut oil (Uebele, 254). A later reference provides the following formula: 23 parts French yellow ocher and one part each of burnt sienna and burnt umber (Hiscox, 557).
Oxford Ocher—The origin of this name is from the ocher found near Oxford. Church provides an analysis of a sample of yellow ocher from the pit on Shotover Hill near Oxford as the following percentages:
The varying hues of different yellow ochers depend mainly upon two differences of composition. One of these is the amount of clay (alumina silicate) or silica present, which lightens the color, and the other is the amount of ferric oxide, which gives them a warmer hue (Church, 123). It is uncertain when the deposit was exhausted, but the name was afterwards applied to dark French ocher, J.F.L.E.S., or ocher deposits from England and Germany that were ‘free of grit and of rich, deep yellow color’ (Uebele, 254)
Olive Green—The name “olive green” or “mixed olive” is given to a wide range of mixed pigments, typically consisting of yellow ocher and cool black pigments. Seven parts light golden ocher and one part drop black is the recipe from Henley’s recipe book (Hiscox, 556). Another recipe consists of Indian yellow, umber and indigo (Abney, 148). Field gives instructions for compounding mixed olive by combining green and purple, adding to blue a smaller proportion of yellow and red, or by ‘breaking much blue with little orange.’ He further comments that the pigments selected for the mixtures were chosen to be conducive to the harmony of the picture (Field, 268).
Hooker’s Green—The earliest Hooker’s greens were a blend of gamboge and Prussian blue or indigo (Donlevy, 35 and Chamber’s, 407). More lightfast varieties were later created with aureolin or cobalt yellow. Modern Hooker’s green is usually a blend of phthalo blue and cadmium yellow or Hanza yellow. There is a pigment, Nitroso Green (PG 8), that is sometimes called Hooker’s green, but this pigment does not offer any significant improvement over mixtures, as it is consider fugitive, given a lightfastness rating of III by American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM).
Sap Green—This color originally was made from the unripe berries of the Buckthorn plant. In medieval times the extracted colorant was reduced to heavy syrup and sold in pig bladders, not as dry pigment. Modern oil paints under this name are actually mixtures of pigments that vary greatly with each manufacturer.
Indian Red—The name comes from the source of pigment, India, where a natural red iron oxide is still extracted from the earth. The color consists of nearly pure hematite or red iron oxide (96–98%) containing a small amount of silica or alumina (Uebele, 212).
Light Red—The color designated “light red” is roasted (calcined) yellow ocher. The color is between Indian red and Venetian red.
Venetian Red—Originally the name applied to red ocher pigments from the Veneto region of Italy. As colormen began supplying watercolors and oil colors to artists in the 19th century, pigment mixtures were offered as the color. According to Church, this color is less red than light red, but not purplish like Indian red (Church, 180). It is primarily composed of hematite or red iron oxide. Uebele gives the following percentages for Venetian red:
|Red iron oxide||Terra alba||Silica or Alumina|
Barite was often substituted for terra alba. Uebele instructs to grind approximately 77 parts by weight of the mixed pigments with 23 parts by weight of linseed oil (Uebele, 208).
Turkey Red—This name was often associated with an intense variety of Venetian red or red oxide (Hiscox, 557).
Tuscan Red—This color consists of equal parts by weight of hematite or red iron oxide and terra alba or calcined calcium sulfate in water and precipitated with madder. Uebele provides a recipe of 15 parts by weight of alizarin combined with 36 parts by weight each of red iron oxide and terra alba and mixed with 15 parts by weight of linseed oil (Uebele, 214). Another recipe for ‘ordinary’ Tuscan red consists of nine parts of Indian red with one part rose pink (a lake based on madder). ‘Brilliant’ Tuscan red is the combination of four parts Indian red and one part madder lake (Hiscox, 557).
Scarlet Lake—This name appears in colormen’s catalogs throughout the 19th century. Uebele describes this color as a mixture of equal parts cochineal lake and vermilion combined with their weight of alumina sulfate. The paste paint is formed by grinding 72% by weight of the pigment mixture with 28% by weight of oil (Uebele, 231).
Abney, William W. De. “The Action of Ozone on Water-colour Pigments.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 1908.
Bersch, Josef. The Manufacture of Mineral and Lake Pigments: Containing Directions for the Manufacture of All Artificial Artists’ and Painters’ Colours, Enamel Colours, Soot and Metallic Pigments. Trans., Arthur Columbine Wright. Scott, Greenwood, 1901.
Chambers’s Encyclopaedia: A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge, Vol. 5. W. & R. Chambers, Ltd., 1892.
Church, Arthur Herbert. The Chemistry of Paints and Painting. Seeley & Co., 1890.
Donlevy, Alice. Practical Hints on the Art of Illumination. A.D.F. Randolph, 1867.
Field, George. Chromatography; Or, A Treatise on Colours and Pigments: And of Their Powers in Painting. Tilt and Bogue, 1841.
Hiscox, Gardner Dexter. Henleys’ Twentieth Century Book of Recipes, Formulas and Processes. New York: N.W. Henley Publishing Co., 1910.
Long, Basil S. William Payne, Water-Colour Painter Working 1776–1830. Read Books, 2008.
Meyer Brothers Druggist. C.F.G. Meyer, 1912.
Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition). Oxford University Press, 1989.
Pye, K. “Electron microscope analysis of zoned dolomite rhombs in the Jet Rock Formation (Lower Toarcian) of the Whitby area, U.K.” Geological Magazine, Vol. 122. Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Uebele, Charles L. Paint Making and Color Grinding. The Painters Magazine, 1913.