Can You Guess The First Modern Art Pigment in the World?

April 05, 2018

Spring Blues is an oil painting by Travis Humphreys

By Chelsea Reed
Today’s artwork boasts so many vibrant colors that strike our fancy, we often overlook where they come from. Before modern science, pigment-making was a tricky process that involved transforming sources from nature into the paint colors used in artwork. Some of these sources were rare and very expensive 300 years ago. Ultramarine was made from ground lapis lazuli and was pricier than pure gold!
How did modern synthetic pigments get their start? It’s a fascinating journey where the worlds of science and art become interconnected.
The First Modern Synthetic Pigment
Believe it or not, synthetic pigments were used quite often in the ancient world. Many Egyptian hieroglyphics were painted with Egyptian Blue, a vibrant color chemically produced from copper. Even after 2,000 years, we can still enjoy its colorfastness! The formula for how it was made, though, was lost after the fall of the Roman Empire. Blue was a much tougher color to produce after that.
Then, a new blue pigment was discovered more than 1,300 years later. A chemist in a Berlin laboratory was in a hurry making a batch of Cochineal Red paint one day in 1704. In his rush, he accidentally used potash contaminated by animal blood with the cochineal bugs. And instead of red, out came a deep blue! The first modern synthetic pigment was discovered – Prussian Blue. And its use spread like wildfire in the European art world.
One famous use of Prussian Blue can be seen in Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa, c. 1830. Inspired by Europe’s synthetic pigment, the Japanese woodblock print artist Hokusai combined Prussian Blue with Indigo to create an especially rich effect. This inspiration came full circle when Vincent Van Gogh saw Hokusai’s artwork in the Paris International Exposition in 1867. Van Gogh would use those same blue swirl patterns later on in his famous painting Starry Night. And it's all thanks to Prussian Blue!
The Marriage of Science and Art
Science has developed many more synthetic pigments since the discovery of Prussian Blue, opening the door to possibilities in today's art world that seem endless. Other interesting facts have also been discovered about Prussian Blue. Did you know that it is also an important medicine for treating radiation poisoning? Remarkable! Prussian Blue is just one example how science and art have a close relationship. 
 
Feeling blue is a good thing at Seaside Art Gallery! Be inspired with fresh blue tones when you browse through our art online or on location in the gallery. Thanks for your participation!
 
Chelsea Reed is a freelance copywriter. She writes articles, blogs, websites, and online content from her base in North Carolina.




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