May 10, 2021

New Pigment Discoveries During the Age of Exploration

Between the late 15th century and the late 17th century, all the right conditions came along for European countries and monarchs to begin exploring beyond the Mediterranean’s borders. This Age of Exploration – or Age of Discovery – was undoubtedly marked by unprecedented nautical voyages and identification of new lands and territories.

But the discoveries that took place during this period go far beyond geographical exploration. Indeed, during this time, the inquisitive minds of seafarers, merchants, inventors, chemists, and engineers set the foundation for today’s science.

And, in the glory of the Renaissance, artists started to make the most of recent chemistry advancements to take their art to the next level, explore the potential of new pigments, and experiment with new techniques. The breakthroughs that happened over 300 years ago during the Age of Exploration are still more relevant and vital than ever.

The Relationship Between Chemistry and Art

In their most basic form, pigments are coloured materials that are insoluble in water. By absorbing some of the light wavelengths and reflecting a particular one, a certain pigment will produce a unique visible colour. And, pigments are certainly not a new discovery – it is possible to find traces of natural pigments in prehistoric caves and throughout history.

The first pigments included Red and Yellow Ochre – the oldest one ever recorded – Charcoal, Blue, and White Lead. While some – such as ochre, Raw Sienna, and Raw Umber – are naturally occurring pigments, civilisations start to explore the potential of synthetic pigments early on.

Arguably, the most famous case is Egyptian Blue, created by heating glass and copper sources. Shortly, other synthetic pigments came along, including verdigris, vermilion, and lead-tin-yellow – or Yellow of The Old Masters.

During the Middle Ages, artists had already started to appreciate the work of alchemists, buying unbroken pigments from the precursors of chemists.

It is not until the late Renaissance that the relationship between chemists and artists truly consolidated. Indeed, thanks to the advancements in chemistry during the Age of Discovery, the science behind creating new pigments became more consistent, allowing artists to count on a steady supply for their oil paintings.

This scientific consistency allowed the use of pigments in the textile and technological industries, enabling the boom during the Enlightenment period and Scientific Revolution.

Chemistry Advances and New Pigments Discovery

Since the Age of Exploration, artists have resorted to the growing synthetic toolkit of chemists to expand their colour palette and experiment with new techniques.

During these years, the discoveries that laid the foundations of modern chemistry enabled the discovery of unique pigments. Indeed, during the age of discovery, chemists discovered the majority of naturally occurring elements on Earth.

Some of the most critical advancements in chemistry are the ones that involved the identification of new elements and, as scientists started to look into the potential of chemistry, the artists’ palette expanded.

At the same time, the journeys across the world and the exchanges of cultures and knowledge that was happening at the time brought other discoveries.

Indeed, certain minerals are only found in specific geographical locations, and they are now being traded, used, and, more importantly, studied in Europe. For example, Crocoite, which is native to the Siberian Mountains or Lapis Lazuli deriving from Northeastern Afghanistan, are rare minerals that worked as a stepping stone for creating today’s synthetic pigments.

Here are some of the pigments discovered during the Age of Explorations that have influenced art since.

Chromium Colours

During one of the voyages in the Age of Exploration, a new mineral with orange tones was identified in the mountains of Siberia – Crocoite. When the French chemist Nicholas Louis Vauquelin managed to obtain a sample of the new mineral in 1797, he began to analyse it and discovered that it contained a then-unknown element – Chrome.

In 1809, a new chrome ore was identified in France, which allowed Vauquelin to carry out more tests and experiments on the new mineral. Some of the colours associated with synthetic chromium include yellow, orange, and green.

Ultramarine and Synthetic Blues

As we have seen, one of the first synthetic colours ever manufactured was Egyptian blue, which was thousands of years old. During the Age of Exploration, Diesbach of Berlin, a colourmaker and chemist who lived in the early 1700s, invented a new blue pigment – Prussian Blue. This discovery was entirely casual when the colourmaker was testing the potential of oxidation of iron.

Thanks to subsequent chemistry advancements, painters and artists during the Age of Exploration were able to use the natural pigment found in lapis lazuli – which contained 10% of ultramarine blue. Indeed, chemists have been able to extract this bright blue pigment from the lapis lazuli mineral by grinding up the mineral and mixing it with resin and beeswax.

When kneaded, the solution would release the pigment into the water used for painting. Because this pigment was highly-priced and scarce, it would primarily be used to paint the Virgin’s mantle in religious artworks.

While natural aquamarine remains a beautiful and sought after pigment for today’s artists, Jean-Baptiste Guimet managed to find a synthetic replacement for this colour in 1828. The process remained complicated and involved using charcoal, quartz, heated china clay, and sulfur. However, this allowed the pigment to be manufactured on a larger scale and used commercially.

Sienna, Umber, and Naples’ Yellow

During the Renaissance’s artistic boom, artists discovered and introduced a variety of natural pigments, including Naples yellow – which was naturally found on Mount Vesuvius – and the coloured powders Sienna and Umber.

These pigments were collected from natural locations at first. However, during the 1550s, the chemists of the time were able to synthesise them and artificially produce them. This made them available to the artists of that time.

Imported and Manufactured Pigments

The Age of Exploration is characterised by geographical exploration and chemistry advancement. When combined, these developments led to the discovery of various

elements, minerals, and – consequently – pigments, which could be synthesised thanks to a better chemistry toolkit.

Some of these essential pigments that were introduced and manufactured in Europe included carmine and Cochineal red. Because they have a lower lightfastness than modern pigments, some of these colours are no longer used in painting. However, they have all found new usages – from varnishes to shellac and cosmetics.