Synthetic industrial inorganic pigments

Synthetic industrial inorganic pigments are created through chemical manufacturing rather than by grinding and washing clays or minerals taken directly from the earth. The techniques for producing these substances on an industrial scale were developed after 1800, making them the first modern synthetic pigments of importance to artists.

The amazing story of these early industrial inorganic pigments is well told in Philip Ball’s Bright Earth. Nearly all synthetic inorganic pigments were discovered or identified in the grand European flowering of inorganic chemistry that occurred in the century after 1750, when European industries sponsored intensive minerological and metallurgical research, and early chemists isolated and identified many new metallic elements — cadmium, cobalt, chromium, zinc, manganese, magnesium, and so on. (These new puzzle pieces helped John Dalton to formulate modern atomic theory in around 1805.) Several synthetic inorganic pigments still used today, including iron blue, cobalt green, cobalt blue and zinc oxide, were discovered prior to 1800.

These manufactured pigment compounds generally have excellent chemical purity and color consistency, and are cheaper to buy and available in larger quantities than natural inorganic pigments. With very few exceptions, all inorganic pigments used in artists’ paints today are industrially manufactured. (Some dry powder natural inorganic pigments are available from specialty pigment retailers.)

As an artist, your primary concern is to understand the generic attributes of these industrial inorganic pigments across different manufacturers and different pigment hues (chemical or crystal variations) — that is, to see paints as physical substances rather than as “colors”. For example, the violet and blue ultramarines are typically granulating and moderately transparent; the many lemon yellow to deep red cadmiums are all powdery, permanent, opaque and quite staining; compounds made with mercury are poisonous and fugitive. The historical information can also help you to understand the rapid expansion in artists’ pigments that occurred in Europe between the 18th and 19th centuries.

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