Renaissance Pigments Eileen Booth

Early How-To Guide written in the Fifteenth Century

According to Cennini, in Fifteenth Century Italy, there are seven natural colors: black, red, yellow and green. Three others are natural, but assisted artificially: lime white and blues- ultramarine and azurite.

Egg Tempera

Lamp Black, Vine Black, Charcoal Black:

Carbon Black (charcoal)
Virgin and Child, Giovanni Bellini, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan Since carbon absorbs light so well, it appears dark with infrared reflectography imaging, revealing artists' sketch under the painting.
Bone black is prepared by charring bones, horns etc. in the absence of air. It is the deepest black but it was not used as widely as charcoal black. Fragments or turnings of ivory, or of the osseous parts of animals are put into a crucible surrounded by burning coals and covered. The ivory or bones, by exposure to the heat, were reduced to charcoal.

All sorts of black: Black made from burned vine twigs (charcoal), black made from burnt almond shells, peach stones or animal bones, and lamp black. For lamp black: take a lamp full of linseed oil, put a baking dish over the flame and the smoke striking the bottom of the dish will condense into a mass. Sweep off this soot and use the pigment.

Charcoal Sketches
Rembrandt, portrait of Phillips Lucasz, National Gallery, London. Studies of several paintings by Rembrandt using the technique of neutron activation autoradiography have shown the widespread use of the bone black in the initial wash-like sketch over the ground layer. Unusually, unmixed bone black pigment was used to paint the darkest parts of the clothing in the portrait of Phillips Lucasz.
Brown Umber (Burnt Umber):
Burnt Umber
Frans van Mieris, Pictura (An Allegory of Painting) 1661, private collection

Sinoper- a natural red color great for working up designs on fresco.

During the Middle Ages synopia in Latin and Italian came to mean simply a red ochre. It entered the English language as the word sinoper, meaning a red earth color


Light Cinabrese- a light red (as far as Cennini knew, not used outside of Florence). Perfect for doing flesh. Mix sinoper with White Lime and make little cakes the size of nuts and use it as you need it.

Cinabrese as painted in Botticelli, Birth of Venus

Vermillion- a red pigment made using alchemy. Complicated process, but Cennini recommends always buying it unbroken, not ground. The reason for this, he explains is that when ground it may have additives like red lead or pounded brick. Best when used on the panel than the wall. Exposure to the air causes it to blacken over time when laid on the wall.

Circle of Paul van Somer (Antwerp 1576-1621 London) Circle of Paul van Somer (Antwerp 1576-1621 London) Portrait of a girl, half-length, in a pink silk dress and a bejeweled lace collar and headdress, holding a lace handkerchief and an ostrich feather fan
Tiziano Vecellio, Assunta, 1516-1518, Santa Maria gloriosa dei Frari, Venezia Titian used Vermilion to create the reds in the great fresco of Assunta, completed c. 1518.
Red Lead

Red Lead- Manufactured through Alchemy, only good for using on panel. On the wall it soon turns black with exposure to air.

Jan van Eyck, portrait of a man with turban, 1433, National Gallery London.
Red Hematite

Red Hematite- Comes from a natural and solid stone. Cennini describes it as so sold that it can be used to burnishing gold on panel. The pure stone is the color purple and has the structure of vermillion. Pound this stone with a mortar first, for breaking it up on a slab may crack it. Work it up with clear water, the more you work it, the better it becomes. Great on the wall, for working in fresco, but not temperas.

During the Renaissance it was often used for the cartoon or preparatory drawing for a fresco. The word came to be used both for the pigment and for the preparatory drawing itself.

Roger Van der Goes.- (Gante 1440- Bruselas 1482)

Hematite is a red oxide of iron, like iron rust. The name hematite comes from the Greek word haima, or ema, meaning ‘blood,’ as it shows a blood red color when cut into thin slices. As such, hematite is also called ‘bloodstone.’ Sometimes, when the stone has a layered appearance, like the petals of a flower, it’s called ‘iron rose.’ Hematite has a long history as a material with many different uses. Hematite crystals that are shiny have traditionally been used in mirrors, and are sometimes called specular hematite. From 2500 BC to 500 BC, hematite was used to make cylindrical seals. Hematite has also been ground and powdered, and used by artists as a pigment, or for polishing. In fact, powdered hematite was used by prehistoric man for cave paintings, by the Egyptians to decorate the tombs of pharaohs, and by Native Americans as a war paint. Today, it is still used as pigment, as well as a metal polishing powder called ‘jeweler’s rouge.’

Red Ochre:
Red ochre consists of silica and clay owing its color to iron oxide. It is found throughout the world, in many shades, in hues from yellow to brown, and faint blue. The best brown ochre comes from Cyprus.
Hall of 500 in Florence, 1572 Medieval and Renaissance frescoes as the once painted by Giorgio Vasari on the walls of the Hall of 500 in Florence were made mainly by earth pigments, among which, red ochre.

Dragonsblood- A red pigment used for parchment and illuminating.

Dragonsblood Pigment
Mural in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, said to incorporate the Dragon’s Blood pigment.
Dragonsblood Tree

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.

As exciting as a battle between an elephant and dragon would be, the pigment was in actuality made from a Southeast Asian tree — though the story certainly helped hype it to outside buyers, and its blood red color was popular in the ancient world. It faded out of mainstream popularity around the 19th century, probably alongside the very much waning fascination with elephant vs. dragon battles.

Dragonsblood Tree
Mummy Brown: “We might have a few odd limbs lying around somewhere, but not enough to make any more paint.”

1964 Managing director of the London based C. Roberson color maker told Time magazine:

Martin Drölling, “L’intérieur d’une cuisine” (1815), believed to have been painted with Mummy Brown

The pigment, a favored shade of the Pre-Raphaelites, was first made with Egyptian mummies, both cat and human, that were ground up and mixed with white pitch and myrrh. It had a great fleshy color, but due to the actual fleshy components it would crack over time. Martin Drölling, who painted the work shown above, reportedly used the mummies of French kings dug up from Saint-Denis in Paris.


Lac- An artificial red color. Cennini warns there are several qualities: some Lac is made from shearings of cloth and is very attractive to the eye, but beware of this type for it does not last at all with temperas and quickly loses its color. Get the Lac which is made of gum (the dark-red resin incrustation from some trees), it is dry and lean, granular and looks almost black and contains a sanguine color. Work it on your slab with clear water. There are those who grind it with urine, but it becomes unpleasant and promptly goes bad.

Yellow Ochre:

The Adoration of the Magi 1481-82 Yellow ochre and brown ink on panel Uffizi, Florence

Yellow Ochre- A natural color found in the earth and the mountains. Resembles sulfur and can be found where sinoper lay. For hair and costumes I [Cennini] have no found a better color. I found it in the Val d'Elsa at the beginning of the forest, upon reaching a little valley. I scraped the steep with my spade and found dark and light ochre. An all around color especially for work in fresco and for many general purposes.

Napolitanum and giallarino di Napoli or Naples Yellow:

Naples Yellow: A manufactured yellow. Very solid, heavy as a stone, and hard to break up. Used in fresco, this color lasts forever even on the wall, on panel and with temperas. You will do well to pound it with a bronze mortar, for it is troublesome to reduce to powder. A handsome yellow, great for foliage and grass.

Naples Yellow

Orpiment- A yellow made from alchemy and extremely poisonous. A handsome yellow resembling gold more than any other yellow. Not good for use on a wall, but either in fresco or temperas, because it turns black when exposed to air. Mixing with Baghdad Indigo makes amazing green colors for grass and foliage. Coax it by mixing it with the glass of a broken goblet so the powder of the glass attracts the orpiment to the roughness of the stone. If you were to mix it 10 years with clear water it would constantly become more perfect. Beware of soiling in your mouth, lest you suffer personal injury.



The name "Realgar" comes from Arabic rahj al ghar = powder of the mine.


Realgar- A poisonous yellow. We do not use except sometimes on panel. There is no keeping company with it. When you want to work it up, adopt those measures which I have taught you for the other colors. It wants to be ground with a great deal of water. And look out for yourself.

Realgar is found throughout the world in hot-spring deposits, volcanic sublimation, and in certain limestones and dolomites.
Very rare, early 13th century, Byzantine Syriac Gospel lectionary, 1216–1220 AD, British Library Oriental and India Office Collection

This Gospel lectionary consists of 264 folios with text and sixty illuminations and is valued at more than US $1 million. The large number of illuminations distributed throughout a manuscript of this type is very unusual; they are of high quality and have a rich palette which includes vermilion, lazurite, orpiment, lead white, realgar and pararealgar. Some of the illuminations have suffered serious deterioration of the white pigment, which has turned black in parts. The phenomenon is most striking where the faces of the figures, apparently initially colored with a mixture of white and red pigments, are affected, creating blackened areas.


Madonna and Child by Duccio, tempera and gold on wood, 1284, Siena

Orpiment was used for the yellow areas but it was not the only yellow pigment used. Some very rich yellow colouration differs significantly in appearance from that of orpiment, which has a much lighter hue. Viewed through the microscope, the pigment appears to be dominated by yellow crystals with a significant number of orange ones. Analysis by Raman microscopy revealed that the orange crystals were realgar and that the yellow crystals were pararealgar a light-induced transformation product of realgar


Saffron- A pigment made from the saffron herb. You put it on a linen cloth over a hot stone or brick. Then take a goblet full of a strong lye. Combine and work up on a slab. This makes a fine color for dying linen or cloth. If exposed to air, it loses color. For the most perfect grass color imaginable, take a little verdigris and three parts saffron. Tempered with a little size, which will be explained later.


Arzica- A yellow made from alchemy, but little used. Primarily used only by illuminators and in Florence more than anywhere else. A very thin color. It fades in the open so not good on the wall, but alright on the panel. Makes a lovely green if mixed with Azurite and Giallorino. It also wants to be mixed with clear water.

Terra-Verte/Green Earth:

Terra-Verte- A natural earth color, considered a very fat color. Good for use in faces, draperies, buildings, fresco, in secco, on wall, panel and wherever you wish. Know that the ancients never used to gild on panel except with this green.

Duccio, The Annunciation, 1311, National Gallery, London Medieval painters used green earth pigments for flesh undertones. This underpainting of green neutralized the effect of the pinks and reds of the flesh colors. To paint the pinks of flesh directly onto the white gesso would acheive a "sunburn" effect in the flesh of the figures. To neutralize the pink, painters painted a layer of green earth under the pink. The red pigments' layer has often faded away leaving a greenish color.
Perugino, 1503, Museo Pinacoteca di S.Francesco, Montefalco, Italy Perugino made a malachite green shirt on a green earth background.

Malachite green- A half natural color, produced using azurite. Buy it readymade. This colors is good in secco, with a tempera of egg yolk, for making trees and foliage. Add highlights using Giallorino. This color is rather course by nature and looks like a fine sand. Use a light touch, for when over worked it becomes ashy and a dingy color. Work it up with water, let stand for 1-3 hours then pour off the water to find an even more beautiful green. Repeat this process two or three times for even more vibrant green.

How you make a green with Orpiment and Indigo- One part indigo and one part orpiment makes a green good for painting shield and lances.


Verdigris- Manufactured by alchemy using copper and vinegar. Good on panel, tempered with size. Never get it near white lead for they are mortal enemies in every respect. Work it up with vinegar. Especially good on paper or parchment, tempered with egg yolk.

Sandro Botticelli “Birth opf Venus" c.1480 tempera on wood, 9 ft. w x 5 ft. h. Galeria degli Uffizi, Florence

Lime White:

Limestone is a rock derived from marine ooze and largely composed of fossil remains of unicellular algae. Mineral: calcite
Hans Baldung Grien, c.1485-1545, German, Death and the Maiden

Lime White- A natural color, artificially prepared. Take good white air-slacked lime, put this powder into a pail for eight days, adding clear water every day. Then make up little cakes of lime, put them on the rooftops in the sun. The older the cakes are, the better they will be. For best results, grind up cakes into powder again, work in water, make cakes again and place in the sun to dry. Good for working in fresco. Absolutely necessary to create flesh color. It never wants any egg tempera ever.

Lime White:

Lead White:

White Lead in Johannes Vermeer’s “The Glass of Wine” (1658), oil on canvas

In 1713, Italian physician Bernardinus Ramazzini described in his De Morbis Artificum Diatriba a mysterious set of symptoms he was noticing among artists:

A self-portrait of Goya being attended to by his doctor, 1820

"The business of a Painter or Varnisher is generally, and not without reason, considered an unhealthy one."

“Of the many painters I have known, almost all I found unhealthy … If we search for the cause of the cachectic and colorless appearance of the painters, as well as the melancholy feelings that they are so often victims of, we should look no further than the harmful nature of the pigments…”

He was one of the first to make the connection between paint and artists' health, but it would take centuries for painters to switch to less-harmful materials, even as medicine gradually clued into the bodily havoc “saturnism” could wreak.

White lead- An alchemy produced color. Very brilliant white and comes in little cakes like globlets or drinking glasses. The more you grind this pigment, the more perfect it will be. Good on panel. On walls, try to avoid it for over time it turns black. Compatible with tempera and serves to lighten all colors on panel just as lime white does on the wall.

Ginevra de' Benci is a portrait painting by Leonardo da Vinci of the 15th-century Florentine aristocrat Ginevra de' Benci


Raphael, Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art The azurite blue of the Virgin's mantle has darkened due to its degradation into green malachite and now this mantle looks greenish. Also to be noted in this painting is that the children are not naked. Indeed, this important early altarpiece by Raphael was painted for the small Franciscan convent of Sant'Antonio in Perugia and hung in a part of the church reserved for nuns. According to Vasari, it was the nuns who asked Raphael to depict the Christ Child and infant Saint John the Baptist fully clothed. Their patronage may also account for the painting's conservative style and the emphasis given to gold decoration.
Azurite- A natural blue color which exists in an around the vein of silver. Found exclusively in Germany. Work it moderately and lightly when mixing with water for excessive grinding removes some of the luminescence.

Baghdad Indigo- A sky blue resembling azurite can be worked up as a substitute using a little Lead White.

Indian Yellow

The cow urine was evaporated and the resultant dry matter formed into balls by hand.

The urine was "heated in order to precipitate the yellow matter, then strained, pressed into lumps by hand and dried." It's the mango not the urine that's crucial to the color: "The colourant is a calcium or magnesium salt of an organic acid released by the mango." By the early twentieth century the pigment was no longer available, although you can find modern substitutes sold under the name "Indian yellow".

Indeed, the cows were extremely undernourished, as mango leaves did not supply the cattle with sufficient nutrients, and they lived for only a very short time. The process was considered inhumane and, since 1908, Indian Yellow pigment has been prohibited from the market.

Since ancient times in the Far East, Indian yellow was introduced into India from Persia in the fifteenth century. The amateur painter, Roger Dewhurst, recorded the use of Indian yellow in 1786. He noted, in letters to friends, that it was an organic substance made from the urine of animals fed on turmeric and suggested that it should be washed to prepare it for use as a pigment. Its source remained a mystery for many years. Mérimée, in his book on painting of 1830, didn't believe it was made from urine, in spite of its odor. George Field believed it was made from camel urine.

Ultramarine Blue:

Ultramarine is famous for having been the most expensive pigment. It was more expensive than gold during the Renaissance. First used in 6th century Afghanistan, the pigment found its most extensive use in 14th and 15th century illuminated manuscripts and Italian panel paintings, often reserved for the cloaks of Christ and the Virgin. It's use as a pigment among ancient mediterranean cultures is very rare. It was imported to Europe by way of Venice.

Raphael, Chapel of Saint Severo, 1505, Perugia, Italy Left, visible image. Right IRFC image. The blue sky shows up in red in the IRFC image being ultramarine.

Cennini: Ultramarine Blue- Beautiful, illustrious and the most perfect beyond all other colors. Nothing surpasses its quality. Pay close attention to how its made and you will gain great honor and service from it. Get some Lapis Lazuli- chose that which has the richest blue color, the least ashy is the best. Confirm it is not azurite stone, which will be pleasing the eye. Pound it on a bronze mortar, covered up to contain the dust. After you have it all ready, get six ounces of pine rosin from the druggists, three ounces of gum mastic, and three ounces of new wax for each pound of lapis lazuli. Melt all together, then strain into a washbasin....Before you take the blue out of the porringer, but after it is quite dry of the lye, put a little of this kermes and brazil on it; and stir it all up well with your finger; and let it stand until it dries, without sun, fire, or wind. When you find that it is dry, put it in leather, or in a purse, and leave it alone, for it is good and perfect. And keep it for yourself, for it is an unusual ability to know how to make it properly. and know that making it is an occupation for pretty girls rather than for men; for they are always home, and reliable, and they have more dainty hands. Just be aware of old women.

Microscopic appearance at x500 mag. Left, artificial, right, mineral ultramarine.
Carmine Lake:

There are two varieties of carmine lake, both produced from insects, cochineal lake and kermes lake and both employed as a dye and lake.

70,000 cochineal insects are required to manufacture a single pound of the dye.

Cochineal lake comes from cochineal bettle, native to the New World, which was used by the Aztecs for dyeing and painting and was brought to Europe in the sixteenth century following the Spanish conquest.

Two species of scale insects: cochineal and kermes Cochineal lake comes from the Cochineal insect, a small scale insect that feeds on cacti.

Kermes lake comes from an other species of cochineal living on certain species of European oaks.These insects were scratched from the twigs with the fingernails and produced a powerful permanent scarlet dye believed to be that obtained from the Phoenicians by the Hebrews to dye the curtains of their tabernacle.

Cochineal insects on a prickly pear cactus stem (Lanzarote Island, Spain); details of clusters of cochineal insects
Workshop of Albrecht Durer, The Virgin and Child (1500-10). Cross section of deep red paint from the shadow of the Virgin’s dress, The National Gallery, London.
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Eileen Booth

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