Monday, November 4, 2013

ArtSmart Roundtable: What Went into Medieval Pigments and Where’d They Come From?

It’s November already! This month, the ArtSmart Roundtable is focusing on color. I’m that nerd that loves looking through paint chips. Pinterest photos of interior design with bold accents colors always grab my eye. My closet is organized in rainbow order. Needless to say, I like pops of color.

While I tossed around a few contemporary ideas (like Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko’s color fields or Yves Klein’s signature blue), the ability to get Creative Commons or Wikimedia Commons images ultimately steered me back towards a theme that I can tie into travel. Since I focused on medieval art in my major, medieval art it is again. Ever wonder what colors were available to medieval artists? Or where certain colors came from? Well, read on.

Winchester Psalter Hellmouth Page

An angel locking the gates of Hell with a key, miniature from the Winchester Psalter, British Library, London. Circa 1121-1161. Via Wikimedia Commons

Illuminated manuscripts were made of vellum, parchment, and later paper pages. Vellum is basically the very best quality parchment (parchment being animal skin). From there, copiers and illustrators would copy the text and draw out carpet pages, full page illustrations, and marginalia. The text was always done first (so any mistakes could be easily shaved off and written again), then the illustrators would draw on the patterns. The gilding was always done last as a finishing touch to avoid wasting gold.

Book of Hours Annunciation Page

Book of hours, Paris c. 1410. Miniature of the Annunciation, with the start of Matins in the Little Office, the beginning of the texts after the calendar in the usual arrangement. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to gold and silver leaf, medieval manuscripts had these basic colors: black, white, red, blue, green, and yellow. All the colors either came from plant/animal sources or from minerals. Here’s the breakdown of the major sources:

Plant/Animal Based:







China green






Mineral Based:

red lead*








white lead*


iron gall ink

*denotes toxicity

With this 6 color palette, just imagine the time and energy it took just to get the pigments in order to copy, illustrate, and illuminate a manuscript. There’s a reason why only the elite had illuminated books. The money needed for the colors and parchment alone would have been the medieval version of a diamond encrusted 24k gold iPhone.

Map of pigment sources

So where did they source these dyes? Here’s a map marking where major supplies of a particular insect/plant/animal/mineral would have been found. Ultramarine, orpiment, and verdigris were prized for their bright colors, but ultramarine was the priciest pigment you could possibly buy since it only came from Afghanistan. Tumeric, lac, and indigo had to travel from India to get into the hands of medieval artists. Others were closer to European scriptoria, but they still had to travel across kingdoms and fiefdoms to get there.

Red lead was a by-product of making white lead so you got a two-for-one producing those colors. Other colors were trickier. Turnsole tended to fade, indigo was more purple-y blue, ochre could be hit or miss on the shade of yellow, and vermillion required grinding it as finely as possible to get a rich red rather than a blackish color.

Book of Kells Chi Rho Page

Book of Kells Chi Rho page (c. 800) via Wikimedia Commons

Now, all these colors were mixed with various chemicals to stabilize them or with binders in order to apply them. Often, they were poisonous to the illustrator. Add in the fact that they were doing their work by natural and/or candlelight with fine brushes, rock crystal magnifiers, and possibly utilizing the “magic-eye eye” (the way you have to look at a magic-eye image to see the 3D object) to do the very detailed parts, and I’m beyond impressed that certain manuscripts such as the Book of Kells HAVE NO MISTAKES IN THE ILLUSTRATIONS. None.

St. Louis Psalter

Saint Louis Psalter 17 recto. 1190-1200. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Only after all the illustration work was done, the illuminators had the difficult task of applying gold and silver leaf to the images without getting it stuck to the page (gold leaf is almost as bad as glitter for sticking to everything) or ruining the image when burnishing the leaf. Pretty nifty, huh?

What is ArtSmart?  A couple fellow travel bloggers with an interest in art and I decided to do a roundtable series focused on making our readers “art smart”, e.g. understanding why certain works of art are famous and worth the visit while traveling.  At the end of this post are links to the other ArtSmart posts by participating bloggers.  Interested in joining the Roundtable?  Check out our Facebook page or email me.

This Month’s Fellow ArtSmart Roundtable Articles:

Lesley of CultureTripper: Canadian color field painter William Perehudoff at Berry Campbell Gallery, New York

Christina of Daydream Tourist: Egyptian Blue Faience

Murissa of The Wanderfull Traveler: A Personal Account: Six Degrees of Separation and J.M.W. Turner’s Use of Colour 

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11 Responses to “ArtSmart Roundtable: What Went into Medieval Pigments and Where’d They Come From?”

  1. 1

    Alexandra — November 4, 2013 @ 2:37 pm

    Oh yeah!! Well deserved geek status here. Gorgeous post, really!

    • ehalvey replied: — November 4th, 2013 @ 2:45 pm

      Thanks! I love when the topic allows me to truly nerd out. 🙂

  2. 2

    Lesley Peterson — November 4, 2013 @ 5:08 pm

    Fascinating post, Erin, and gorgeous images. I especially appreciated the map of the pigment sources. What a world it must have been, sailing in a medieval boat to far-off markets to track down pigments to trade. Evokes great imaginings…

    • ehalvey replied: — November 5th, 2013 @ 8:45 am

      The number of hands a pigment had to cross to get from start to finish is mind-boggling.

  3. 3

    Celia Prosecchino — November 5, 2013 @ 2:02 am

    A very well explained article. it never ceases to amaze me how well these illuminated letters are preserved when bound in incunabula. The colours often dazzle and depending on the richness of the manuscript the details of the illuminations can be incredible. Working with gold leaf and natural pigments is an art that is still practised by calligraphers today.

    • ehalvey replied: — November 5th, 2013 @ 8:50 am

      Thank you! It’s absolutely remarkable that they could create such beautiful works.

  4. 4

    The Wanderfull Traveler — November 8, 2013 @ 3:27 pm

    I took a very interesting class about book making and its history. We actually had to make paint by using coffee, an egg yolk as a binder (had to pierce it a special way) and certain rocks that were ground up. Even tumeric and curry could be used as yellow. It amazed me how inventive they were and how dedicated spending money and resources on ways to show their devotion.

    Great read Erin and it was so nice to meet a fellow ArtSmarter in Ireland!


    • ehalvey replied: — November 9th, 2013 @ 9:45 am

      Very cool! I took a class on just on the Book of Kells but never an actual bookmaking class. It was great meeting you, too! I hope you liked Ireland.

  5. 5

    Christina — November 10, 2013 @ 7:32 pm

    Great post! Kermes has always been my favorite because it is dried up bugs 🙂 I’m always amazed by the “pigment map”. Here we think spices, silks and furs were the hot commodity – nope, it was the minerals!

  6. 6

    Jenna — November 12, 2013 @ 3:37 pm

    That Chi Rho page has always been a favorite image of mine. I did a paper on the Book of Kells for my Medieval Art History class, but I don’t think I ever knew about how the colors were made. Beautiful stuff.

    • ehalvey replied: — November 12th, 2013 @ 4:55 pm

      I took a whole class devoted to the Book of Kells, and the professor never really covered pigments. His things were vellum and handwriting.

      The Chi Rho with the tiny mice and cats is always a favorite.

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