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October 4, 2022

Ancient Pigments

Ancient Pigments

Ancient Pigments

Greek and Roman statues appear white today, but many of these sculptures have confirmed traces of pigments. Statues were brightly painted with rich colors thousands of years ago, proven with modern infrared technology.

Pigments in their natural state (Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece)

Pigments were used to make paints during the Greek and Roman times. Dyes and some dye-based inks are liquid, whereas pigments are not. They come from the earth's minerals.

Pigments in their natural state on display (Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece).

Minerals are collected and pulverized into fine powder by a stone. The fine particles are then held together with a binder like oil or gum arabic. However, before oil or watercolor paints were invented, beeswax bound pigments together in ancient times.

Pigments were in their natural state on display (Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece).

Lead white was also used. Created from a complex process that involved a ceramic pot with vinegar from grapes, producing acetic acid in the bottom. A metal hanging plate (usually lead or copper) was placed inside the pot and heated. This process exposed the metal to acidic vapors without any direct contact. 

Stone is used for pulverizing minerals down to finer particles on display (Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece).

After ten days, a crust would cover the metal (white on lead and green on the copper), which was removed by scraping. The scrapings were washed with water and pulverized into powder using a mortar and pestle.

Mortar and pestle break down the minerals into smaller pieces on display (Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece).

Ancient Greek pigments on display at the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece, include:

  • Azurite (Netural Blue)
  • Cinnabar (Red)
  • Conichalcite (Green)
  • Hematite (Red)
  • Hydroniumjarosite (Yellow)
  • Lapis Lazuli (Blue)
  • White from Melos Island (White)
  • Malachite (Green)
  • Ochre (Neutral Yellow)
  • Ochre from Cyprus (Neutral Yellow)

For more information on each pigment or the timeline of these pigments, visit "Pigments through the Ages."

References

  • 2018. Exhibit on pigments. The Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece
  • 2022. "Pigments Through the Ages". Retrieved from http://www.webexhibits.org/pigments/