So how did ancient people make paint? It is a good question to ask, primarily because when you look at ancient artwork, either in books or online, little to nothing is said about how the
paint was actually made. What we will see is that while the ingredients for paint were made up of natural material, it took some effort and technology to actually make it into a useable
Let’s first discuss a piece of very fairly new news that is directly
related to paint. In 2002 Prof. Christopher Henshilwood, reported the amazing discovery of the earliest known artwork. Prof. Henshilwood discovered many artifacts in the Blombos Cave, in South Africa. These remains included beads as well as many pieces of ochre, which is a type of rock that is reddish in color. Many of
these rocks were found smooth, as if they had been scraped or sanded. It was thought in 2002 that the scrapings of this red ochre would then be used to paint objects or even the human body. The material dates to a stunning 70,000 to 75,000 years old and are now the oldest known use of art.
As I mentioned, this material was reported in 2002. Prof. Henshilwood, now at the University of Bergen in Norway reported in 2011 that not only have they found ochre in the Blombos Cave, they have discovered what he refers to as a toolkit. This toolkit consisted of a stone that was used to smooth the piece of ochre, which would have produced a red powder. He reports that ochre red paint was created by taking ocher chips, which were then heated and crushed
animal bone that acted as a binder, plus charcoal fragments, quartz grains and an unknown liquid.
Also part of this tool kit were stone tools and an animal bone that was shaped with a spatula on the end. It is believed that this these tools were used to stir the ochre paint and then probably used to put the resulting paint on the body. Again this is from around 70,000 years ago.
Now let’s move forward to a little more recent ancient history, the time of the Egyptians and even though there is a difference of
around 67,000 years, it turns out that when the Egyptians made red paint, they too were using ochre, just like those who lived in South Africa. A researcher named Richard Newman looked at red paint on the sarcophagus of Pharaoh Thutmose I and his daughter Hatshepsut from the 18th Dynasty, which dates from the late 1500s BC. For those not familiar with Egyptian history, Hatshepsut was one of the rare queens who took the title of Pharaoh. Her statues also showed
her wearing a beard or in a few cases, represented as a male sphinx.
Although this is interesting, it is slightly off topic. The red paint that we are referring to here was a residue of paint found
in the recesses of the carved hieroglyphs or in a thin wash over the sarcophagus itself. Newman, in 1993, did a chemical analysis of this paint and it contained, as I said above, red earth or ochre, the same material that was used before in South Africa. Also found in the paint was something called Kaolinite, which is, as Newman points out, a clay mineral. Quartz was found in the paint, and it appears that it was all bound together by a plant gum. It isn’t clear what kind of gum it might be, but it is possible that something like honey or some type of plant juice was added to the ochre, kaolinite and quartz to hold it all together and to make it sticky enough to bond to the surface.
According to Vincent Daniels, the Egyptians used some different techniques to make paint. His evidence dates from between around 1100BC (20th Dyn) down to the 600s bc, or the 26th Dynasty and he mostly focuses on the color green. The green color during this period is formed by putting beeswax in a copper container.
The two had to sit at a fairly high temperature of around 110 Celcius, or 230 degrees farenheit overnight. Daniels suggests that the Egyptians left these copper containers near a kiln or an oven, which would have provided this kind of temperature. We don’t need to go into the chemical analyses of this paint, and although the article is excellent for this, what is happening is that the copper is interacting with the fatty acids in the beeswax. He also leaves open the possibility that the Egyptians mixed a copper-containing pigment with beeswax to produce the same result. Regardless, the outcome is green paint that was then painted on various objects like figurines and even mummy cases.
Egyptian blue: In another excellent article on Egyptian paint, Daniels (who is, by the way, the same Daniels who we just discussed on the creation of green paint), Stacey and Middleton, examine a paint called Egyptian Blue. It is one of the earlier created paints. It was made by combining sand, calcium which was taken from limestone, copper, and according to Daniels, a small amount of alkali. The
mixture then had to be heated to between 850-1000 degrees celcius or 1562 to 1832 degrees farenheit in a 2 stage process. Once it is created, it turns out that it is almost transparent when applied to various materials, so a darker paint had to be applied to the background. Depending on the firing process, this blue can appear anywhere from a dark blue color to nearly white.
I thought I would read a sentence or two from an ancient author, quoted in the Daniels article on page 217 and 218. It was written by Theophrastus, a Greek who lived from 371-287 BC on the island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea. Theophrastus states in his book title On Stones:
“Those who grind coloring materials say that kyanos itself makes four colors; the first is formed of the finest particles and is very pale, and the second consists of the largest ones and is very dark.”
The Greek word Kyanos is where we get the word cyan, which is in the color range of blue to green. This Egyptian Blue was used on everything from stone statuary to papyri.
We also see the use of Egyptian Blue outside of Egypt. In particular, it has been found in Persia on some stone statues that come from Persepolis, the ancient capital of the Persian empire. Excavators have found this paint on statues and in clumps of paint in bowls, which were used as containers for the painters. What I should state is that although it is called Egyptian Blue, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it was produced in Egypt. In fact, scientists who were studying the material from Persepolis found that the mix of ingredients was a bit different from the usual mix found in Egypt, with the possible addition of a different type of alkali. However, the cooking temperatures were nearly the same—around 850-900 degrees Celcus in an oxidizing atmosphere. Other paint samples were studied which
included the color red, created by either hematite, found in reddish colored soils, or cinnabar, which is an ore of mercury. Theophrastus, the Greek mentioned above, also mentions this in his book. Cinnabar was not used in Egypt. Sometimes both hematite and cinnarbar
were used, and in this case, hematite was applied first to an object, and then covered with cinnabar.
We also have a primary text from the Roman Empire that describes the making of paint. A man named Vitruvius, who was born between 80–70 BC, died after c. 15 BC, wrote a book titled On Architecture.
Book 7, Chapter 7 and 8. He mentions in Book 7.7.2 that red ochre is found in a few places, Sinope in northern Turkey, in Egypt, on the Balearic Islands in Spain, and the Greek island of Lemnos in the northern Aegean.
(7.7.2. “Red ochre is also found in many places, but the best only in a few, as at Sinope, in Pontus; in Egypt; in the Balearic Islands, near the coast of Spain; also in Lemnos, the revenue of which island the senate and people of Rome granted to the Athenians.”)
He also discusses the creation of the color vermilion, which is a color between orange and yellow. According to Vetruvius, a piece of earth is selected called Athrax which has a red color. It is beaten with iron bars and then baked in an oven. These clods are then dried and again beaten with iron bars. The powder that results can be added to plaster which keeps it from fading.
Vetruvius then goes into some detail on how to protect the color from being damaged by light. In particular, he states it should be rubbed with a mix of melted wax and oil. The wax should then be melted again, put on a wall, and then the wall should be smoothed with a hot pan which fixes the color. Finally, he talks about creating the color blue in 7.11.1 He states that it is made by mixing sand, the flowers of sulfur, copper filings. The mix should be dried and then baked in an earthen vessel.
Why don’t we stop here. While I only covered paint from Egypt,
Greece, Rome, and Persia, there are obviously many other places in the world that use paint. Maybe we’ll save those areas for another podcast. Anyway, we have seen that making paint was not as easy as just digging out a colored stone and rubbing it on an object. It took quite a bit of effort to create it. And if you want to see the
sources I used in putting together this podcast together, go to www.digitalancienthistory.com under the podcast tab and I will list them there.