Pigments: A Comprehensive Guide to History, Types, and More

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  June 20, 2022
I love creating free content full of tips for my readers, you. I don't accept paid sponsorships, my opinion is my own, but if you find my recommendations helpful and you end up buying something you like through one of my links, I could earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Learn more

Pigments are coloring agents that are insoluble in water but soluble in some organic solvent. They’re usually finely ground particles added to a binder to make paint or ink. There are natural pigments and synthetic pigments.   

In this article, I’ll tell you all about them.  So, let’s get started!  Are you ready?  I’m ready too!  Let’s dive in!

What are pigments

Unleashing the Power of Pigments in Paints and Coatings

Pigments are the colorants that give paints and coatings their unique hues. They are usually insoluble particles that are finely ground and added to the paint or coating formulation to impart color, bulk, or a desired physical and chemical property to the wet or dry film. Pigments can be natural or synthetic, and they come in a wide range of colors, from earthy browns and greens to vibrant reds, blues, and yellows.

The Role of Pigments in Coloring

Pigments work by reflecting or transmitting light to create the perception of color. When light hits a pigment, some of it is absorbed while the rest is reflected or transmitted. The color we see is the result of the wavelengths of light that are reflected or transmitted by the pigment. This is why pigments are often described as possessing color properties.

The Importance of Choosing the Right Pigments

Choosing the right pigments is essential to achieving the desired color and performance properties in paints and coatings. Some factors to consider when selecting pigments include:

  • The type of paint or coating being used
  • The desired color and finish
  • The physical and chemical properties required
  • The materials being coated
  • The environmental conditions the coating will be exposed to

The Evolution of Pigments in Paint: A Colorful History

• Humans have been using pigments for over 40,000 years, as evidenced by prehistoric cave paintings.

  • The original pigments were derived from natural sources such as minerals, clays, and animal-based colorants.
  • These pigments were ground into a fine powder using primitive equipment and mixed with a binder to create paint.
  • The earliest known pigments were red and yellow ochre, burnt sienna and umber, and white chalk.

Ancient Egyptian and Indian Pigments

• The ancient Egyptians favored blue pigments, such as lapis lazuli and copper silicate.

  • Indian artists used organic dyes derived from plants and insects to create vibrant colors.
  • Lead-based pigments, such as lead white and lead-tin yellow, were also used in ancient times.

The Development of Synthetic Pigments

• In the 18th and 19th centuries, chemists discovered new ways to create synthetic pigments, such as phthalo blue and anhydrous iron oxide.

  • These pigments were easier to produce and came in a wider range of colors than their natural counterparts.
  • The use of synthetic pigments allowed for the development of new artistic styles, such as the luminous colors used by Vermeer.

The Fascinating World of Biological Pigments in Paint

Biological pigments are substances produced by living organisms that have a color resulting from selective color absorption. These pigments are found in nature and can be produced by plants, animals, and even humans. They are called biological pigments because they are produced by living organisms.

The Production of Biological Pigments

Biological pigments are produced by living organisms and are found in a range of materials, including plants, animals, and even wood. They are produced by the body and are a crucial element in the way that nature works. The production of biological pigments is related to the protein required by the body to achieve color.

Exploring the Chemistry of Pigments in Paint

Pigments are the colorful substances that give paint its hue. The chemical composition of pigments determines their color, durability, and application. Pigments can be organic or inorganic, and each type has unique properties that affect their use in paint. Here are some common pigments and their chemical compositions:

  • Inorganic pigments: These pigments are usually brighter and more durable than organic pigments. They include:

– Titanium white: This pigment is made from titanium dioxide and is commonly used in paints, cosmetics, and other products.
– Cadmium yellow: This pigment is made from cadmium sulfide and is known for its bright, warm color.
– Ultramarine blue: This pigment is made from sodium aluminum sulfosilicate and was originally created by grinding up the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli.
– Burnt sienna: This pigment is made from raw sienna that has been heated to create a darker, reddish-brown color.
– Vermilion: This pigment is made from mercuric sulfide and has been used since ancient times for its bright red color.

  • Organic pigments: These pigments are made from carbon-based molecules and are usually less durable than inorganic pigments. They include:

– Phthalo green: This pigment is made from copper phthalocyanine and is known for its bright, blue-green color.
– Hansa yellow: This pigment is made from azo compounds and is commonly used in cosmetics and other products.
– Phthalo blue: This pigment is made from copper phthalocyanine and is known for its bright, blue color.
– Rose madder: This pigment is made from the roots of the madder plant and has been used by artists for centuries.
– Chinese white: This pigment is made from zinc oxide and is commonly used in watercolor paints.

How Pigments are Used in Paint

The chemical composition of pigments determines how they are used in paint. Here are some ways that pigments are used in paint:

  • Absorb certain wavelengths of light: Pigments absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others, which creates the color that we see.
  • Create structural color: Some pigments, like ultramarine blue, create structural color by reflecting light in a specific way.
  • Differ in drying time: Some pigments, like titanium white, dry quickly, while others, like burnt sienna, take longer to dry.
  • Form a solution: Some pigments, like phthalo blue, are soluble in water and can be used in watercolor paints.
  • Create a range of colors: Pigments can be mixed together to create a range of colors, depending on the materials used and the compounds present.
  • Add color to other products: Pigments are used in a range of products, including cosmetics, textiles, and plastics.

Binding Pigments: The Key to Creating Long-Lasting Paintings

Binders are the materials that hold pigments together in paint. They are responsible for making the pigments usable and for creating the desired texture and finish of the paint. Binders are mainly made of heavy, smooth materials that can lower the tone of the paint and provide a vast range of colors.

Types of Binders

There are several types of binders that artists use in their paintings. Some of the most popular ones are:

  • Oil: This is a slow-drying binder that is suitable for creating rich, deep tones in paintings. It is a popular choice among painters today because it allows for a long working time and can be executed in several techniques.
  • Egg: This is a fast-drying binder that is suitable for creating smooth, even tones in paintings. It was a popular choice among painters in earlier times and is still used today by some artists.
  • Tempera: This is a fast-drying binder that is suitable for creating small, detailed paintings. It is a popular choice among artists who want to create paintings with a high level of detail.

Grinding Pigments with Binders

To create paint, pigments are ground with binders to create a smooth, even texture. The grinding process can affect the color and texture of the paint, so it is important to grind the pigments correctly. Some tips for grinding pigments with binders include:

  • Using natural pigments: Natural pigments are easier to grind and create a more consistent texture than synthetic pigments.
  • Using a white pigment: Adding a white pigment to the ground pigments can help to create a more usable paint.
  • Combining binders: Combining different types of binders can help to create a paint that is suitable for a specific artistic technique.

Limitations of Binders

While binders are an essential component of paint, they do present some limitations. Some of these limitations include:

  • Lead: Some binders contain lead, which can be harmful to artists who work with them. It is important to use binders that do not contain lead.
  • Drying time: The drying time of the paint can be affected by the binder used. Some binders dry faster than others, which can make it difficult to work with the paint.
  • Lakes: Some pigments are affected by the binder used, which can cause them to accelerate or retard the drying time of the paint.

Suggesting the Correct Binder for the Pigment

Choosing the correct binder for the pigment is necessary to create a paint that is suitable for the desired artistic technique. Some tips for suggesting the correct binder for the pigment include:

  • Understanding the properties of the pigment: Knowing the properties of the pigment can help to determine which binder will work best with it.
  • Testing different binders: Testing different binders with the pigment can help to determine which one will create the desired texture and finish.
  • Seeking information from direct sources: Seeking information from direct sources, such as the pigment manufacturer or a studio that specializes in the pigment, can provide valuable information on which binder to use.

Let’s Talk About Transparency and Opacity in Paint Pigments

When we talk about transparent pigments in paint, we’re referring to those that allow light to pass through them. Here are some things to know about transparent pigments:

  • Transparent pigments are often used to create glazes, which are thin layers of paint that allow the color underneath to show through.
  • Because transparent pigments allow light to pass through, they can create a luminous effect in paintings.
  • Transparent pigments tend to be less intense than opaque pigments, meaning they can be more difficult to see on their own.
  • Some common transparent pigments include phthalo blue, alizarin crimson, and quinacridone magenta.

Opacity: When Light is Blocked

On the other hand, opaque pigments block light from passing through them. Here are some things to know about opaque pigments:

  • Opaque pigments are often used to cover up mistakes or to create solid areas of color.
  • Because opaque pigments block light, they can create a more solid, matte effect in paintings.
  • Opaque pigments tend to be more intense than transparent pigments, meaning they can be easier to see on their own.
  • Some common opaque pigments include titanium white, cadmium red, and ultramarine blue.

Translucent: A Little Bit of Both

There’s also a third category of pigments to consider: translucent pigments. Translucent pigments are somewhere in between transparent and opaque, allowing some light to pass through but not all. Some common translucent pigments include raw sienna, burnt sienna, and raw umber.


So, that’s what pigments are and how they affect the color of a paint. They’re a substance added to a material to alter its color, texture, or other properties. Pigments are used in paints, coatings, and other materials. They’re used to color everything from walls to clothing to cars. So, remember to use them and enjoy a colorful life!

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Tools Doctor, content marketer, and dad. I love trying out new equipment, and together with my team I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with tools & crafting tips.