The Pursuit of Pigment.

Berliner Blau . Saalebaer, Wikimedia.

Recently, a neural network was loaded with information, and tasked with creating new colours, and the difficult task of naming them. The result is generally considered to be an amusing failure, but I’m not so sure. As an artist, I think there’s a probable market for colours with names like Bylfgoam Glosd, Horble Gray, and Rose Hork (If a rose, or variety of roses vomited, what would it look like?). Artists tend to be an odd lot, generally speaking, and have a tendency towards being easily amused and inspired. Naming various hues is not an easy task, but it’s also reached a point of absurdity, given the sheer amount of interior decorating paints and requisite accessories. Those names are more to do with selling a decorative concept than anything else. After all, what colour, exactly, is ‘tradewind’? Or ‘spice’, a designation which gets right up my nose.

The article about the AI colour naming experiment is here.

The history of art pigments through the ages is a fascinating one, and pretty much as old as we humans are. All manner of things have been used to create pigments, with artists pursuing the holy grail of this, that, and those colours. One of the most coveted colours in days of yore was Lapis Lazuli Blue, also known as Ultramarine. It was made of ground lapis lazuli, and was much more expensive than gold in Renaissance years. You can still obtain powdered lapis lazuli pigment for painting, with prices ranging from standard to low quality at $30.00 per 10 grams, to $260.00 to $1,200 for premium and superior pigments, per 100 grams to 2 lbs.

Which brings me to Berlin Blue, a coveted colour since its accidental creation in 1704:

The artist, one Heinrich Diesbach, was a born experimenter. He spent hours in the laboratory of a Berlin chemist, trying to create a new shade of red paint. He swirled together wilder and wilder mixtures, eventually mixing dried blood, potash (potassium carbonate) and green vitriol (iron sulfate), then stewing them over an open flame. He expected the flask to yield a bloody crimson, but instead a different brilliance appeared – the deep violet-blue glow of a fading twilight. Diesbach called the vivid pigment Berlin Blue; English chemists would later rename it Prussian Blue. – The Poisoner’s Handbook, Deborah Blum.

Berlin blue is still a widely used colour, and made in the same way, using cyanide salts. It’s considered to be non-toxic because the cyanide groups are tightly bound to iron, so no, you can’t kill yourself by sucking down a tube of Berlin Blue. As for the ingredient of blood, body bits are part and parcel of art pigments. Bone black is still made from bones, and is much preferred by many artists to lamp black. If, like me, you have small animals, keep the bone black locked up, they love it. There was also the case of Mummy Brown, made from ground up bits of mummies. Did I mention that artists tend to be on the eccentric side?

The early history of art pigments is a highly poisonous one, as many poisons facilitate brilliant colours. Sometime back, Hyperallergic did a series on pigments of yore, in two articles: one, two.

Pigments Through the Ages is a great resource for exploring art pigments, many of the names being familiar to most people. While some previously highly toxic pigments have been converted to non-toxic synthesis, many of them are still made the same old way, and it’s best to not be in the habit of wetting your brush the old fashioned way, or be unmasked when mixing your own.


  1. rq says

    Rose Hork? Hurky White? Burf Pink? Positively precious! And then it gets better. I’m a bit skeptical of the odder names that make less sense in English, but as you say, artists are motley, and some may have a use somewhere… I do think Turdly wins, though.
    (Also I followed that link and then followed the link about cats and holy shit there’s a creepy one-eyed cat and it is amazing.)

  2. says

    I quite like ‘Stoomy Brown’, it has all the implications of shit brown, with a bit of flair. You can blame Kengi for the time sink problem, twas he who sent the link.

  3. Kengi says

    Next time I buy paint, I’m going to ask for a gallon each of Stanky Bean and Burble Simp. I’ve pretty sure I’ve bought (and sold) colors with sillier names in the past.

  4. chigau (違う) says

    oh you lucky lucky people
    we used to use their dirt soil color charts
    I think I recall them doing skin color

  5. says


    I think I recall them doing skin color

    There’s a ‘skin’ colour in every line of paint/pigment. It’s always for painting pale people. I have a tube of watercolour named:

    Flesh Tint / Carne / Teinte Chair / Fleischfarben. You could describe it as medium peach.

  6. chigau (違う) says

    Munsell has long been serious about scientific descriptions of colour.
    No Munsellian has ever used a word to describe a colour.
    I have only used their charts for dirt.
    5YR2/3 (that is a soil colour)

  7. Tethys says

    Munsell’s color system is used in the dental industry to signify various tooth shades. Teeth tend to lack chroma so the scale only goes up to 5. The standard shade guide uses A through D and then numbers to denote from lightest to darkest. For patients who wanted the fakest whitest teeth, we made a color called A0= white like a bathtub.


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