The History of Pigment

Long ago, someone posted a question on Usenet about the history of pigments. It turned out they were searching the internet for a term paper to copy. So I whipped one together, the most preposterous mangled history I could think up. I posted it and actually got an offer out of the blue to publish the satire in some obscure art magazine, but I declined. I lost the text for years, it was written before the days of and Google, I could never find it in Usenet archives, but I ran across it today, quite by surprise. So here it is.

The History of Pigment

The first pigments are commonly thought to have been used at the time of paleolithic man, in cave paintings, however, scientific evidence indicates that pigments first appeared during the early development of the planet. As the earth’s molten surface cooled, minerals condensed and formed colorful pools of pigment. As meteorites impacted the surface, these pools were flung across the surface of the earth in bright patterns remeniscent of modern splatter paintings. Unfortunately, due to the effects of rain and erosion, these bright paintings can no longer be seen, however, evidence of these pigments can still be seen today on the surface of the moon, in its pattern of cratering. Unfortunately, due to the lack of oxygen on the surface of the moon, only white and black pigments are visible. The colors found in such abundance on earth, such as chromium oxide (green), iron oxide (reds) and other oxygen compounds are notably missing. However, scientists have been unable to explain the appearance of titanium oxide (white) in such abundance on the lunar surface. Apollo astronauts returned with samples of this paint, however the analysis has been inconclusive due to the lunar pigments milleniums of bombardment with cosmic rays.

Let us move forward, past the dawn of life, when the protoplasmic life in the primordial ooze, rich with pigments, gave birth to the first paintbrushes–the cillia of these single-celled creatures (see my prior essay on the origin of the paintbrush). The final event in the paleolithic era was the cataclysmic impact of a meteor, causing widespread pollution due to the immense release of airborne particles of toxic pigments such as vanadium, cadmium, and chromium. This resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs, the surviving mammals, such as Man, showed his adaptability to working in toxic environments, such as painting studios. Thus, it could be said that Mankind ‘s development as a species was modified by the existence of pigments, and the ecological niche he now occupies was opened by his high tolerance for these toxic pigments.

Let us zoom past the ice age, when aqueous pigments were impossible to use, and move forward to later geological eras, when oil started bubbling from oozing tar pits. The discovery of these highly persistent pigments led to further experimentation, which, alas, led to the deaths of many of this race of budding artists, both through the exposure to the harmful vapors, and from falling into the tar pits. Once again, evolution of the human species is adapted to the use of these toxic chemicals. However, use of these oil based tars as pigments gradually ceased, as it only came in one color, black. It would take centuries of human history to invent oil refining, and chemical pigments. But more about that later.

As man became more adapted to the niche of artist and pigment-user, he multiplied and spread throughout the earth, mining and manufacturing pigments for local artists. Early trade routes between far-flung civilizations were common, and pigments became the currency of exchange for these traders. Unfortunately, it was difficult to transport these dry pigments through long travels, as they tended to blow away in the slightest winds. The quest for suitable packages for these pigments ensued. Early attempts at storing these pigments in pig bladders were only partially successful, due to the scarcity of domesticated livestock in these primitive civilizations, and also the pigs didn’t like to stand still long enough to have the pigments deposited. It would take several thousands of years, for the development of agricultural civilizations, for the discovery of the Gourd’s usefulness in pigment storage. For many years, development of primitive packaging ceased, it seemed that the invention of more useful storage devices like the tin tube would have to wait. However, trade flourished, with the new boom in the economy, traders discovered that by storing their pigments in gourds, they now arrived with almost 95% of their original pigments, rather than about 1% in prior eras. The wealth from the trade in pigments caused the rise in the early Nation-States, and political upheaval, war, and the evils of slavery wracked the continents. But let us not dwell on these evil events, as every schoolchild knows about the biblical accounts of Pharoh and the enslaved races working in his pigment factories, and their quest to escape from bondage with the secrets of pigment manufacturing, and their 10 secret formulas written on stone tablets (manufacturing ‘commandments’).

As civilization arose from its turbulent formative era, pigment development stalled completely. It seemed that all the chemical pigments had been discovered, and extensively mined. The sources of biological pigments (such as the rich purple that comes from certain species of beetles) caused the extinction of many plants and lower creatures. It is only a wonder that nobody discovered the human body is a rich source of red pigment! However, no serious breakthroughs would come about until early in the 19th century, when German chemists developed anniline dyes, and the color spectrum exploded! The voracious appetite for german pigments eventually lead to the expansionist Nazi policies of annexing nearby territories rich in coal and oil (for anniline dyes were made from these materials). However, these dyes went largely into the immediate production of textiles, as the secret of storing pigments in tin tubes had eluded these German scientists. It was only when german scientists visited the kitchens of the great pastry chefs in Paris, and noticed how they decorated pastry with squeeze tubes, that the Fuhrer decided upon his great gamble: France and its technologies must be captured! The Maginot Line (drawn with great pipes of white pigment, like cake decorations) must be crossed! And so, the greatest conflict in the history of man began, the quest to subjugate a continent, and to unite the largest producer of pigments with the only country that knew the secret of how to neatly package squishy goo.

Once France has been subjugated, the secret of tin tubes was at the disposal of the Nazis. Previously, it had been only known to chefs, and was a rather obscure invention, used only to hold foodstuffs like anchovy paste. But now, with its newly obtained technologies, Germany was unstoppable. Its manufacturing conglomerates employed millions of forced laborers, producing these tubes of pigments in uncountable numbers, but at what price? The holocaust killed millions of these forced laborers, including most of the artist and intellectuals who were most likely to use these chemical pigments. Most of the artists who had not been imprisoned in work camps had already fled germany, and moved to America.

In 1939, Albert Eisenstadt wrote the infamous letter to President Roosevelt, warning him of the strategic importance of Germany’s secret research in oil paints, and urged that the US begin an emergency program to develop a comparable technology. The Manhattan Project was begun. In lofts throughout Manhattan, expatriate artists from all over europe collaborated with American painters, establishing completely new methods of using paint, and completely new methods of fabrication. Most notably, the contribution from the New York “Ash Can” school of painters (named after their method of storing bulk pigments in large ‘ash cans’, lacking tin tubes for storage lead to the mass production of pigments in quantities the Nazis could not compete with. America’s soldiers flooded europe with their brightly camouflaged tanks and colorfully ribboned uniforms (it was not mere coincidence that the most precious pigments were reserved for ‘Purple Heart’ medals).. Eventually, faced with overwhelming superiority, the Nazi war engine ground to a halt. Throughout Germany, both Russian and American recovery teams scoured through the wreckage of the Nazi industrial empire for pigment chemists, and manufacturing equipment to be siezed as war reparations. These teams managed to recover the largest cache of paintings ever assembled (for the Nazis were voracious collectors of oil paintings), as well as teams of German scientists developing the secret ‘V-2″ Strategic Pigment Delivery systems. But let us not belabor the point, every schoolchild knows the history of these German pigment scientists, and their chief, Werner von Grumbacher.

5 thoughts on “The History of Pigment”

  1. I am a 11 year old doing a project on stone age art.It is usefull info. but too long.
    You should make a place for kids to read about this.Just only put the really important info.

  2. Let me put it very plain language: everything in that article is a lie. It is all fiction. I made it all up, to poke fun at someone who wanted to copy an essay off the internet.

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