5 Famous Paint Colors First Made From Mummies, Insects, and Ancient Rocks

Where does pigment come from? Some colors like mummy brown actually came from ground-up mummies. Learn more about these ancient pigments and their origins.

By Elizabeth Gamillo
Nov 30, 2023 7:00 PMNov 30, 2023 7:36 PM
Pigments made form minerals
(Credit: Rosa Frei/Shutterstock)

Newsletter

Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news
 

Art is one of the defining characteristics of the human species because nearly all cultures practice it worldwide. From early humans adorning cave walls or painting the body, humans' appreciation of color goes way back. 

Iconic paintings like Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, are renowned for their use of color and details. But how were these color pigments made? Some of the world's most iconic brushstrokes and sought-after pigments were made with surprising ingredients, including ancient ground bodies and ground insects. Here is the history behind these pigments.

1. The Cochineal Beetle and Carmine

(Image: Newberry Library, Butler, R.L. Check list of the mss. in the Ayer Coll., 1031 Galarza, J. Prelim. checklist of the Mex. mss., 1031 - Credit: Alzate y Ramírez, J. A. de, Bucareli y Ursúa, A. M., & Charles III. (1777). Memoria sobre la naturaleza, cultivo, y beneficio de la grana)

What Color Is Carmine?

A rich crimson pigment used today in cosmetics, clothing, and food dye dates back thousands of years to Mesoamerica. Indigenous people discovered the pigment after noticing that an insect on a prickly pear cactus produced a red stain when crushed.

What Is Carmine Made From?

The insect known as cochineal (Dactylopius coccus) is oval-shaped. The scarlet color comes from cochinealin or carminic acid from female cochineals, and it takes about 70,000 bugs to make one pound of carmine dye. The bugs can create a variety of brilliant red shades, from the softest red to a deep burgundy.

What Was Carmine Used For?

The ancient people of Mexico and Central America used the dye for baskets, medicines, feathers, and pottery; they used it on their skin, teeth, and the walls of their homes, according to Amy Butler Greenfield for The Getty Foundation.

(Credit: Lalabel_Poster/Shutterstock)

Once the Spanish conquistadors brought the bug carcasses to Europe from Mexico, royalty and artists highly sought the dye for its ability to produce the perfect red shades for textiles. Royal robes and British officer uniforms sported vibrant colors and later were used in artworks like Rembrandt Harmensz's The Jewish Bride and Anthony van Dyck's Charity, according to The Getty Foundation.


Read More: 5 Important Artifacts From Ancient Maya Civilization


2. Egyptian Blue

(Credit: Kokhanchikov/Shutterstock)

What Is the Oldest Paint In the World?

The world's oldest synthetic paint is over 5,000 years old and comes from Egypt. Known as 'Egyptian blue,' the color adorns ancient mummy masks, tomb walls, and sculptures.

How Do You Make Egyptian Blue?

Ancient Egyptians made the deep and bright blue color with sand, sodium carbonate, or ash and mixed it with copper minerals or pieces of bronze. Then, the mixture was heated in a furnace to 1562 to 1832 degrees Fahrenheit. The pigment came out as a block and was ground into a fine powder when finished. The Romans traded Egyptian blue around the Roman Empire and favored it as a cheaper alternative to indigo.

What Was Egyptian Blue Used For?

The blue pigment has been used since 3100 B.C. The color appears in art from Ancient Greece, Rome, and India. Egyptian blue was also found in Renaissance works of art, according to ColourLex.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Egyptian blue no longer widely was used as a pigment. However, when placed under infrared, Egyptian blue glows. So, today, Egyptian blue powder is used as a powder for detecting fingerprints, according to the University of Michigan.

3. Mummy Brown 

(Credit: Harvard Art Museums/Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Forbes Pigment Collection) Citation: Mummy, manufactured by Charles Roberson and Co., Harvard Art Museums/Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Forbes Pigment Collection, Photo ©President and Fellows of Harvard College, Straus.17

What Is Mummy Brown?

Popular among artists in the 16th century, 'mummy brown' was praised for its translucent hue. According to Florida State University, the pigment was perfect for painting elusive shadows, mixing flesh tones with oil and watercolor-based works of art, and adding a fresh glaze to a finished painting.

("A nomenclature of colors for naturalists: and compendium of useful knowledge for ornithologists" By Ridgway, Robert, 1886. Credit:Archive.org/Courtesy of Smithsonian Libraries)

What Is Mummy Brown Made From?

The special ingredient that gave mummy brown its nutty sepia-like color (and its name) was made from ground-up corpses of mummies of both humans and cats. The use of mummies for paint most likely stemmed from Europe's mummy trade, which sold the bodies as medicine, according to Allison Meier for JSTOR Daily.

While sellers of the pigment did little to hide the fact that it was made from exhumed bodies, some artists were uneasy with their paint's origins. According to JSTOR Daily, when Edward Burne-Jones found out how mummy brown was made, he buried the paint tube.

This painting by Edward Burne-Jones is thought to have used 'Mummy Brown' (Credit: The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon by Edward Burne-Jones, Public Domain)

What Paintings Were Created With Mummy Brown Paint?

While it is unknown what paintings were rendered with the pigment, there are records that artists Eugene Delacroix, Sir William Beechly, and Burne-Jones purchased the paint, according to Florida State University.

It is challenging to know which paintings contain the mummy remains because the organic material used in embalming items like wrappings, oils, plants, and resin is also present in items used by artists, according to National Geographic's Kristin Romey. By the 20th century, the paint was no longer produced because fewer mummies were available. 


Read More: How Ancient Egyptians Preserved Bodies for the Afterlife


4. Ochre 

An abstract drawing thought to be the oldest in the world at 73,000 years old. It was drawn with an ochre crayon. (Credit: Henshilwood, C.S., d’Errico, F., van Niekerk, K.L. et al. 2018, C. Foster)

What Is Ochre?

Ochre is the world's oldest color and is intertwined with the start of human history. The paint has been used for hundreds of thousands of years and adorns the walls of prehistoric sites. Since the mineral does not fade, it persists for millennia.

What Color Is Ochre?

Ochre can vary in color. According to Britannica, ochre can be a pale yellow, a deep red, gold, brown and even purple. It gets its versatile color from iron oxide. Because it is a natural clay based pigment, with iron oxide, manganese oxide, silica and other compounds the color changes depending on the concentrations of each compound in it and if it is heat treated.

For example, according to Royal Talens, the more manganese oxide there is with iron oxide, you are more likely to get a more brown-like ochre color. Ochre can turn red when the iron oxide is heated and the water evaporates inside the ochre therefore turning yellow ochre into red or brunt ochre.

How Is Ochre Made?

Ochre is made by grinding the soft rock material and mixing it with water to make the paint. Many cave paintings and art were made using ochre. Some even suspect that ochre was used as a salve on the skin to ward off insects and protect against the sun, according to Arizona State University.

When Was Ochre First Used?

The earliest evidence of the use of ochre dates to the Paleolithic era and the first recorded use of it was at a Homo erectus site called GnJh-03 in Kenya. At the site, 70 pieces of ochre totaling 11 pounds were found, according to K. Kris Hirts for ThoughtCo. The earliest tools that were used to make ochre were found at a different site called GnJh-15, also in Kenya. They were grindstones stained with ochre.

In 2018, a study published in Nature found hatch marks on a flake of silcrete made with an ochre crayon that was 73,000 years old. The drawings are considered the oldest abstract drawing and predates previously known drawings by 30,000 years. The artifact was found in the Blombos cave in South Africa. 

5. Sepia 

(Credit: Imabulary/Shutterstock)

What Is Sepia?

The brown, toned-down color sepia was made from the ink sacs of cuttlefish. The word 'sepia' is Greek for cuttlefish. Like an octopus, cuttlefish release a cloud of ink when threatened.

Why Do Sepia Shades Vary?

Because the tint comes from a natural source, shades of sepia vary based on the local diets of the cuttlefish and where the pigment was made. The hue has been in production since Ancient Rome and has graced the canvases of Leonardo da Vinci.


Read More: The Meaning of Colors

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!

Subscribe

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Join
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

 
Subscribe
To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.