Rare and Historical Oil Paint Colors

There are a number of rare, historical, oil paint colors that are not in common use today because of their production costs / methods and their health hazards. Below you’ll find some examples of these historical and rare paints…

The Paints

Made from the powdered mineral cinnabar, this mercury based red orange color is certainly not for everyday use. People died from exposure to mercury from the mining of the mineral cinnabar. Vermillion and Mummy Brown are the two oil paints that have death associated with them.

Lapis Lazuli
The mineral Lapis Lazuli has been known as a semiprecious stone for around 5000 years, initially in Mesopotamia, China and Egypt. This ultramarine was always extremely expensive and in the past was equal in value to gold. Lapis lazuli is a blue pigment used in glazing.

Egyptian Smalt
Egyptian smalt is the oldest known cobalt pigment, dating back to ancient Egypt. It is a deep blue pigment which in Europe became known principally through the Venetian glassmakers.

Malachite a naturally occurring copper pigment is perhaps the oldest green pigment and was referred to by the painter Cennini as ‘verde azzuro’. It was used primarily in tempera mediums or frescoes. It is also known by the name mountain green.

Lapis Azurite
Lapis azurite is another natural copper pigment and was the most important blue pigment used before lapis lazuli in the European renaissance paintings, primarily in tempera mediums. It is also known by the name mountain blue.

But what are we forgetting… let’s ask AI…

Rare oil paint colors often come from unique or difficult-to-source pigments, historical recipes, or manufacturing processes that limit their availability. Here are some rare or historically significant oil paint colors:

  1. Lapis Lazuli (Ultramarine): Historically, true ultramarine was made from ground lapis lazuli and was more expensive than gold. The bright blue pigment was highly prized and used sparingly.
  2. Tyrian Purple: Made from the secretions of sea snails, this ancient and costly pigment was used in classical antiquity. Its production was complex and the color was associated with royalty.
  3. Verdigris: This was the most vibrant green available until the 19th century, made by a long process involving copper plates and vinegar. Its instability and toxicity made it less popular over time.
  4. Lead-Tin Yellow: A type of yellow that was widely used in European paintings from the Middle Ages to the 1700s. Its use declined with the discovery of new yellow pigments.
  5. Mummy Brown: A pigment made from ground-up Egyptian mummies (both human and feline). It was popular until the 19th century when its production ceased due to obvious ethical reasons.
  6. Dragon’s Blood: A resin from different species of plants, used as a transparent red glazing color. Its rarity and unique color made it sought after for specific artistic effects.
  7. Genuine Indian Yellow: Originally made from the urine of cows fed only on mango leaves, this bright yellow pigment was rare and expensive. Ethical concerns and the development of synthetic alternatives have made the genuine pigment a historical curiosity.
  8. Carmine/Lac: Made from the cochineal insect, carmine produces a vivid red color. While still in use today, genuine carmine is expensive due to the labor-intensive process of production.

These colors highlight the lengths to which artists and manufacturers would go to achieve the perfect hue. While some of these pigments are still available in some form today, their original versions are rare, often due to ethical, environmental, or health concerns. Modern equivalents often aim to replicate these colors using safer and more readily available materials.

There you have it! A healthy list of historical and now rare oil paint colors!

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