Earth's Natural Palette (part 1)

mineral samples

Whether it's the ochre of a prehistoric cave painting, the bright green on an Egyptian tomb wall or the vivid blue of a Renaissance masterpiece, many colours used by mankind to brighten its world have come from minerals and rocks which naturally occur on our planet. For thousands of years colour has been sourced from all sorts of strange natural places: from ground up minerals to crushed insects, powdered plant roots to cow's urine.

Pigments are powdered colour, and paints are made from them by mixing the pigment with liquid. Rocks and minerals have offered mankind a whole range of colours with which to make pigments, and we have used them for thousands of years to colour our homes, our belongings and even ourselves. It wasn't until the 18th century that artificially produced pigments largely replaced natural mineral sources for colour.

The First Palette

The earliest known artworks were created by our Palaeolithic ancestors using a mixture of charcoal, chalk and coloured earth. From the embers of their fires came the first drawing material to be used by man, in the form of charcoal. This prehistoric drawing tool was used as early as 30,000 years ago in cave paintings. The earliest white pigment was chalk, which was also widely available to use. Both these natural drawing materials continue in use today.

Ochre was the first colour paint to be used and is still used today. Ochre is iron oxide in earthy form, and the clay earth it forms occurs in many hues of mainly red, yellow and brown colours. Ancient peoples ground it into powder and formed paint by mixing it with spit or animal fat. They painted their shelters and themselves with it. Today it is mined, ground and washed to produce a similar palette of earth-coloured pigments to those used by our Ice Age ancestors.


Hematite and cinnabar are minerals which have been used as red pigments for centuries. Hematite is iron oxide in mineral form and is often a reddish-brown colour. It is sometimes an ingredient in red make-up powder we use today. The name hematite is derived from the Greek word for blood, and is descriptive of the colour it produces in powdered form.

Cinnabar is scarlet-red colour, and it occurs naturally around volcanoes and hot springs. The Romans used raw cinnabar, painting their walls and their statues with it, and even using it on their lips as red lipstick. This must have been damaging to their health, because cinnabar contains the toxic element mercury. Early miners of cinnabar did not survive long in the mines from exposure to this toxic heavy metal. Cinnabar is the source of natural Vermilion paint, a vivid reddish-orange paint which came into widespread use in the middle ages and featured on many 13th century paintings. Vermilion was later synthetically produced from mixing mercury with sulphur.

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