About Pigments

Pigments on display


  • Mineral-laden earths are the world’s oldest known art materials, first used on cave walls and rocks around 400,000 years ago.
  • Medieval and Renaissance artists used many of these colors, but not always by the name we know.
  • There was, and still is, a confusion of names from country to country. and over the years. If in doubt, look it up online or ask us.


  • Umber, burnt umber, sienna, burnt sienna, sinopia, caput mortuum, goethite, iron oxide, iron(III) oxide, ochre, Venetian red, and several other named colors are shades of iron oxide.
  • Earth colors are not consistent, even from the same mine, so each order of the same color may be a slightly different shade.
  • Differences in color is due to how hydrated the earth was when the colorant affected it, or if the earth was heated, or how light is diffracted through the particle size of the oxide.
  • These strong, non-toxic, permanent pigments are compatible with most mediums.


  • These two words as well as “mineral colors” and sometimes “oxides” can mean that two or more colors were combined to enhance the original color or to create a third color.
  • This practice has historic precedence; Cennini noted that some natural colors need artificial help.
  • “Earth oxide” is a modern merchandising term for mineral-colored earths/clays that may or may not be mixed or enhanced for more vibrant colors.


  • Through the ages, fish scales, mica, ground glass and pearls, bronze, and later, even pearlescent plastics have been added for more beauty.
  • Metallic pigments are usually modern bronze powders. They can turn green on parchment, vellum  and paper.
  • Ancient Earth Pigments’ mica powder does not tarnish and comes in several metallic colors.


  • Dye extracts are natural dyes, boiled with alum,  then dried into concentrated powders.
  • A little goes a long way. We use our ‘tiny spoons’ to measure out extracts to mix into paint.
  • They can be used for immersion dyeing as well as for pigments, or for hand-painting fabric.
  • Dyes are more fugitive than earth oxides but with care, they can last a long time.
  • We are working on getting dye extracts to offer on this website.


  • Alum, copper, iron, and tannin are mordants that help fix dye color into fiber; they can also create color changes.
  • Alum is used in ink-making and with pigments to create clothlets (portable color).
  • Copper will “drab” a pigment color, while iron and tannin will darken the pigment, so you have a wider range of shades with the same color.


  • This is the ‘ground’ on which you paint, which will have a great deal to do with the finished results.
  • Paper is the usual ground for watercolors, but parchment/vellum or even canvas has been used.
  • Acid-free 90# to 140# hot press Bristol vellum paper (not tracing paper) is best; cold press has less sizing and colors may bleed.
  • Parchment (sheep skin) or vellum (calf skin) is more expensive than paper, but really nice to work with.
  • Some parchment merchants sell scraps by the pound to practice on. If you have no need for that much parchment, share with friends or ask the vendor is you can buy less.
  • Canvas is a matter of personal choice; talk to a knowledgeable art supplier to get information.


  • Load: The colorant to be mixed into paint — dry or wet earth pigment, dye extracts, etc.
  • Binder / Medium: Liquid used to mix dry pigment into paint — egg yolk, egg white, gums, milk, hide glue,waxes, hide glue, commercial fabric-paint extender, soy milk (a Japanese technique of unknown age) or historical binder: animal fat and blood, bone marrow, gummy plants, fish eggs, saliva, etc.
  • Dispersant: Increases suspension of the mixed paint — honey, glycerin, etc.
  • Ground / Support: Paper, vellum, canvas, wood, etc. — whatever you choose.


  • Dealing with Darkness: Dark colors will overwhelm light colors if they mixed 50:50 (half and half). Use 25% (or less) dark color such as bright blue or dark brown with 75% (or more) light color such as yellow or light red. Add dark color by pinches to carefully get the desired color.
  • Mixing a Beautiful Black: Mix burnt sienna with dark blue; the result is a rich black that enhances shading and makes backgrounds and night skies look more appealing.
  • Making Pastel Colors: Add any white (chalk, clay, etc.) to mix colored earth into a pastel shade. Use a paler version of the same color for a livelier pastel; such as adding French green to a darker green.
  • Darkening Colors: Add just a tiny bit of black to darken colored earth. Use a darker version of the same color for a more lively hue; such as adding hematite red to a lighter red or orange.


  • Though the ideal is to have that fabulous set of high-end brushes, most of us can’t afford them , at least just as you are starting out. Add expensive brushes when they are on sale.
  • Start with  Michael’s 20 brushes in black roll-up. They have synthetic bristles, but are good as long as they hold a point. Then toss them or use them for other things than fine art.
  • Never use brushes to mix paint, or leave them in egg or paint, or stand them bristle-down in water.
  • Clean immediately after use in brush-cleaner or non-grit soap: wet brush, work soap into brush with fingers to loosen dry paint, rinse. Repeat as needed; this could take repeated tries.
  • To reshape or preserve brushes, leave lather on, shape bristles, and dry on a towel.
  • Don’t dry brushes with bristles up or water will run into the ferrule and ruin the brush.
  • Keep brushes separate from others; earth can  wear down brushes faster than commercial paints.


  • Always sign your work and photograph it, even beginning efforts. It will help to see your progress.


  • We are always asked if our products are poisonous and the answer is a qualified “no.”
  • We don’t sell known toxic colors such as realgar or orpiment (arsenic), cerruse (white lead), minium (red lead), etc.
  • However, any kind powder is dangerous if inhaled, so  wear a dust mask and eye protection, and wash hands after handling pigments.
  • Before opening any container, briskly tap the top of the lid to settle the powder back into the container.
  • If you have an adverse reaction to a product or ingredient, please stop using the product and seek medical attention.
  • Return the product to Ancient Earth Pigment for a refund or an exchange for another product.


  • Avoid off-brands or student grade paints; they usually have extra fillers that dilute the color.
  • While a majority of colors listed in our catalog fit within the historic period of most re-enactments, some are modern, and are so noted.
  • Modern manufactured pigments are often called by historic names, even when the color no longer resembles the original.
  • Color experts try to have manufactured color designated as a “hue”, but not all manufacturers bother with this distinction. The word is also confusing to those who use “hue” to designate color.


  • It takes almost as much time to measure, fill and label a 5 gram container as it does to fill and label a 2 ounce container. This should explain our pricing for the smaller containers.


  • Once packaged, complete with filled plastic container, added tutorial, in a box or padded envelope, individual 5 gram containers weigh 2 oz.


  • Ancient Earth Pigments (AEP) provides online information as a service to our customers.
  • AEP makes no warranties, expressed or implied, regarding the adequacy, accuracy, or suitability of information on our website.
  • We cannot control how this information may be used, so AEP takes no responsibility for results from use of the information provided.
  • AEP will replace any product that is defective or unsuitable for the purpose for which we stated.
  • It is the responsibility of consumers to use AEP products in safe and responsible way and to conduct their own compatibility testing.


  • None of the products offered in our online store are acceptable for cosmetic use.
  • Colorful ochers and other natural earths can be, and have been, used in soap manufacture.
  • However, it is up to the customer to perform any testing of their final product.