About Pigments

Pigments on display

Our pigments on display at a Medieval re-enactment event


  • 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, Venetian red and several other 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 it was mined, 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.


  • Mixed means two or more colors were combined to enhance the original color or to create a third color.

  • Enhanced means using heat or other means to “pop” the original color to make it more vibrant.

  • This practice has historic precedence; Cennini noted that some natural colors need artificial help.


  • Through the ages, fish scales, mica, ground glass and pearls, bronze, and later, even pearlescent plastics have been added to paint for more beauty.

  • Metallic pigments are usually modern bronze powders. They can eventually turn green on parchment, vellum  and paper.

  • Ancient Earth Pigments’ mica powder is made from either natural or manufactured mica. It does not tarnish and comes in several metallic colors.

  • Manufactured mica resembles natural mica but is far stronger in hue.


  • 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.


  • 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, commercial fabric-paint extender, soy milk (a Japanese technique of unknown age) or prehistoric binder: animal fat and blood, bone marrow, gummy plants, fish eggs, saliva, etc.

  • Dispersant: Increases suspension of the mixed paint and keeps the paint wetter for a longer time — honey, glycerin, etc.

  • Ground / Support:Paper, vellum, canvas, wood, etc. — whatever you choose.


  • 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 vendors sell practicer scraps by the pound. If you have no need for that much parchment, share with friends or ask the vendor if you can buy less.

  • Canvas is a matter of personal choice; talk to a knowledgeable art supplier to get information.


  • Dealing with Darkness: Dark colors overwhelm light colors if 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 black: burnt sienna + dark blue = a rich black that enhances shading and makes backgrounds and night skies look more appealing.

  • Pastel Colors: any white (chalk, clay, etc.) + colored earth = pastel shade. Use a paler version of the same color for a livelier pastel; add French green to a darker green.

  • Darkening Colors: Add a tiny bit of black to darken any color. Use a darker version of the same color for a more lively hue; add hematite red to a lighter red or orange.


  • The ideal is to have that fabulous set of high-end brushes, that most of us can’t afford, at least just starting out. Add expensive brushes when they are on sale.

  • Start with  Michael’s 20 synthetic bristle brushes in black roll-up. They 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 stir 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 to loosen dry paint, rinse. Repeat as needed; 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. And tell us!

  • Return the product to Ancient Earth Pigment for a refund or an exchange for another product.


  • 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.


  • 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 this information.

  • 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, because we cannot control how the material was handled and processed.

  • Colorful ochers and other natural earths can be, and have been, used in soap manufacture, but always test first!

  • Micas work well in soaps and candles. However, it is up to the customer to perform any testing of their final product.