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Paint Through the Ages

Our story begins almost 400,000 years ago in Zambia. It carries us through India, China and ancient Egypt; weaves its way through wars and plagues and royal ceremonies; inspires artistic genius; and finally lands in present day, where it lives neatly contained in seemingly benign metal cans. This is the story of paint.

Since before our collective memory, the need to adorn one’s dwellings has been as much a part of humanity as essentials like survival and love. Archaeologists have discovered 400,000-year-old pigments and paint grinding equipment in a cave near Lusaka, Zambia. This ground-breaking discovery shows that even earlier species of humans valued art and expression.

Some 40,000 years ago, more recent cave dwellers in Europe painted walls with ochre, hematite, manganese oxide and charcoal.

These early painters even developed an airbrush technique; by blowing paint through hollow bones, they were able to achieve a finely grained distribution of pigment.

In ancient Egypt, color was highly regarded. From color-targeted healing rooms and artwork to body painting and tombs, the early Egyptians made full use of the colors available at the time: green malachite, red ochre, chalk white, charcoal black, yellow ochre and Egyptian blue (made from iron, copper oxide, silica and calcium).

Around 1600 B.C., paint-making was an art that became widely established in Crete and Greece. Phoenicia (which means “land of the purple” in Greek) was the center of the ancient purple dye industry, where “Tyrian Purple” was widely made. In Rome, a similar purple produced from the mucous of marine mollusks, required crushing four million of the creatures to yield just one pound of dye. Due to its great expense, this purple quickly became associated with royalty.

Fast-forward a few thousand years to 1519, when Conquistador Hernando Cortez invaded Mexico. His mission was to defeat the Aztecs and take their gold, but while he was there he discovered something that was just as valuable: carmine red. Produced from the female cochineal insect, it was more vivid and brilliant than any other European red. By 1600, cochineal was second only to gold as the most valuable import from Mexico.

During the artistic boom of the Renaissance, vibrant, lasting colors were a high priority. The 17TH century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer often made lavish use of lapis lazuli, along with carmine and Indian yellow. Around the same time, the price of white lead paints was reduced due to the manufacturing innovation of the Stack Process, and the colors Vermillion and King’s Yellow were developed. Over the next few hundred years, as the demand for paint grew, pigment-makers continued to deliver richer, more versatile colors like Scheele’s Green, water-resistant Chrome Yellow and Cerulean.

With the industrial revolution came even more advances. The first real synthetic dye, “Mauveine,” was created by Henry Perkins in 1856. Shortly thereafter, the proliferation of linseed oil production made it economically viable for companies to manufacture paint on a larger scale. By 1880, ready-made paints in tins were exported all over the world.

In the last century, paint has become an integral part of our self-expression. With every hue under the sun now available, there is no color left unturned in our collective design palette. Consumer demand has shifted from the conquest of pigment to an examination of paint ingredients. In 1978, due to concerns over toxicity, lead was banned from paint production. Since then, companies continue to develop safer, more natural paints that perform as well as, or better than, their predecessors.
Based on paint’s colorful history, from caves to high rises — the only question left is, what will we paint next?

For a more in-depth look at paint, watch Modern Marvels: Paint by The History Channel.