How Artist Paint Pigments Are Mined

by Lissabeth Ross
The earliest artists had only a small palette of colors to choose from.

The earliest artists had only a small palette of colors to choose from. Images

The colors of paint available to artists are closely tied to the history of civilization. Early artists had a small range of colors crafted from simple earth matter. As technology developed, pigments could be mined from more minerals, giving artists a greater range of colors. Artificial lead-based paints began to become available during the height of Ancient Greek civilization, while the Renaissance saw the introduction of oil paint and an expansion of color choices. The Industrial Revolution ushered in the next big change with a host of new chemically derived pigments.


Some of the earliest paints were water-based paints derived from organic materials, but both the pigments used and their water-based nature meant they could not withstand the test of time. In addition to paintings, such colors were also used for body ornamentation or for coloring textiles. Such pigments were derived from plant sources, crushed insects or various animal secretions. Rather than being mined, these pigments were harvested or collected from their sources. While many color names refer back to these original pigments, today's watercolor paints are produced synthetically.

Oil Paint

Oil paint is formed by mixing a pigment with a binder. In most oil paints, linseed oil is used as the binder. The pigments are derived from a variety of sources. Depending on the color, the ore can be mined by hand or machine, many times in an open-pit mine. The extracted minerals are then ground down to create a pigment. Some examples of mined pigments include iron oxide, which is mined to make red ochre, and glauconite and celadonite, which are mined to created green earth pigment. Historically, all oil paint pigments came from natural sources, but today many oil paint pigments are produced synthetically to mimic natural pigments.

Industrial Paint

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was a great demand for paint for industrial buildings and structures. Many large- and small-scale paint mines existed to fill this need. Paint mines could be located in any area where mineral deposits were uniquely suited to being used as a paint pigment. Most were open-pit mines as opposed to underground mines. A now-abandoned paint mine in Wyoming was the source for the original paint that colored the Brooklyn Bridge. The barn red paint color came from hematite ore. Hundreds of tons of ore were extracted from the mine each year. The development of synthetic colors put an end to many paint mining operations.

Create Your Own Paint

Anyone can create her own pigment by first grinding an ore or mineral sample into a fine powder. Found or collected rocks as well as rocks purchased from hobby or supply shops can be used to create pigment. The powder can then be mixed with linseed oil to be used as an oil paint or mixed with egg yolk to form a tempera paint. Caution should be exercised in creating paint in this method, as some minerals can be hazardous if improperly handled. Some minerals you can work with safely include graphite, cinnabar and azurite.

About the Author

Lissabeth Ross began her career in journalism in 2005 as a staff writer for the "Journal of the Pocono Plateau." In addition to writing for several different newspapers, she served as the editor of the travel publication "News of The Poconos." She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Rutgers University.

Photo Credits

  • Images