Will We Run Out of Pigment?

Over the past century, the number of artist’s pigments has exploded due to the invention of new synthetic colorants, but the history of art also includes many examples of pigments that have fallen nearly or completely out of use. In fact, products in many categories have become unavailable over time. Drafting linen, cellulose acetate film and Congo copal resin are just a few examples from the past century, and there are many more.

When pigments become unavailable or fall out of common use, it's usually a permanent situation, because of the necessary scale of production, suitability for permanent art, physical scarcity, proprietary rights (patent protection) and other factors that stand in the way of return to availability. Sooner or later another important and widely used pigment will go away forever, and it looks like the next will be Alizarin Crimson.

There are a number of reasons why pigments are “retired” or go extinct. Some pigments are dug from the earth, and they become completely unavailable if the material runs out, or the remaining supply is too impure or costly to extract. That’s just what happened to Cappagh Brown, Caledonian Brown, and some other historical umbers and ochres when mining operations shut down and the mines were abandoned. When an ochre mine in Burgundy, France shut down in the early 20th century, Pierre-François Leleu, a former worker at the site, took up residence in the cave entrance to the defunct mine, gaining notoriety as an eccentric hermit.

Image (left): Pierre-François Leleu in cave entrance to defunct ochre mine in Burgundy, France

When manufacturers adopt new practices that produce similar, better hues more efficiently, established colors like Green Verditer and the original Cremnitz White can become obsolete. Synthetic iron oxides have already replaced some natural earth colors that have become increasingly less consistent in color from batch to batch. Artists sometimes push old products into retirement when they migrate to something better, like when Freeman’s White and fish-based Gallstone fell out of favor and faded away.

Today pigments often disappear because the single manufacturer who makes them ceases production. Not many are made exclusively for art materials. Most can also be used in other paints and plastics, making them more profitable.

One that’s being retired right now is Alizarin Crimson. The sad news is that original Alizarin, the synthesized version of historical Madder, is one of the last widely used colors directly descended from ancient plant dyes. The good news is we’ve already had replacements for years. introduced to address concerns about lightfastness. Alizarin replacements look fantastic, with much better tinting power and permanence.

When production of a key pigment ends, it can seem like the end of an era. Luckily, there are plenty of alternatives to choose from, so when we lose one, there are many more lined up to take its place on your palette!

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