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A Short Take on a Long History

A short take long story

The history of paint goes back to humankind’s prehistory. As much as 16,000 years ago, cave painters in France and Spain used colors made from hematite, manganese oxide, charcoal and berry juice for their vivid depictions of animals such as mammoths and rhinoceros. Egyptian tombs were decorated with paints made from oil or fat and lead, earth, red or yellow ocher, animal blood, and ground glass and precious stones; the six colors used—black, white, blue, red, yellow and green—are still vivid after more than 3,000 years.

By 1500 B.C.E., frescoes (wall decorations made with water-based paints applied to wet plaster) began to appear in homes on the Mediterranean island of Crete. This became a widespread form of decoration throughout the Mediterranean world; frescoes can still be seen on the walls of Pompeii, a city buried by the eruption of Italy’s Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E., and early Christians covered the walls of the Roman Catacombs with religious-themed murals.

By the opening of the Common Era, the Chinese, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans had also developed oil-based varnishes with pigments made from yellow and red ocher, arsenic sulphide (yellow) and arsenic green. Most painting in Europe used an egg tempera base until the 15th century, when oil paints using linseed oil as a binder, developed in Northern Europe, spread south to Italy.

It should be noted that coating wood—or any other substance, for that matter—with paint in order to protect and preserve it was rare up until quite modern times. Paint, ground and mixed by hand, was rare and expensive and its use was confined to fine art and sometimes to things like store signs.

Until the 19th century, most pigments came from clays, calcium carbonate, mica, silica and talcs. The most beautiful colors were made by grinding gemstones; lapis lazuli, a stone that produced a brilliant blue pigment, was the most expensive paint during the Renaissance. Some dyes came from animals; cochineal, a pigment made from the carcasses of beetles native to Mexico and parts of South America, produced a range of vivid and long-lasting reds, purples and oranges; it was shipped to Europe in the 16th century by Spain and was much sought-after by artists and fabric dyers.

The first chemically synthesized color was Prussian blue, made in Germany in 1704 from a salt compound of iron and potassium, followed by verdigris green, made from crystals formed by suspending copper sheets in vats of vinegar; chrome yellow (lead chromate) was invented in France in 1810. The first synthetic dye, mauveine, was invented in 1856.

Paint became an industry in the later 19th century, with paint mills springing up in many areas, making their products available to all. During World War II, shortages of chemicals gave rise to the invention of non-oil-based (latex) paint, now more widely used than oil-based paint, and the now-ubiquitous aerosol can came into use in the 1950s.

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