Most of them are just rocks and dirt that people discovered ages ago they could use to paint with. Cave paintings like this one from Argentina have been found wherever there is ochre clay clinging to the rocks, usually near limestone caves. Limestone + water + pigment = fresco. To get these amazing paintings, all they had to do was pulverize some ochre, put it in a hollow reed, wet the wall of the cave, put a hand up and blow through the reed.
Ochre is common throughout the world. I saw brilliant green and gold ochre outside Verona (Verona green ❤ ). I’ve had the chance a few times to go to the Paint Mines not far from Colorado Springs. It’s a spot where Indians dug for face paint, but the white clay there is also good for pottery.
Artists still use these ancient pigments. We draw and even paint with charcoal and lamp black. All of our “earth colors” are really earth colors.
Other colors were harder to come up with long ago. Red was extremely challenging to produce, and some shades were deadly poisonous. A beautiful non-toxic red — carmine — could be derived from the Cochineal beetle which is found in South America. Carmine made its way to Europe in the 16th century. It was so valuable that the Spanish — who had cornered the resource, obviously — kept its source a secret until the 18th century. The most common red was ferrous oxide (rust). Some very rare and expensive colors are now made synthetically. Artists have benefitted through “better living through chemistry,”
The most beautiful blue came from this rock:
Ultramarine blue was so rare and expensive, its production (obviously) not easy, that for a while it was worth more than gold. For a long time, it was used only on Jesus’ robes. It is Ultramarine Blue — “ultra marine” — across the sea. It is made from Lapis Lazuli and came from Afghanistan to Europe on any of the arduous and dangerous trade routes.
These days, many of the colors we use are synthetically derived — including ultramarine blue. Paints are less poisonous. Artists’ favorite white, lead white, became illegal in the 19th century and now there are a few substitutes. It’s thought Van Gogh went nuts from eating his cadmium yellow paint in fits of sunflower driven ecstasy.
Like any painter — have favorite brands. For watercolor, obviously, I love Caran d’Ache. I usually use pencils, but I also use watercolor crayons and paints from their traditional box, too.
My favorite oil painting brand is Gamblin Oil Paint. They are made in Portland, Oregon, in a small company, Gamblin Artist’s Colors. The founder, Robert Gamblin, is, among other things, an art restorer who builds traditional pigments, which, of course, I love. One of the main aims of the company is the production of safer paints and solvents. The oil colors and various media are beautiful, easy to use and responsive to my way of painting. The solvents are not only less toxic but also less stinky which is good because the place where I paint has no ventilation other than the doorway to the kitchen.
Well, as I said, I could go on and on and on…
I keep my paints in a jewelry box made by my Uncle Hank.