Natural pigments - what is it?

To return, at first glance, to a simple question, I was forced to talk with the famous Cypriot icon painter Fr. Kallinikos, which took place in 2003 within the walls of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra. When our conversation turned to the nature of the pigments used by icon painters, to my surprise, Fr. Kallinik argued that pigments such as cobalt blue, cadmium red, chromium oxide, etc., are natural pigments. Then it seemed to me that this was a special case, connected with the personal error of the venerable master in terms of terminology, and did not attach much importance to this. But a little time passed and, suddenly, on the World Wide Web, I find the sites of two foreign companies (Danial Smith and Kama Artist Material), which are engaged in the trade in materials for artists. The range of pigments on these sites is widely represented by inorganic and organic pigments of an extensive color palette. Everything would be fine if the authors did not abuse the attractive name "natural pigment" in relation to these chemical compounds. Yes, and in communicating with Russian icon painters and artists, you often have to correct the interlocutor who calls cobalt blue a natural pigment.

So what's the deal? Where did the confusion and confusion in concepts occur? The answer is not difficult. It's just that sometimes we need to remember at least the basics of chemistry, physics and mineralogy. Natural, i.e. only what is created by nature, as a result of natural biological or geological-mineralogical processes, can be called natural. And only that product can be called natural, the basis of which was created by nature without human intervention. If a person, taking any natural raw material as a basis, changes its properties, chemical composition and structure, receives a new compound, a new material, then this new product cannot be called natural. For it is a product of synthesis, a technological product, not natural. So, for example, taking the natural chemical elements cadmium and sulfur or cobalt with aluminum and combining them, we get two new compounds, cadmium yellow and cobalt blue. But these will be new, synthesized, non-natural compounds. Or take, for example, titanium white. It would seem why they cannot be called natural, because only one of the minerals serves as the raw material: ilmenite, sphene or rutile. But if those who call titanium white a natural pigment looked at the scheme for obtaining titanium white from these minerals, they would be very surprised how complicated it is, and what changes black ilmenite will undergo to become snow-white titanium white (preparation of an acid mixture, several decomposition cycles, settling and filtration, recovery and freezing, filtration of ferrous sulfate, control filtration and evaporation of titanium sulfate, hydrolysis, washing and bleaching, again filtration and, finally, calcination and wet grinding). Can such a product be called natural? The answer is obvious. On the other hand, nature has given us a whole range of ready-to-use pigments in the form of natural minerals, such as cinnabar, lapis lazuli, malachite, glauconite, hematite and many other minerals or their natural mixtures in the form of various ocher, sienna or umber. And only these minerals or their compounds we have the right to call natural pigments. Using only these natural compounds, the master has the right to say that he uses natural pigments in his work. In this short note, I will not talk about which pigments are better natural or synthetic. Each artist decides this question for himself. Both of them have their own advantages and disadvantages. But on the side of natural pigments there is one indisputable advantage - these pigments have been tested by thousands of years of human history and the works of ancient eras still delight us with richness and permanence of colors, their warmth, transparency and genuine naturalness of the natural palette.

A.V. Grigoriev

Лазурит афганский

Afghan lapis lazuli

Азурит синий

Azurite blue



Азурит очищенный голубой

Azurite refined blue



Гематит кровавик

Hematite bloodstone



Лазурит Байкальский

Lazurite Baikal