CSI: Chemistry of Color  - a 2017 show at the Indianapolis Museum of Art


"Throughout the ages, discoveries in chemistry have expanded the artist's palette with new colorants, while the demands of artists have pushed scientists to search for new ways to create color. Chemistry of Color charts the relationship between chemistry and art over the millennia by exploring a selection of natural and synthetic colorants used to create pigments and dyes that color our world.

"Chemistry of Color is one of a series of three IMA exhibitios called CSI (Conservation Science Indianapolis) that focus on how science and scientific detective work help inform the study of art." Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA).

The panels of the exhibition featured these pigments:


~270,000 BCE: Ochre

COLORS FROM THE EARTH. The first materials that humans used to color their art were naturally occurring red, yellow and brown clays dug from the ground


~3,000 BCE: Egyptian Blue

BLUE FROM A FIERY FURNACE. Created in early Egypt, Egyptian blue gained widespread popularity across the ancient Near East and Roman Empire. Its recipe was lost during the Middle Ages, but was rediscovered by scientists in the early 1800s.


~700 BCE: Cochineal (carmine)

Baluchi: Prayer Rug

RED FROM BUGS. Despite the invention of synthetic versions in the 1900's, red dye continues to be made from the natural colorant carmine, which is derived from cochineal insects.


700's CE: Vermilion

"BEAUTIFUL BUT DEADLY. Vermilion, created by mixing mercury with sulfur, was synthesized to replace cinnabar, a more expensive naturally found mineral. Both are toxic, but were once used to color food and cosmetics."


1400s Indian Yellow

YELLOW FROM URINE. Popular in Indian miniature paintings and later in European oil paintings, Indian yellow was reportedly made in India by collecting urine from cattle that were fed only mango leaves.


1705 Prussian Blue

AN ACCIDENTAL DISCOVERY. Prussian blue was accidentally synthesized by a scientist trying a new ingredient in a traditional recipe for red pigment. Its deep blue color, relative stability, and ease of manufacture made it immensely popular.


1814 Emerald Green

PRETTY POISON. This synthetic pigment was created by mixing copper and arsenic in a quest to make a bolder, brighter green. Although extremely toxic, it was used in everything from artist paints to nursery wallpapers for over 100 years.


1828 Synthetic Ultramarine

SCIENCE GETS TO WORK. For millennia, ultramarine was traditionally made from lapis lazuli, a semi precious stone sourced from mines in Afghanistan. The extreme expense of natural ultramarine inspired a contest to create a synthetic version.  The prize was awarded to the French chemist Jean Baptiste Guimet in 1828.


1863 Aniline Black

PAINT IT BLACK. Black pigments have been made since prehistoric times by charring materials like bone or wood. In the mid-1800's, the first synthetic organic black was created from aniline, a compound derived from petroleum-based chemicals. A colorfast and inexpensive dye, it made black clothing more affordable.


1870 Synthetic Indigoids

JUST ADD OXYGEN. Indigoids are blue and purple dyes naturally made from plants and sea snails. Advances in organic chemistry in the late 1800's allowed for the creation of synthetic indigo from petroleum-based chemicals.


1913 Titanium Dioxide

SAFER OPTIONS. For centuries, white paint was made from powder scraped off sheets of corroded lead. Titanium dioxide white, which was far less toxic, was discovered in 1913 and became widely available to artists in 1921.


1940s DayGlo

BRIGHTER THAN BRIGHT. Made from fluorescent dyes combined with a plastic and then ground into a powder, DayGlo was developed for military use during World War II. After the war, these eye-catching colors became popular in advertising. Artists Keith Haring and Stefano Castronovo were inspired by 1980's street culture, and included powerful blasts of DayGlo colors in their work.