Art and animal cruelty: the strange origins of pigments

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From cow pee to molluscs’ material, the creation of pigments took some strange experimentation involving animal cruelty.

To be a vegan is to read a lot of ingredient labels. Thankfully there are plenty of PETA lists for all possible red flags. Why was there a need for these? Because the ancient and medieval art world was busy creating pigments using questionable ingredients, influencing modern practices. And I don’t mean processed animal byproducts, but a very raw use of them.

My only disclaimer to you is that you need a tough stomach to read this if you have a vivid imagination.

Indian yellow

indian yellow color
William Turner, The Angel Standing in the Sun (c. 1846). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Originating in India around the 15th century, Indian yellow made its way to Europe where it gained quite the popularity. But as William Turner and Vincent Van Gogh’s romanticism and impressionism changed the contemporary consciousness, curiosity over the pigment’s history stained the art world.

Known for its vivid warm colour, rumours spread that snake urine was the secret additive giving Indian yellow a brightness like none other. TN Mukherji soon unearthed its vile secret — cow pee.

Produced only in Mirzapur, cow urine was collected in earthen pots, heated to intensify the yellowness of the bile pigment, strained with a cloth and dried in the sun or over a charcoal flame. It was then compressed into a pigment ball and sold commercially.

But it wasn’t just the urine that caused a revolt in the art community, it was the animal cruelty. The cows were exclusively fed mango leaves, leaving them malnourished and decreasing their lifespan by almost threefold at times. Most cattle developed kidney stones or jaundice, and so the pigment was banned in 1908. The Journal of the Society of Arts made sure it wasn’t circulated after 1921.

Cochineal and carmine red

carmine redThis colour is best described as blood red, literally. It’s made from bug blood. Owing to its deep colour, this shade is used primarily as a dyeing pigment, even in food. In 2012, this pigment became infamous when Starbucks admitted to using it in their Strawberry drinks.

This dye has been around for centuries. cochineal red (or Peruvian red) was first used by Aztecs in Mexico. The female bugs sucked up the red pigment of the fruit of the prickly pear cactus and, when crushed accidentally, stained the finger with vibrant red. To extract the dye, bugs are harvested, sundried, crushed and mixed with a soluble base. Peru produces over 200 tonnes of this dye every year.

Carmine red was made using the blood of kermes, cochineal’s European cousin. Less popular than the American red, carmine was lighter in colour but was used extensively for paintings and fabric across Europe as it was cheaper. However, unlike cochineal red, it was not made by crushing the bugs entirely and used 10 times more insects to produce the same amount of pigment; for perspective, it takes 70,000 insects to make a pound of cochineal red dye.

Tyrian purple

tyrian purpleThe colour of royalty that exclusively donned priests and nobility for centuries has a rather disgusting history, as it was nothing but dried and boiled snail slime. Tyrian purple or Phoenecian red originated at the port of Tyre and became Byzantine Empire’s new gold. With a colour so rare and a process extremely laborious, fabrics stained with purple screamed of wealth and status. Ironically, it was used by the institutions that stood for the sanctity of life.

The dye was extracted from the mucous gland of bolinus brandaris (or you can call them murex snails) that lay behind their rectum. It took days of work to yield 250,000 molluscs for one ounce of dye. The yield was exposed to the sun for a particular time to darken the pigment, then boiled to extract a colour resembling clotted blood. It had a pungency that lasted on cloth for a long long while.

The monopoly of ‘royal purple’ lasted from the 15th to the 19th century when Sir William Perkins, a chemist, accidentally discovered synthetic purple. Until then, the medieval upper class was okay with being stinky.

The browns

mummy brownThe Sepia family is incredibly large. The colour associated with Parisian streets, vintage photographs and everything sophisticated can be traced back to ancient Greece. Given the extensive nature of Greek nomenclature, it’s not surprising that ‘soupiá’ means ‘cuttlefish’ and that the pigment sepia was extracted from the molluscs’ ink sacks. Yes, another mollusc used for art supplies.

Another horror story in the creation of pigments is the story of mummy brown. Previously rumoured, recently confirmed, medieval artists were madmen. Mummy brown, known for its transparency, was a pigment made of ground Egyptian mummies of humans and cats. The pigment was a huge hit from the 16th till the 19th century when artists became aware of  its origins. Perhaps the disgust came from using human remains rather than a feline’s.

Ivory black and ivory white

ivory blackThe discovery of ground mummies in paints was actually after investigating the pigment ‘bone black’, which was originally rumoured to be made using charred corpses. The claim was false, but it doesn’t get better, as this colour was made using charred bones of animals from slaughterhouses. This pigment was often confused with ivory black, which was exclusively made using charred elephant tusks.

Compared to the above practices, using bone dust seems mild. Speaking of, ivory white’s production too dropped after several nations banned ivory trade. Traditionally, white colour was also procured using eggshells of various species under the label ‘eggshell white’.

Thankfully, we have progressed past the horror of middle age art fanaticism, and now pigments can be produced synthetically.

Muskaan Gupta
Muskaan Gupta
Muskaan is a history undergraduate at Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi. Having grown up in different cities in India, she is passionate about food and culture. When she's not experimenting in the kitchen, you can find her invested in films and music. She is always looking for new things to do, is interested in studying food history and juggles between her love for filmmaking, writing and knowing the quirks of the world.