From Mummy Brown to Radium Green: The Amazing Origins of Five Paint Colours

From Mummy Brown to Radium Green: The Amazing Origins of Five Paint Colours

Do you know the origins of your favourite paint colours? Many of us take for granted the various hues we see daily. This blog post will explore the grisly and fascinating origins of five popular paint colours. From mummy brown to radium green, each shade has a unique story to tell!
The unsolved mystery of a $500 million art heist Reading From Mummy Brown to Radium Green: The Amazing Origins of Five Paint Colours 6 minutes Next Hidden Mysteries Inside Masterpieces

Do you know the origins of your favourite paint colours? Many of us take for granted the various hues we see daily. This blog post will explore the grisly and fascinating origins of five popular paint colours. From mummy brown to radium green, each shade has a unique story to tell! 


The Grisly Origins of Mummy Brown

First up, mummy brown. This rich brown paint colour originated from the ancient Egyptian practice of mummification. It is also known as Egyptian brown. The pigment combines white pitch, myrrh, and the ground-up remains of ancient human and feline Egyptian mummies. The paint had good transparency, and artists used it for glazes, shadows, flesh tones, and shading. However, it was variable in its composition and quality. In addition, the paint contained ammonia and particles of fat, which could affect other colours in the piece. However, as the supply of mummies dwindled and public sentiment turned against using them as paint ingredients, it became harder to find this hue. By the mid-1900s, manufacturers invented other methods to mimic its colour without the macabre origins. Martin Drolling's Interior of a Kitchen, below includes significant use of mummy brown.
 

The Dangerous Glow of Radium Green

Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium in 1898. It was mixed with paint to create a green glow-in-the-dark light and applied to watch faces, clocks and aircraft instruments as well as household items like electric buttons, buckles on slippers and house numbers. This paint was marketed under the brand name 'Undark'. Radium is a radioactive element, and there are significant dangers to using radium paint. There have been incidents of people falling ill and dying after working closely with it. 'The Radium Girls' was a famous case in the United States brought by workers who ingested radium paint regularly. Their employer told them the substance was safe and that they must lick their paint brushes to create a fine point when painting tiny clock faces and watch dials. Legal proceedings began in the late 1920s and were finally brought to the Supreme Court in 1939. The company were forced to compensate the affected workers, and the judgement influenced labour laws in America.
 
 Magazine advertisement for Undark, a product of the Radium Luminous Material Corporation which was involved in the Radium Girls scandal. Retouched version.

The Curious Origins of Indian Yellow

Indian yellow paint is a warm, vibrant yellow pigment made from the urine of cows that are fed exclusively on mango leaves. A 1883 account by Trailokya Nath (T.N.) Mukharji gives us insight into the paint's origin. He was employed by India's Department of Revenue and Agriculture and published his firsthand account of the manufacture of Indian yellow in the Journal of the Society of Arts. In his article, Mukharji observes a sect of gwalas (men who tend to cattle), reportedly the only manufacturers of this product. The cattle's unhealthy and restrictive diet of mango leaves and water increases the bile pigment and turns the urine bright yellow. The urine is collected in earthen pots and placed over a fire. The heat encourages the precipitation of the yellow component from the water. The yellow precipitate is strained through a cloth and the collected sediment is shaped into a ball and dried further. Paint manufacturers buy this soft greenish-yellow ball to extract the yellow colour and mix it with oil or water to create the paint solution. (Read more here). It is believed the process was outlawed in 1908; however, Indian yellow was commercially unavailable circa 1921. Vincent Van Gogh used a combination of Indian yellow with zinc yellow to paint the moon in his work, The Starry Night
 

Revealing The Secrets of Dragon's Blood

Dragon's blood paint is made from a rich, deep red resin extracted from various tropical tree species, including Calamus spp, Calamus rotangCrotonDracaena and Pterocarpus. These trees are known as dragon trees and grow in South-East Asia, East Africa, the Canary Islands, the West Indies and South America. The colourant in the resin is called dracorubine and makes up just 1% of the resin. In Latin, draco rubine means 'ruby dragon'. The resin has many uses in addition to paint, including dye, wood varnish for violins and Chinese red wooden furniture, and medicine to treat respiratory and gastrointestinal problems. The Pentecost by Giotto is thought to use dragon's blood on the flames above the head of the apostles. 
 

Tyrian Purple, A Dye Fit For The Emperor

Tyrian purple is a rich purple-red dye. It was highly prized in antiquity because it did not quickly fade and grew brighter with weathering and sunlight. It comes from the mucus of several species of Murex snail, and the pigment was expensive and complex to produce. Extracting this dye involved masses of snails and significant labour. David Jacoby remarks, "twelve thousand snails of Murex brandaris yield no more than 1.4 g of pure dye, enough to color only the trim of a single garment."
Production began as early as 1200 BCE by the Phoenicians passed their skills on to the Greeks and Romans. The dye was used to colour fabric items, and came in various shades from pink, red, rose and scarlet, but according to the Roman author Pliny, the most prized shade was a black-tinted clotted blood shade that gleamed when held to the light. Only the Roman emperor was permitted to wear Tyrian purple by the fourth century C.E. Julius Pollux, a Roman mythographer, says the dye was discovered by the philosopher Heracles of Tyre when he noticed his dog's mouth was stained purple after chewing snails. Peter Paul Rubens imagines this scene in his painting Hercules' Dog Discovers Purple Dye.
 

 Interested in Learning More? 

This article is the second in our series about the unique history behind paint colours; click here for the first article.

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