• Michael Skalka

Deceiving Pigment Names

Updated: Feb 25


"The rhetorician would deceive his neighbors, the sentimentalist himself; while art, is but a vision of reality. What portion in the world can the artist have who has awakened from the common dream but dissipation and despair?”

William Butler Yeats (1865–1939), “Ego Dominus Tuus.”


A common question about art materials focuses on the origin and description of paint names. In many cases, its not the raw pigment that is the source of confusion, but the processed color that presents the modern observer with an etymological dilemma.


For instance, the unusual paint called Green Vermillion is one that is often questioned. How can a paint be green but contain a traditional red, colorant name? One might speculate that if vermillion is heated high enough, it turns green. That would be far too simple and just plain wrong. This one has a more convoluted explanation.


At some point in the past, the benchmark for opacity in certain pigments used the term “vermillion,” the red mercuric sulfide pigment, as a comparative standard. One of these mixtures was the color Chrome Green. The link with vermillion was related to two other names, Cinnabar Green or Zinnober Green. Both were composed of Prussian Blue and Chrome Yellow. Like vermillion, they both exhibited a high degree of opacity. Green Vermillion contained the same mixture of Prussian Blue and Chrome Yellow. That forms the link with Cinnabar Green. The term “cinnabar” refers to the natural mineral form of mercuric sulfide. Hence, the marriage of green with red via the word “cinnabar” took place. Authors in the past who described these paints did not see the anachronism of linking a yellow-blue color mixture with a traditional red paint. Like many instances in the color world, it is presented as a given.


Some other color names make no more or less sense. Regardless, we have incorporated them into our daily vocabulary. One of these is Cadmium Green. Again, on the surface, we might tend to think that this is a single pigment color that has been around since the invention of cadmium paints. Cadmium Green is a mixed color composed of Cadmium Yellow and Viridian. Many would call this a convenience color, a combination that we could easily make, but purchase ready-mixed instead. One might conclude that since cadmium pigment comes in greenish-yellow, yellow, red, orange, and purple-red, it ought to come in green as well. Unfortunately, it cannot be made into a green colorant.


The mystery cadmium that a few of you might know is Cadmium Black. It was sold as an artists’ paint at one time by Grumbacher. The pigment is rumored to have been created for the defense industry because it has special qualities to thwart radar tracking systems. The now retired SR-71 military aircraft is described to have been coated with a “special black paint” to help radiate heat generated by supersonic flight speed.


Continuing this thread with green colors, Sap Green is another misleading color name. Part of its name is correct. The color is green. Unfortunately, “sap” has little to do with the origin of the colorant. Sap Green was an extract of ripened berries of the buckthorn shrub, Rhamnus. The extract was not even green, but a yellowish-green that was steeped, boiled and had alum added to it to turn it into a transparent green of low tinting strength. Only a few years ago, Sap Green was made with a transparent blue and yellow pigment that tended to be fugitive. Today, manufacturers are selecting lightfast colors to make Sap Green. It comes in a variety of pigment combinations that produces a rich, deep, glazing color.


Last, but not least, is Permanent Green Light. I am not picking on this color because I wish to criticize its hue or lineage. It can be quite permanent, depending on the blue and yellow pigments chosen to make it. My question is, why is “permanent” the first word in the color name? I believe that a long-standing distrust of colormen in past centuries, flavored by the magic of clever marketing, created a number of hues with the term “permanent” as part of the color name. The use of the word “permanent” is not new. My copy of an1887 art materials catalogue lists several “permanent” colors in its line of oil paints. Standards being what they were, I have serious doubts as to the permanence of many of the colors.


So the next time you saunter through your local art materials store, look carefully at the color names and find ones that do not seem to make logical sense. Antwerp Blue – does the color really come from Belgium? King’s Blue – what country and which king? Indian Yellow- that’s a whole other story.


Now, I am going to go home and paint my car cadmium black and pick out a few selections from my “Yeats Poetry Greatest Hits” CD. I will cruise down the highway, crank up the Yeats on the car stereo, deflect radar and dissipate the heat generated by my hard-working engine.


The Syntax of Color

Original Grammar of Color Essay

Vol: 1 No.10 (Published 05-04-05)

(Edited 2021)



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