Painting With Minerals 

I see artists as true innovators and inventors, people with creative minds and free spirits. To create something that can move people to tears or to a revolution. The evolution of art has changed throughout the eras, but the creativity and rigidness behind it hasn’t. I can remember when I was younger, coming home to my mom standing over our stove making dye from cochineal bugs. It was a vibrant red color. She would use this to dye shirts, or an art piece in technical patterns and designs. When walking through the Acropolis museum, a display of colorful minerals popped out against the white backdrop of statues and marble walls; it explained how the Ancient Greeks used different colored minerals to paint a world of amazing structures and statues.


The display presented many colors to develop a full spectrum, but I am only going to talk about Azurite (blue), Carbon (black), Melian earth (white), Cinnabar (rust red), and Ocher (dark yellow). I chose these five colors because these are the base colors used by the ancient Greeks. These colors were meant to be correlated to the elements of the cosmogony, including, air, water, fire and earth [1]. Painting on walls has been around since the time of caveman, but the evidence of ancient Greek art, dates back to the time of the Minoan culture, in the third millennium of BCE. Around the 7th century pottery and statues were a very big part of the art in Greece, but painting didn’t become big until the classic era, which was from 480 to 323 BCE. This is when Athens became the strongest of the Greek city’s, and the Acropolis was built. The Acropolis incorporated never before seen statues and architecture that represented their strength. Most of these structures were painted, making the painting in the classical period thrive. Bringing linear perspectives to painting, and magnificent artists such as Apollodorus, Timarete, Alexander the Great, as well as many others. To paint they would use the colorful minerals they found around them [2].

The statues of the Acropolis were covered in many patterns that would represent style, as well as social class [1]. Patterns such as, volutes, lotus flowers, borders and bands and continuous spirals [1]. The patterns would come in certain color combinations from the basic five colors depending on what, or who the statue was representing.The mineral paints that were used in painting were as vibrant as our paints that we use today. They had turquoise, red, yellow, orange, blue and green. The basic colors used were our primary colors, including black and white. These came from the minerals cinnabar, azurite, ocher, carbon, and lead white.

The Melian earth is a kaolin that is white and produces a very bright white pigment. It was discovered during an analyses of the the white ground in Attic lekythi. There is a theory that there was a very little about of titanium dioxide in the soil making this kaolin very bright. White paint was used in statues as cloth, as well as in patterns in various structures. [1]   


Fig. 2 Melian earth

Ochre is the mineral that creates a brownish yellow pigment that comes from the earth. It is made up of iron oxides and aluminosilicate compounds. Ochre has been found in Cyprus. This color was used for skin tones, this mineral was detected on the statue faces of korai [1]


Fig. 3 Ochre

Cinnabar is the main mineral that gives us a red pigment. This is a mercury sulfide that is found in Iberia Hesperia which we know now as Spain, as well as Iberia Pontian which we know today as Georgia. Red pigment is used the most in the statues found from the ancient ruins. They think it is because it was the most abundant out of the other minerals [1].


Fig. 4 Cinnabar

Azurite is the mineral that creates a blue pigment. This is a basic copper carbonate. Azurite has been found in archaeological sites in Cyprus, dating back to the prehistoric periods. Blue pigments are the second most used in the Ancient Greece period. And represents the aquatic life, and Poseidon [1]


Fig. 5 Azurite

Carbon black is the mineral that gives us black pigment. In Latin carbon black means charcoal. This is made by burning wood or other plant material. Carbon black was often found with the color blue on statues, as it can also represent the God of the sea, Poseidon. Carbon black has been used for drawing over the years as well as painting [3].


Fig . 6 Carbon Black

You might be wondering how they make these minerals in to paint. Well, in fact, the process is quite simple. The first step is to grind up which ever mineral is fitting, then after that you put the power in to what is called a water wash [2]. Mix it up then let the solution sit for a few hours while the pigments soak. After that, you pour out the water and save the powder that has settled on the bottom. Once again you let this sit for a few hours or until the powder dries out. This is a wax based paint. The next steps are to melt the wax and the add the pigment powder, and then mix it all together, whala, Paint! This paint was very thick, so once a stroke was painted on a piece, it could be molded or shaped to fit a pattern.
The artists in ancient Greece were true innovators, with creative minds. Creating works of art that defined power, history, social classes and networks, using new techniques and inheriting techniques from eras past. The art that was panted in the classical Greek period, has changed the way people paint in the modern day, and has given us a gate way to keep exploring what the world of art has to offer.

1) Dimitrios Pandermails, Christina Vlassopoulou, Thomas Katsaros, Dora Panagiotidou, Elisavet Merkouri, Lina Kokkinou, 2012, Archaic Colors, 71

2) Greek Art:

3) Pigments through the ages:

7 thoughts on “Painting With Minerals 

  1. Gracie – Its apparent you are a very good writer and I am particularly happy with your introduction and connection of this topic to your own personal experiences. I think your blog would have really benefited from a photo or two of painted sculptures that have survived the ages – but what you and I know (but everyone else doesn’t) is that you cannot take pictures in the Acropolis Museum and all of you (the students) are restricted to using only unique, original figures in your blogs. SO….we will have to leave it to our imagination.

  2. Gracie, this post is great! There’s so much detail and I learned a lot. Your intro with the story about your mom was an excellent addition! 🙂

  3. Hi Gracie,
    Thank you for the insights you provided on painting with minerals. I was glad to see such a title that tells me exactly what to expect from your post.

    Your introductory comments left me wondering where you were going with your post. The first sentence was great, but the middle portion was a bit less clear in terms of how it connects to your focus on minerals and painting. I’d think that you could either develop the portion on your mother’s work and connect it more fully to the rest of your entry, or you could shift your focus and move directly into mineral painting, and why you chose this topic for your entry. Were you impressed by what you saw? How was it different from seeing it in a book? What makes the use of minerals so innovative?

    You mention briefly in your final paragraph that the artists in ancient Greece were true innovators. This is the part that is the most fascinating, isn’t it. Can you explain how these works of art defined power, history, and social class? Was that different from art before the ancient Greeks? Why has it changed modern art? Those are all questions for which I would like to see some more detailed answers since it is the way that you frame your discussion.

    Good luck. I look forward to reading more of your entries.

  4. Hi Gracie,
    Your interest in the arts while studying the sciences is a wonderful opportunity to merge two complementary disciplines! I am curious, though, to learn how you see the 5 colors as connected to the history, region, and of course geological supply. Were these colors the result of what they had, or do you think that the colors captured the aesthetic nature of their surroundings? How do the colors affect what you saw in the museum? Do you see these colors outside, away from the museum?

    Dr. Gruber asked many questions that I too have. I am very curious about your trip, your studies, and now that I know you have an interest in the arts, how you see the geological arts. I share in these interests and just got back from a brief visit to Zion. What colors! We had a storm roll through, so we saw red rocks with a beautiful dark gray sky… and occasional lighting bolts, what a living portrait! My problem is that I needed Professor Skinner to be in the car with us to explain why the Escalantes are red with white and other various shades of earth-red. You are fortunate that you will learn why colors are the colors that they are.
    I look forward to your next post.

  5. I really like this post and how you include the part where you watched your mom paint at a young age. It makes me want to go home and start making my own paint after you described how to make each color. Pretty amazing that the Greeks knew how to utilize their surroundings to make such pretty paint.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s