Nowadays we take colors for granted, but historically they’ve been hard to come by. Pigment-makers have long gone to great lengths to find new hues, and many paints have pretty weird origins. Even today we’re looking to broaden our palette. Meanwhile, we’re exploring entirely new approaches to paint-making that don’t involve pigment at all.
From our distant past to our not-too-distant future, here are 10 of the weirdest paints we could find—listed in chronological order.
10. Han Purple
Purple has long been associated with luxury, not least because of its rarity in nature. Tyrian (or Phoenician) purple—painstakingly extracted from sea snails boiled for days in lead vats—was so heavily restricted to the elites of ancient Rome that even the word purple became synonymous with the emperor. Hence the saying “donning the purple” for becoming the ruler of Rome. It wasn’t until 1856 that a chemist finally stumbled (by accident) upon a synthetic alternative, which according to the fashion of the time he called ‘mauve’. Immediately, it was seized upon by the rich and famous, by Empress Eugénie in France and by Queen Victoria in Britain.
Purple was similarly exalted in the East. Han purple was no less synonymous with nobility in ancient China than Tyrian purple in ancient Rome. But this Chinese purple was a pigment, not a dye, and it had a far less variable hue. It is thought to have been created as early as 800 BC, but the most famous examples of its use date back to around 220 BC when it was used to paint the Terracotta Army and murals in the tomb of the first emperor Qin Shi Huang at Xi’an.
After that, it disappears from the historical record entirely. And it wasn’t until the 1990s that scientists synthesized a new batch, the first in almost 2000 years. The process to make the copper barium silicate pigment was so intricate, though, that they couldn’t believe it was discovered by accident; surely the Chinese had been taught. For one thing, it involved the grinding of precise quantities of various materials. And for another, it required heating to between 900 and 1,100 degrees Celsius.
But it differed substantially enough from Egyptian blue to rule out cross-cultural knowledge-sharing. Perhaps, since it contains barium, Han purple was a by-product of the glass-making process—discovered by Taoist alchemists trying to synthesize white jade. This would certainly explain its appeal to the immortality-obsessed Qin Shi Huang in particular, since white jade was linked to health and longevity.
In any case, there’s more to Han purple than meets the eye. Researchers have found that under certain conditions (temperatures close to absolute zero and magnetic fields higher than 23 tesla, i.e. more than 800,000 times that of Earth’s), the pigment “loses a dimension.” Magnetic waves travel along two-dimensional planes within the material, instead of propagating three-dimensionally. This was a surprising discovery—intriguing for quantum physicists and, according to some others, potentially explaining how our Reptilian overlords shapeshift and how interdimensional travel might work.
9. Carmine Red
The first ever pigment may have been ochre, clay rich in reddish hematite. It was this widely available substance that allowed our prehistoric ancestors to leave behind cave paintings lasting millennia.
It’s still used as a pigment today, but since the Paleolithic we’ve found other sources of red: cinnabar, madder, and vermilion to name a few. A resin lacquer known as sandarac or ‘dragon’s blood’ (which it was literally thought to contain) was also popular in the Middle Ages. It was used for painting anything infernal, whether the fires of Hell, impure blood, demons, or the Devil himself.
Some time later, when the Spanish plundered the New World, a new source of red was discovered. Female cochineals (a type of insect that eats prickly pears) were dried by the Aztecs and Maya and crushed to extract red carminic acid, or carmine—a red more stable and more intense than any that were known in Europe.
Carmine was eagerly lapped up by royalty and artists alike. And it remained in vogue centuries later, when it captivated Vincent van Gogh. In a letter to his brother Theo in 1885, he said he was “very excited by” the color, describing it as “warm and lively like wine.”
Carmine is still in use today, despite its somewhat grisly origins, not just in paint and dyes but in cosmetics, shampoos, and even food. As PETA advises in an article titled “Makeup Enthusiasts: Stop Smearing Dead Bugs on Your Face,” products containing the pigment may list it as “CI 75470,” “cochineal extract,” “crimson lake,” or “natural red 4.”
Despite the popularity of carmine, however, researchers are still on the lookout for “a great all-around red,” since pigments of this color often lack safety or stability. According to those in the business, the next red could be worth billions.
8. Orpiment Orange
Throughout history—particularly in the Levant and Asia right up until the 20th century—volcanic orpiment was a major source of orange pigment. Gathered from sulphurous fumaroles (natural gas vents around active volcanoes), the mineral was heated by fire to turn it from yellow to a flaming orange.
It looks almost golden, which is actually how orpiment got its name—from aurum (Latin for ‘gold’) and pigmentum (for color). For the same reason it captured the attention of alchemists.
Preparing the pigment was an arduous process. After hand-selecting the crystals and manually removing impurities, the mineral was painstakingly ground to a powder. Any layers that wouldn’t come apart had to be twisted and broken by hand. Only then could the powder be chemically separated from the sulfur and heated for use in orange paint.
Suffice it to say, there was a lot of manual handling involved—which was unfortunate given that it was high in deadly arsenic.
7. Mummy Brown
In days gone by, the pulverized parts of ancient cadavers were smeared onto skin and even taken by mouth. By the 16th and 17th centuries, ground up Egyptian mummy flesh, or mumia, was as widely available in European pharmacies as, say, aspirin is today.
According to the “father of empiricism” Sir Francis Bacon, it was good for the “staunching of blood.” And Robert Boyle, one of the founders of modern chemistry, noted it was used to treat bruises. It was also prescribed for headaches, stomach upsets, broken bones, coughs, uterine infections, wounds, hysteria, dysentery, diarrhoea, measles scars, general aches and pains, and pretty much anything else. Mixed with a heady concoction of benzoic, black pitch, and poisonous Ruta graveolens (rue), it was also used to treat epilepsy.
As genuine Egyptian mummy supplies struggled to keep up with demand, dealers began to make fakes—treating the corpses of executed convicts with bitumen and leaving them to dry in the sun. The best candidates for counterfeit mummification were eerily specific: young, virginal maidens and 24-year-old men who died of a violent death but nonetheless remained in one piece.
Fortunately, the practice of eating the dead gradually fell out of favor—not least because of unpleasant side-effects: heart and stomach pain, vomiting, “stinke of the mouth,” and possibly even plague.
But mumia was used as a pigment in paint right up until the 20th century. Also known as ‘mummy brown’, ‘Egyptian brown’, or caput mortuum, it produced a cross between raw and burnt umber. It was too variable for many artists’ tastes, but the Pre-Raphaelites seemed to adore it—despite perhaps not knowing what it was. The English painter Edward Burne-Jones was horrified when he found out. Immediately upon being informed, he rushed to his studio and ceremonially buried his tube of mummy brown in the earth—“according,” hoped the young Rudyard Kipling, who was present, “to the rites of Mizraim and Memphis.”
6. Indian Yellow
Academics have noted the inherent racism of white European artists using paints mined or manufactured by black and Asian colonial slaves to studiously differentiate these “lesser” races from their own—especially when those paints contained cow piss.
Indian yellow, or purree, was popular between the 18th and 19th centuries for recreating browner skin tones. Euphemistically described as “organic” by exporters, it was assumed to be vegetable in origin. And it wasn’t until 1883 that its true origin was exposed. According to the civil servant who traced Indian yellow it to its source (a village in Bihar), it was no more than the urine of cows. Collected by gwalas (milkmen), it was heated over a fire, strained through a cloth, and shaped into balls for drying in the sun.
Once the secret was out, the pigment was ultimately banned. It was dirty, unhygienic, and quite possibly toxic as well. But it was also unhealthy for the cows, since in order to get the right shade of yellow, their diet was restricted to mango leaves.
Nowadays Indian yellow is synthetic.
5. Radium Green
Glow-in-the-dark paint was all the rage in the 1910s and ‘20s, but in those days it was made out of radium. This green-glowing radioactive element was only discovered by Marie Curie in 1898, so it was still pretty new and exciting—not to mention misunderstood. Even Curie carried vials of it in her skirt. She thought it was “beautiful,” she said, and apparently she wasn’t alone.
3,000 times more glowy than uranium and over a million times more radioactive, radium-226 (the most stable isotope) has a half-life of 1,600 years. It’s also extraordinarily rare.
When the application of radium salts was found to shrink tumors in the human body, people embraced the deadly element as a panacea for “radiant health.” It was sold in water, soda, candy, face creams, powders, lotions, and soaps—and was also added to spa baths. It wasn’t until later that people started dying. As The Wall Street Journal reported in 1932 in a story about the steel mogul Eben Byers, “the radium water worked fine until his jaw came off.”
In paint, it was marketed under the brand names Undark, Luna, and Marvelite. Originally intended for military watch dials to help soldiers tell the time in the dark, it soon became fashionable among civilians. Of course, the factory girls who applied the paint to clock and watch dials had no idea of its dangers; they were told it was totally safe. And they thought nothing of sucking their brushes to straighten the bristles, getting the dust in their hair and clothes, and even painting their fingernails and teeth.
Inevitably, they became very ill. One young woman complained of weight-loss, joint pain, and feeling like a tired old woman. The following year, her dentist was dismayed to find her jaw splintering away and was forced to remove it. But the constant bleeding that followed killed her a little while later. Anemia and leukemia became common, and skeletons effectively dissolved. Jaws, hips, ankles, and so on simply crumbled away. Those who worked directly with the paint were even carcinogenic themselves, exhaling deadly radon gas.
But the factories refused to accept any blame until the evidence became irrefutable. Although some of the surviving workers—dubbed the “Radium Girls” by the press—brought lawsuits against the United States Radium Corporation, the company’s lawyers stalled for time in a bid to run down the clock on the statute of limitations. Meanwhile, the plaintiffs could barely walk or talk, let alone work, while living without half of their faces.
Ultimately, the US Radium Corporation was forced to settle for $10,000 to each victim, along with a $400-a-year pension and full medical care for the rest of their short, agonized lives.
4. Singularity Black
The whole point of black is the absorption of all visible light, reflecting nothing to the eye to be seen. So if you’ve “seen” black paint, then either you didn’t really see it or it wasn’t really black.
True black paint has been virtually non-existent until only recently when Surrey NanoSystems introduced Vantablack. This “superblack” uses vertically aligned carbon nanotubes—a billion for every square centimeter—to completely absorb all light. According to its creators, the nanotubes are arranged like “blades of grass … all sticking upward on their ends.” They have also been compared to a field of wheat in which, “instead of the wheat being 3 or 4 feet high, it’s about 1,000 feet tall …. very, very long compared to their diameter.”
Light enters and the photons can’t escape, bouncing around inside until they’re absorbed and dissipated as heat. Even ultraviolet and infrared are captured in this way. When the human eye looks toward Vantablack, there’s nothing whatsoever to be seen. Although the spraypaint version, known as Vantablack S-VIS, has a more random, “spaghetti-like” arrangement of nanotubes and therefore absorbs less light, it’s only infrared that escapes—and that’s invisible anyway.
Painting with Vantablack is basically subtractive. Even the contours of three-dimensional objects are lost; all that’s left is a seemingly two-dimensional silhouette, as though your vision itself has been Photoshopped.
The designer Anish Kapoor was so entranced by the paint that he bought exclusive rights to its use—effectively banning other artists from using it. “It’s the blackest material in the universe after black holes,” he said, incorrectly. Unfortunately all he’s used it for so far is a fairly mediocre men’s watch priced at $90,000. In his defence, though, Vantablack is not so much a paint as a proprietary process relying on Surrey NanoSystems’ equipment. So all he’s really done is contracted the lab for his work.
But Singularity Black is another nanotube paint that anyone can purchase for use. Made under contract for NASA, it actually predates Vantablack. It’s not quite as good, and it’s capable of dissolving through the skin, but at least it’s available to all—at least if you can afford it: $525 buys just enough to coat nine square inches.
3. Burf Pink
This paint name, for the hexadecimal color code 223, 173, 179, was actually devised by AI. The algorithmic neural network also came up with ‘Ghasty Pink’ for 231, 137, 165 and ‘Kold of Tale’ for 222, 120, 174. Besides the pinks, it also dubbed a kind of washed-out teal ‘Stoner Blue’, an ominous blood color ‘Farty Red’, and a buffish tortilla just ‘Turdly’.
The AI in question had been fed a list of 7,700 Sherwin-Williams paint colors in the R, G, B hexadecimal format, tasked with analyzing the data for rules to name colors on its own. You can’t buy ‘Burf Pink’ or any of the others—not yet anyway, not under those wonderful names.
But if it’s pink you’re after, you might want the pinkest pink out there. In response to Anish Kapoor’s Vantablack hoarding, paint-maker Stuart Semple released a new pigment of his own—“The World’s Pinkest Pink”—and specifically banned Kapoor from ever using it. (In an undeniably classy comeback, Kapoor Instagrammed a photo of his middle finger, coated in Semple’s pink pigment, with a caption that read “Up yours #pink”.)
While we’re on the topic, it’s worth noting that some claim pink doesn’t exist. We don’t see it in rainbows, they say, which means no band of wavelengths mix red and violet. This of course would make pink even rarer than black. But others say they’re just talking rubbish, that all colors are inventions of the brain. Still, it’s an interesting factoid nevertheless.
2. Bioluminescent Blue
In 2016, an Australian gallery showcased a number of works that used bioluminescent blue paint. The solution contained the marine bacteria Aliivibrio fischeri, whose natural glow the Hawaiian bobtail squid uses to camouflage its shadow while hunting.
However, the paintings (which included images of a viperfish, the moon, and, for some reason, Donald Trump) were basically painted blind. Since the nutrients on the agar dishes that served as each “canvas” could only support the bacteria for a time, the bioluminescence of colonization had to coincide with the exhibition’s opening. When the solution was being applied, it was effectively like invisible ink.
Unfortunately, these works weren’t promoting new paint so much as a way of testing antibiotics; A. fischeri glow when they’re alive, so a lack of the glow means they’re dead. However, we could see bioluminescent paint becoming more commonplace in the future.
Bioluminescent plankton, for instance, are known to emit a glow when disturbed—hence the blue illumination on some tides. It’s thought these organisms may be co-opted as a low-impact, low-cost way to light up the cities of the future. If so, we may see them on buildings, in lamps, and in streetlights. First, though, researchers will need a way to make them glow without disturbance.
In the meantime, there’s Stuart Semple’s “glowiest glow pigment” Blue Lit—made from “some of the planet’s finest light emitting pigments and rare earth activators,” according to the artist’s website.
1. WallSmart White
This one’s just a concept for now, listed among the likes of “Google Nose” (a nanosensor-based smell-augmentation device), “Energy Belt” (which converts fat into energy to charge a cell phone), and the “Latro Lamp” (an automatic light powered by CO2-consuming algae).
But the WallSmart idea is pretty feasible: Loaded with nanoscale LEDs, it’s a paint that changes color on demand. Once on the walls, it would in theory be controlled by an app—the WallSmart app—as seen in the video above. You could change the colors of your walls for an occasion or set them to match the time of day, your mood, your guests, and so on.
It’s not clear what color they would be by default, or with the system switched off, but white seems an obvious choice.