Traditional pigments and inks

Below is a list in progress of traditional pigments and inks commonly used in medieval Europe by illuminators and scribes. By the Renaissance or so, more colours were being imported.

First, three definitions:

  • ink: commonly used to mean any liquid colour used for writing. Strictly, a liquid used for writing or drawing which chemically reacts with the writing surface to stain it. From Greek, 'caust-', meaning 'burn' (because it 'burns into' the surface). 
  • pigment: a fine, coloured powder which can be mixed with a binding medium and applied to a surface so that it colours it. A pigment does not dissolve but remains suspended in the mixing medium. Pigments, unlike true inks, do not produce colour by chemical reaction with the writing surface (though some pigments, eg copper salts, react because they happen to be corrosive). From Latin
  • dye: a dissolved chemical which permanently colours the fibres it is applied to. A dye is usually made of a colouring agent and a mordant (literally, 'biter') which chemically bonds the colouring agent to the fibre. Dyes can be used to make pigments by staining a neutral-coloured, non-dissolving powder and then mixing the resulting coloured powder with a binding medium. This is called a 'lake'.

OK. Inks first (as it's a calligraphy website). Then pigments. Bear in mind that many pigments can be turned into 'inks' by diluting them to a thin-cream consistency and using with a dip-nib.  I've listed items by their most prominent name. Many have more than one. I've tried to include their chemical name where possible.

There's a short bibliography at the bottom of the page.

Traditional inks

Oak gall ink

Made by reacting crushed oak galls (a source of tannin) with iron sulphate in pure water. The resulting ink is pale brown on first use but after exposure to oxygen it darkens and continues to darken with time.

NB not a pigment but a true ink where ‘ink’ derives from ‘encaustic’ from the Greek ‘caust-’ meaning ‘burn’ (as in caustic soda) because it ‘bites’ into the writing surface, reacting chemically with the fibres, rather than sitting on top.

Used to be used for public records.

Easy to make at home. They say to use rainwater. Distilled water would do. Possibly plain, boiled water would do. Iron sulphate is readily available; it's a moss-killer for lawns and is useful for acidifying soil for ericaceous plants like raspberries, blueberries, camellias. If you can't get oak galls, I see absolutely no reason why other sources of tannin shouldn't be used such as powdered oak bark (use a spice grinder?) or tea-leaves. But I haven't tried it.

Carbon ink

aka lampblack, India ink, Chinese ink

Made of very fine soot mixed with water and a little gum arabic. Usually quite thick. Eventually settles out so stir/shake before use.

Carbon ink is a pigment-based medium not a true ink (which 'bites' into and chemically bonds with the fibres of the substrate), so it sits on top of the surface it's written onto and in theory can be scraped off. However, since the size of the carbon particles is so minute, in practice it soaks into loose fibres, especially if used quite dilute. If the ink is made too thick and gummy, it flakes off when dry.

NB atramentum is the old Roman name for carbon black in general.

Chinese stick-ink is carbon and gum in a block which must be rubbed down with water on slate to the desired consistency. India ink is already liquid.

Walnut ink

A very thin, runny ink, made from walnut juice, which darkens on exposure to air, suitably diluted and preserved. Readily available commercially.

Picking green walnuts stains your hands dark brown.

Traditional pigments

Armenian red

A type of bug pink. Only listed here to distinguish it from kermes, New World cochineal, and lac.

(There are a lot of pink bug pigments.)


(Hydrated copper carbonate)

Cheaper than lapis lazuli, paler, slightly greenish, rich mid-blue. Alternative to lapis lazuli/ultramarine. 

I have a feeling azurite is one that you shouldn't grind too fine or it goes a bleached greyish colour.

Closely related to malachite (ultramarine) green.


aka Armenian earth

(Red iron oxide, iron oxide clay)

Not used in painting. When mixed with rabbit-skin glue etc, bole provides a smooth dense ground for water-gilding. Not a bright red. A purplish-brownish-maroon colour which lends warmth to the gold laid on top of it.

I recall from gilding classes that bole is said still to be used for painting metal on eg iron railway bridges to help prevent rust. Must check this. Might also be used to tint traditional pink houses in Italy?

Bone black

(mostly carbon, some unburnt material)

Bone black is a warmish black (ie it has a brownish cast) formed by burning bones etc. Can be gritty.

Ivory black is similar but, obviously, isn't available these days unless you can find any spare teeth to burn.

NB vine black is a colder, more blueish black.

Brown ochre

(Iron oxides)

Various browns. Non-toxic, stable. Old, old pigments.

Raw sienna is a plain, natural brown; burnt sienna is clear reddish brown.

Raw umber is a yellowish, heavy brown; burnt umber is a warmer, darker, translucent brown. (Good for painting shadows, I guess; hence the name, as in 'umbrella'.)


aka whiting

(Calcium carbonate)

Occasionally used as white pigment.

More commonly used mixed with rabbit-skin glue as a base for panel-painting (egg tempera) or (often with the addition of lead carbonate) for making gesso sottile for fine gilding.

NB eggshell, also occasionally finely ground and used as white, is also calcium carbonate.


The natural form of vermilion or mercury sulphide. Inferior in terms of colour to synthetic vermilion but then everything is. Pity it is so unspeakably poisonous.

See Vermilion.

Indigo, woad

Woad grows in northern Europe and famously dyed the Picts, but its colour for painting isn’t as good as indigo, which grows in India and was imported as a dye.

During the medieval period, indigo was often mixed with orpiment for vergaut green.

NB these aren't dyes in the usual sense. Indigo coats fibres rather than biting into them. (This is why denim fades in wear-patterns the way it does; the dye rubs off.) Not sure how they are made into pigments. Possibly just by drying.


aka Old World cochineal

Made of crushed bugs. Bright clear pink. Originally harvested in north-east Europe. From the sixteenth century, ousted by New World cochineal which is even pinker and also made of bugs: white, woolly, slightly disgusting bugs that live on cactus plants. I think they are a type of scale insect. 

(By bugs I do mean bugs in the proper scientific sense, ie insects with a piercing mouthpart used to drink sap from plants. Just so you know.)

Use alizarin crimson if feeling squeamish; it's cheaper, too.


Lac, like kermes, derives from bugs, but comes from Asia. It is a resin, not a pigment: not very permanent. Probably used mostly as a glaze.


aka carbon black, vegetable black, atramentum

Dense, fluffy black formed of extremely fine soot deposited by flames on a hard surface. You can make it yourself by running a candle flame onto a piece of china for hours but it's hard to get off and hard to make it mix smoothly into liquid.

Can also be used to make ink. 

The oldest pigment known to man, apparently. 

Lapis lazuli

aka ultramarine blue, lazurite

Rich glowing mid-blue, sometimes with a touch of grey or violet. Expensive (more expensive than gold a lot of the time). Traditionally used for the Virgin Mary’s robes. Note that the extraction of the blue from the blue/grey rock is difficult. Early lapis lazuli pigment in Europe is greyish. After the thirteenth century, the Muslim Arab method of extraction became known in Europe and the blue improved markedly.

Called ‘ultramarine’ because imported from ‘beyond the sea’ (ie beyond the Mediterranean). Afghanistan was the source during the medieval period. Now usually sourced from South America, which to my eye is a more violet stone. The Afghan stone is a more sober and attractive blue in my opinion.

Getting a decent watercolour is not so easy. Old Holland do a fair one. The pure powder pigment can be gritty. Best to re-grind yourself.

NB acid-sensitive. Vinegar, for example, will bleach it.

French ultramarine is the usual substitute. It's a heavy, dark, somewhat purplish colour by comparison.

Lead white

aka white lead, biacca, ceruse

(Lead carbonate)

Fine-textured, responsive, soft bright white. Commonest traditional white used. Tends to blacken near sulphides eg true vermilion, orpiment but mixes great with other colours. Basis for flesh tones.

In terms of substitutes, modern titanium white is more brilliant and colder, with much more coverage. Zinc white is a bit feeble. A mixture might work to approximate lead white colour/coverage but the difficulty is getting its amazing flow which seems to inform much of the decoration on coloured initials. (Also cf Nick Hilliard's later, 'dribbled' lace collars.) Ox gall?

In oil, called flake white and other names, and goes translucent over time. 

NB supply, storage and disposal of lead pigments strictly controlled in EU. Handle very carefully, do not inhale any, do not ingest any. Do not throw away in regular rubbish. Do not put wash water down drain.

Lead-tin yellow

Pale, opaque, attractively lemony sort of yellow. Thirteenth century on.

NB supply, storage and disposal of lead pigments strictly controlled in EU. Handle very carefully, do not inhale any, do not ingest any. Do not throw away in regular rubbish. Do not put wash water down drain.


(Lead monoxide)

Yellowish powder. Sometimes found in red lead where it contributes to a more orange shade. 

Really only included here because, well, what a name.

NB massicot (another great name!) is another yellowish lead oxide which Meyer says is deeper or more pinkish in hue.

NB supply, storage and disposal of lead pigments strictly controlled in EU. Handle very carefully, do not inhale any, do not ingest any. Do not throw away in regular rubbish. Do not put wash water down drain.

Madder lake

aka natural madder, rose madder

Made by causing madder dye (made from the roots of the plant) to deposit onto alum or similar to create a lake (a pigment made of a dye). Rich pinkish red.

Madder is the traditional red of Turkic, Middle Eastern, Iranian and Caucasian etc kilims and rugs, and was used in Europe for dyeing clothing.


aka ultramarine green

(copper ore)

Fifteenth century on. Bright bluish green. 

Called ultramarine green for the same reason as lapis-lazuli blue: it came from overseas.

Azurite occasionally turns into malachite. They are closely related.

NB it's a copper compound, so probably pretty poisonous.


(naturally occuring lead oxides)

Usually used to mean a natural form of red lead, named after the Minho river in Spain, where it is said originally to have been mined (but note that cinnabar is more commonly found than red lead in nature).

See Red lead.


See Yellow ochre; Brown ochre.


aka auripigmentum

(Arsenic sulphide)

Commonly used, extremely toxic. Goldenish, warm bright yellow. Gives distinct ‘glowing’ or lustrous appearance on early Insular mss, perhaps by contrast with darkened brownish vellum. It tarnishes silver leaf and blackens lead compounds. Don’t mix or juxtapose with lead or copper pigments (causes degradation). Mixed with indigo for vergaut (classic medieval green). 

'King’s Yellow' is the related synthetic arsenic trisulphide.

As a substitute, I guess use warm chrome yellow, and adjust if necessary with a little cadmium orange substitute or warm red. Break with a tad of brown/grey – the mined pigment is not totally pure.

NB it’s arsenic: handle very carefully, do not inhale any, do not ingest any. Do not throw away in regular rubbish. Do not put wash water down drain.


(Arsenic sulphide)

Reddish-golden orange. Naturally occurring mineral. Often found in manuscripts together with orpiment. Derives from the Arabic 'rahj al-gar' meaning 'mine-dust'. Apparently.

Pararealgar is more orangey again, as far as I can see, and is the result of exposing realgar to light. 

NB v. poisonous. Handle very carefully, do not inhale any, do not ingest any. Do not throw away in regular rubbish. Do not put wash water down drain.

Red lead

(Lead oxides: lead tetroxide with lead monoxide)

Very old pigment, relatively easy to make by oxidising (burning) lead carbonate. Orangey red: I seem to recall this is because of the presence of yellowish lead monoxides before proper oxidisation has been achieved, and so the the better the quality of the product, the less orange it is. Dense. Toxic. Darkens on exposure, reacts with orpiment and (I think) other sulphides.

Cheaper than true vermilion (which is a much clearer, colder red), and often used as a substitute for same or to cover larger areas. Also might be passed off as vermilion by unscrupulous colourmen – hence, I suspect, the sense of 'vermilion' today as orange-red. 

Red lead is the synthetic form of minium (so named because the naturally occurring red was originally mined near Minho river in Spain). However, Meyer says ‘minium’ was used by the Romans to refer to cinnabar. Red lead is rare in natural form. 

Use cadmium red substitute with some orange or warm yellow mixed in.

NB supply, storage and disposal of lead pigments is strictly controlled in EU. Handle very carefully, do not inhale any, do not ingest any. Do not throw away in regular rubbish, do not put wash water down drain.


(Squid or cuttlefish ink)

Deep translucent brown. Not totally light-fast. Slightly fishy. Non-toxic, obvs. Squid ink is of course the dye used to make black pasta.


aka Venetian red

(Red ferric oxide)

Various shades; non-toxic; permanent. A rich, warm red. Good for skin tones mixed with white.

Named after the port of Sinop (Turkey), where the best variety came from. It's a Renaissance colour by name but perhaps known earlier?

NB presumably the 'ferric' distinguishes it from various other shades of iron oxide red, including straight-up rust (a heavy, reddish-orangey-brown shade). Must brush up on chemistry.


Glass or frit heated with cobalt to turn it deep blue, then broken and powdered. Gives a mid-range blue. As it's glass, it's probably one of those pigments where the finer the grind, the paler the resulting colour.

Terre verte

aka green earth

Natural aluminium and magnesium clay coloured by iron silicates.

Dull, greenish earth colour, often used in Renaissance for flesh tones to show shadow.

Still very popular.

Tyrian purple

aka murex

Obtained by squeezing a variety of whelk to extract a tiny drop of liquid which on exposure to air produces a rich purple.

Only the Emperor could wear the Tyrian purple toga, etc.

Use quinacridone red with blue and break with sepia or similar.


‘Bad green’ or dirty green, made by mixing yellow ochre, carbon black and red earth in certain proportions. Used for underpainting to establish light and shade.


aka copper salts

Various copper compounds often mixed. Formed by reacting copper with acid and air. Attractive, pale, clear, cool, often chalky greens, perhaps because mixed with whites to help them remain less reactive? Notoriously unstable, tends to eat through manuscript pages. 

Viridian and white forms a base for a substitute colour.


(Mercury sulphide)

This is the synthetic version of cinnabar. Made by collecting the horribly poisonous vapours in a heated, sealed glass vessel and then scraping them out. Synthesis well established by 14th C (Ricciardi & Beers, 27).

Fine, fluffy texture. Brilliant, powerful, glowing red in the mid-range. Nothing else looks like it. No perfect substitute though cadmium red is usually used instead. (Even cadmium red is poisonous enough to have been substituted for.)

Highly toxic. In earlier periods, expensive and usually used sparingly. 

NB handle very carefully, do not inhale any, do not ingest any. Do not throw away in regular rubbish. Do not put wash water down drain.


See Chalk.

Yellow ochre

aka Chamois, apparently

(Iron oxide)

Ranges from golden to brownish. Non-toxic. Stable.

NB yellow ochre is golden when applied thinly as a transparent glaze or wash, becomes clayish khaki if applied opaquely.

(Mixes nice clear natural greens if used with a greenish blue eg manganese. Duller greens with cerulean; greyish greens with cobalt and ultramarine.)

Many of these traditional pigments are available from Natural Pigments (USA) or Kremer Pigmente (Europe, USA). Also try Atlantis Art Supplies (UK). The  toxic ones are more difficult to obtain in Europe. Do remember that they are poisonous to people, animals, plants, water systems and wildlife, and that lead, mercury, and arsenic remain toxic (they do not break down).


Ricciardi, P., and K. R. Beers, ‘The Illuminators’ Palette’, in Panayotova, Colour, pp. 27-57

Bucklow, S., ‘The Trade in Colours’, in Panayotova, Colour, pp. 59-74

Meyer, R., ‘Pigments’, in The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques, fifth ed. rev. and expanded by S. Sheehan (Faber & Faber, 1991), pp. 29-166

Panayotova, S., ed., Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts (Harvey Miller, 2016)

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