Ancient Color

Ancient Color

Creating Using Investigating

White Pigments

Chalk white, kaolinite

Chalk white
Chalk pigment
Chalk pigment
  • What is it made of? These are calcium carbonate and aluminosilicate minerals derived from naturally occurring chalk and clay deposits.
  • Where does it come from? These deposits are found throughout the Mediterranean.
  • How is it made? The pigment was prepared by selecting certain pigmented areas from a mineral deposit, then grinding and separating the mineral into a fine, even powder.
  • Fun fact! Natural chalk is formed from the buildup of shells, made of calcite, from tiny sea creatures on the seafloor millions of years ago.

Lead white

Lead white
Lead white pigment
  • What is it made of? This is a form of lead carbonate.
  • Where does it come from? It occurs naturally in western Turkey, but in antiquity a manufactured version was commonly used. It was produced in many places, from the silver mines of Roman Spain to Puteoli in southern Italy (modern Pozzuoli), as well as on the island of Rhodes and in the Peloponnese in southern Greece.
  • How is it made? According to Pliny the Elder, manufactured white lead was produced by placing pieces of lead in a container with a small amount of vinegar. The container was then sealed for ten days, during which time a chemical reaction occurred that produced a white crust on the pieces of lead. This white crust, the lead carbonate, could be scraped off and ground into a pigment.
  • Fun fact! In chemistry terms, lead is considered a “heavy” metal, that is, it has a high atomic weight that makes it appear bright in X-ray images.
UK chalk deposit Close×
Natural chalk buildup at the Seale Chalk Pit in UK. Photo: Lewis Hulbert.
X-ray image of a mummy portrait. Close×
An X-ray image of a mummy portrait from the Detroit Institute of Arts, 25.2.