Foresight Analysis: Natural Pigments

The Origins of Colour

First seen in MIX Magazine, issue 41, we return to the origins of colour, exploring why natural pigments, their properties, applications and benefits are increasingly relevant today.

The story of pigment is rooted in nature. Traditionally extracted from rocks, soils and clays, the rich and warming colours produced speak volumes about the terrain from where they originate. Soft, earthy hues made from ochre, sienna and umber are responsible for most of what we today identify as reds, golds and yellows, creams and browns. Cooler shades of blue, turquoise, violet and green are derived from crystallised mineral elements such as ultramarine (traditionally known as lapis lazuli) and spinel, which are combined and then heated to extract the colour.

There is a sometimes ephemeral and unquantifiable element to these colours that is part of their appeal but also part of the reason why these natural pigments were abandoned in favour of more reliable synthetic formulations.  Today most pigments used in the paint and coatings industries are sophisticated and stable chemical representations of these ancient recipes.

The introduction of coal tars and other petrochemicals revolutionised and industrialised what was before an essentially cottage industry where colours directly referenced their surroundings. These factory-made pigments and paints could be produced at cheaper cost, had improved intensity and longevity and were always the same, no more batch variations to worry about.

However, there were disadvantages with these synthetic paints. The paint industry is notoriously dirty. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) are not only bad for the environment but have also been associated with asthma and other respiratory conditions. 

Recognising that harmful fumes from paint can hang around long after they have been applied, companies have been working towards lowering the levels of VOC’s used in products with clarification of labels a useful first step towards consumer transparency. The European Paints Directive of 2004 set out stricter values for the maximum limits of VOCS per litre. Suddenly an interest in natural pigments seemed like a smart move.

Natural pigments by their very nature are a niche product. However, with an increasing interest in bespoke products that celebrate differences rather than looking for conformity, there is now an increasing presence of small independent companies offering paint products that are more natural and less damaging to the environment.

Natural paint companies aim to be VOC free and safe for use in the home. The products essentially replace harmful petrochemicals with natural alternatives such as water, plant dyes, essential oils, plant oils and resins, milk casein, natural latex and beeswax. With the change in ingredients a change in finish is of course to be expected. Synthetics derived from petroleum products tend to have more vibrancy and they are much easier to control in terms of consistency, giving a more uniform finish but now as the use of natural paints becomes more popular we observe a change in attitude towards that desire for uniformity.

Along with the benefits of reduced toxicity these paints are natural by name and natural by nature. With a distinctive chalkiness, paints using natural pigments and ingredients also take up colour differently, meaning that the same colour can look different from batch to batch and in different environments, appearing more organic and with an appealing raw aesthetic. This is one of the starting blocks for our trend Ground, and one that we see growing in popularity, perfectly in sync with the growth of interest in craft, localism and ‘slow’ culture.