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Artists' Pigments c1600-1835 by RD Harley

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Book Review Artists Pigments

"Artist's Pigments c1600-1835" by RD Harley

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The Bottom Line

This definitely isn't a light introduction to color aimed at beginners. It's for enthusiasts and devoted painters wanting to learn about the pigments we use to create our art, the names given to pigments, their development in Europe between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, dates of discovery and manufacture, that sort of thing.

If this sounds like a heavy-duty read, it is, but it's also rewarding if you enjoy learning and discovering new things. Don't sit down to read it from cover to cover, but savor it slowly, color by color.
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  • Extensive research into European artist's pigments made accessible in one volume.
  • Grouping of pigments by hue and comprehensive index help finding a particular color.
  • Reprinted edition of a book that had gone out of print.


  • Hideous combination of colors on the book cover.
  • Not cheap (List price is £30 or $48).
  • Illustrated in black and white with one small color plate section. Don't expect color swatches.
  • Reprint of 1982 edition, without updates.


  • Paperback book. 252 pages. ISBN 9781873132913.
  • 15 line drawings, 41 black-and-white photos. 7 page color plate insert.
  • Reprint of 1982 edition, published by Archetype Publications.
  • First three chapters are on documentary sources used for the author's research into color.
  • Research is distilled into nine chapters, each on a different color or hue group.

Guide Review - Artists' Pigments c1600-1835 by RD Harley

Artists' Pigments is a study of English documentary sources (books, manuscripts, catalogs, etc.) on color from around 1600 to 1835. As you might suspect, it has its origins in the author's PhD thesis, expanded for the 1982 edition. While more recent books on color obviously include more recent research (such as those by John Gage), I've seen Artists' Pigments included in many a reference list and it's pleasing it's been reprinted so it's more readily available.

It's not a cheap book nor is it a light read, but I've found it fascinating to learn more about the history of pigments, their discovery and commercial development, what they actually are and what cheaper versions were sometimes substituted. Did you know "Indian ink" was imported into Europe from China? That the permanence of natural ultramarine was the standard against which other blues was judged? That Turner patented a yellow? What about fruit stones or coal as black pigments? What the difference between a colour-maker and a colour-man is? (The former manufactures pigments and the latter makes artist's paints from these pigments.) If this type of information delights you, then this book ought to delight you.

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