Natural Colours & Pigments by Fatima Zahra Hassan

In the traditional Indo-Persian style of miniature painting, the role and use of colour is of extreme significance, both in terms of visual representation and symbolic meaning. However, our concern here is to concentrate on the quality and nature of these pigments and how they were prepared and applied in this art form. The research work of porter and Minorsky[1] in this field, clearly indicates that there was very little development in the techniques of the preparation of the pigments between the 12th and the 18th centuries, and that furthermore there was very little variety from one region to another. The conclusion of these finding is that any process of identification in terms of region or date cannot be totally based on the process of the preparation and application of the colours. It is often clearer to base this identification on the styles of the different schools of painting in the region.

However, by general observation, there is a clear difference between Persian and Indian paintings in the range and use of certain colours. Persian miniature painting has always been characterised by and rightly admired for the brilliance of its colours, especially the use  of lapis lazuli. While Indian painting used more subtle tones such as peori, orange and green earth. If anything, this indicates that Persian paintings mainly used colours which derived fro minerals and other sources like copper carbntes and iron oxides. This range of minerals and organic sources were introduced to India by the Persians. Prior to this influence, Indian paintings used colours which derived from plants, vegetables and different types of earth colours from the range of clays that were available.

Natural pigments were always found in abundance in the South Asian, Persian and Central Asian regions and therefore the Pallet of Indo-Persian artists was extremely rich in terms of colour. The natural pigments which were used for this range of colours derived from four main categories:

Earth and Mineral colours

Organic Colour Pigment i.e. from Plant or Animal Sources

Inorganic or Artificial Colour Pigment

Metals and Oxides

[1] Porter, Y. Painters, Paintings and books, Manohar, New Delhi, 1994. Minorsky, V. Calligrpahers and Painters, a treatise by Qadi Ahmad, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, 1959.

Amongst the minerals used were gold, silver, copper, mercury, iron, tin and lead. Lapis lazuli, which is mainly found in the area of the Indus river, was the basis of ultra marine blue. Likewise, artists could achieve a bright red from ground cinnabar, yellow from compliment and green from malachite. Black is mainly derived from two sources; carbon (animal, mineral or plant) or gall nuts.

Expense and availability of materials and the cost of labour dictated the choice of pigment types that were used. Often cheaper and more convenient substitutes for lapis lazuli, malachite and cinnabar were not uncommon. Instead of lapis lazuli, indigo, a plant derivative as well as ultramarine were used fro dark blue and azurite.

Furthermore, copper carbonate, which is destructive to paper, produced a lighter blue. A substitute for malachite was Verdigris, a highly corrosive green pigment, obtained by dipping copper plates in vinegar and burying them in a pit for a month. Furthermore, many alternatives to cinnabar existed. Mercury and sculpture ground and heated together resulted in vermilion, and the bright orange red of many Persian paintings came from red lead. Despite the dangers of lead poisoning, red lead and its cousin, white lead, made by treating lead with vinegar, enjoyed continuous use from classical times until at least the 17th Century. Other reds include red brown, iron oxide, carmine from the kermes (lakh) insect, and some unidentified plant dyes.

Unfortunately, some of the pigments used in Persian miniature painting were destructive to the paper as well as being harmful to the health of the artist, while other tended to change colours or invade their neighboring colours. Silver, usually used to depict water. amour and highlights, often tarnishes and turns black. Verdigris eats away not only the paper on which it is painted but also the surrounding pages. White lead and red lead blacked when on their own and turn yellow orpiment to black when they touch it. Azurite also has a corrosive effect.

Colour pigments in shells

Taking into consideration the fugitive nature of some of the pigments and minerals used, it is remarkable that so many Persian miniatures remain intact. It is possible that the binding medium used for these pigments, contributed to their durability. 16th century sources referred to in the work of Porter and Minorsky[1] seem to indicate that until the 1590s, Persian artists used albumen and glue to bind the particles of pigments. Certainly these binding media added to the hard sheen that characterises the surface of early Persian miniatures.

Most of the colours used in Persian miniature painting derived from minerals; organic colours being more commonly used in textile dyeing than for painting. This use of organic colour dyeing of textiles was most evident in India. The palette of colours that was obtained from the available minerals was quite limited. However, from a fairly small number of sources, Persian painter mixed a dazzling range of the hues, opaque reds and yellows (Vermilion, Ochre and Oppiment), translucent bright blues (Lapis or Azurite), a couple of greens (malachite, verdigris, chrysocolla), reds and browns and black and white. Oganic colours, Indigo, Peori (Indian Yellow), Red Lake and Purple Lake, widened the scope for the artist. The brilliance and subtlety these colours added to their paintings seemed sufficient compensation to them for their lack of permanence under certain circumstances.

       The preparation of these minerals involved constant washing to extract impurities as well as breaking them down into small pieces and grinding them into a powder form. This process of preparation will be discussed in further detail in the section dealing with the preparation of pigments for my own work.

A further point which has to be highlighted is the fact that the painters of the Indian and Persian schools of miniature painting chose water colours as their painting media. The reason for this is quite a practical one and is easily understandable if one is a painter practicing in the Indian subcontinent. This is mainly due to the physical environment in which the work is executed. The climate is hot and dusty and therefore the water-colours dry instantly without letting the dust get absorbed into the medium. Even if the dust settles on the painting, it could be wiped off with a soft cloth. An oil based painting would absorb the dust and it would not be possible to clean it once it is dry. A further point is that oil colours dry up and crack in very hot climates, while water based paintings endure.

The following is a list of colours that were commonly used in Indo Persian miniature painting which were all extracted from mineral or organic sources. All these pigments are still available and form the basis of the colours which are used in the miniature painting I execute.

The preparation of these pigments are based on the instructions I have received from my master Ustad Bashir Ahmed in Pakistan and on experiments that I have carried out. However, I have also based my experience on the instructions of several ancient manuscripts on miniature painting. These are :

  • Calligraphers and painters by Qadi Ahmed, son of Mir-Munshi (circa A.D. 1015/1015/A.D. 1606), translated by V. Minorsky, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, 1959.
  • Qanum us-suvar (The canons of painting), by Sadeq Bek (17th century A.D.), from the Houghton Shahnameh, M.B. Dickson and S.C. Welch, Cambridge Mass, 1981. Painters, paintings and Books, Yves Porter, Manohar, Centre for Human Sciences, New Delhi, 1994.


Lead white – This lead carbonate is obtained by suspending lead above vinegar until a white deposit appears on it, it is then left to dry in the sun. In today’s polluted atmosphere it tuns black fairly quickly when mixed with a gum arabic solution. This is not commonly used today because of its poisonous nature.

Chalk white – This derived from calcium carbonate or to common chalk.

Oyster shell white – This is derived from oyster shaells which are ground into a fine powder and prepared by mixing with a binding medium.


This is a very important colour for painting. The traditional way of getting this is from ‘soot’. A container is placed over a lit lamp (using oil or coal) till black soot or lamp black which is known as ‘kajal’ is collected on the sides of the container. This soot is then mixed with acacia resin or gum arabic and water. The mixture is ground with the index finger till it become extremely fine. This mixture provides a thick strong black colour. This black ‘kajal’ is also used by women as ‘kohl’.

Nowadays, artists mostly use Chinese indelible ink which is found in a stick form.

Multani Mitti:

It is very light grey in colour. Multani clay an be used as a base or a ground or to size the paper. It is diluted with gum Arabic and then applied onto the paper and is then burnished before applying the colours. This is used to give a background tone to the painting surface as well as an alternative to staining the paper with tea. Multani clay came from the region of Multan.


Yellow ochre – (In Urdu and Farsi it is known as zard, the Hindi name is ramraj) – an iron oxide, it is usually found in the form of a coloured earth and is washed and finely ground and mixed with a binding medium.

Indian yellow – (Indian name is pouri orgagoli) – it is said that this colour is made from the urine of cows fed on mangoes or mango leaves to produced a very bright and vivid yellow colour. Recent test have proved that this is only a tale of folklore. However due to this take it was not used in Islamic manuscripts dealing with sacred themes. Other references indicate that is a yellow earth found in India. This pigment is not commonly used due to its obscure source.

Orpiment – A brilliant yellow made from sulphide of arsennic which is dangerous to use. This stone is ground, washed and mixed with grum arabic.

Saffron yellow – The most common yellow colour used in the Indian subcontinent. The saffron is boiled or soaked in water to give the liquid colour. The period of soaking the saffron depends on the intensity of the colour required. This solution does not need to be mixed with gum arabic or other binding medium .This solution is translucent; however, if mixed with a white colour becomes opaque but loses its original intensity.

Turmeric yellow – This yellow is obtained by boiling the turmeric in water until it gives it the required colour, it is then filtered and some saffron is added and boiled again. This is filtered again and gall nut and gum arabic is added to the mixture before it cools down.


Lapis Lazuli – A mineral known as azure or ultramarine in the West. It is the most popular, rich and durable blue pigment. This pigment is prepared by grinding it and then mixing it with vinegar and gum arabic. This mixture is then washed several times to remove any impurities.

Azurite – This copper carbonate is a cheaper alternative to lapis lazuli which provides a good colour if not ground too fine when it becomes pale and greenish. Several coats are necessary to obtain a solid blue. It turns black when heated, unlike lapis which remains blue.

Indigo – Dark blue vegetable dye from the indigo plant.


Indian red – A natural iron oxide found in the earth and is deeper in colour than other earth reds. Generally found in the area of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf.

Minium – This is a orange red which is obtained from roasted white lead.

Vermilion – Made from mixing mercury with sulphur at a high temperature; the result  i a sulphide of mercury.

Red Lakes: Kerms and Cochineal – Both of insect origin which give various shades ranging from crimson to purple.

Geru – A crimson colour which is derived from a clay that is mainly found in the region of Sind and Rajestan. This clay is mixed with the binding medium and applied as a colour.


Rajastan – A sulphide of arsenic like orpiment which is poisonous and incompatible with lead or copper and not much used. The more Orpiment is ground while dry, the redder it becomes. When this is finely ground it is diluted with gum arabic and left to dry. Before using it a small amount of diluted gum is added.


Malachite – Copper carbonate, like azurite should not be ground too fine it will then lose its quality of colour.

Verdigris – A copper acetate which is cheap and easy to obtain but lacks durability. This is obtained by mixing copper filings with vinegar (or other forms of acid) and then leaving it for a few weeks. It then mixed with gum arabic. This material has a very destructive effect on paper. It is said that the remedy for this is to mix a little saffron to the verdigris. This give a pistachio colour, but its preservative qualities have not really been tested since it requires a long period of time.

Orpiment mixed with indigo – This mixture gives a clear green and is widely used in Islamic miniature painting.

Terraverte – Green iron oxide found in the earth, widely used in late 17th century Mughal paintings.


A yellowish colour. This is usually available in the form of a stone and is heavy like mercury. It is ground thoroughly and filtered several times with water and mixed with sheep’s milk afterwards and lemon juice is added. It has to be filtered properly because it has a heavy amount of mercury in it which could not be applied on to the painting directly.

Dana Farang:         

This is a particular stone which comes from Central Asia or Afghanistan. At present this natural pigment is no longer available and a cheap artificial substitute is available.


The silver is beaten by hand until it becomes a thin leaf. The silver can be used in the form of a leaf or can be made into a paint by mixing it with gum arabic.


The gold is cursed and mixed by hand with animal size or any other binding medium or applied in the form of gold-leaf. Gold is used extensively for illumination.

Apart from the major colour that are used and widely know, there are certain tones which are derived from these colours and are particular to the Indo-Pak subcontinent. These tones were traditionally known and are still referred to by their local names. These terms are very common words used in everday life which derive from the local environment and everyday objects that are seen by the painters. The actual words are originally Persian but have become integrated in the Urdu and Hindi languages. I was taught these names not only by my painting master but also from having grown up in the region. These tones do not only refer to miniature painting, but extend to textiles, ceramics, tile making and carpet weaving.

  • Badaami : This is a light brown tone like that of the almond. The word badaam actually means almond.
  • Chehrai : The word chehra means face and the tone referred to is that of the tone of the skin
  • Khaki : This is the tone of the earth; the work khak means clay earth.
  • Sabzi : The word sabzah means the green of nature and any form of vegetable is known as sabzi. This terms is used for a very wide tome of genn.
  • Pistai : The word pista means pitachio and the tone referred to is pistachio green.
  • Totia : The word tota means parrot, and the term refers to a very bright green tone.
  • Dhani : The word dhan means rice and the term refers to the green tone of the rice fields.
  • Moongia : The word moong refers to a particular lentil which is dark green in colour.
  • Zamourrad : The word zamourrad means emerald, and the tone referred to is that of the emerald.
  • Henai or Mehndi : Henai is a plant which is ground and used for dyeing hair and decorating hands and feet etc. It usually has two tones; a dark blackish green and a dark reddish tone. The term mehndi is also used to mean heni. The tone that is referred to is a dark green.
  • Lajward : This is the name for lapis lazuli.
  • Firouzi : Firouz  is the name for the turquoise stone, and the tone that is referred to is that of this tone. It is interesting to note that this tone cannot be derived straight from grinding the turquoise stone, since this gives no colour. This tone is usually derived from cobalt.
  • Neelam : This is the word for blue sapphire, and tone reffed to is a sky blue.
  • Aasmani : The word aasman is peacock and pankha means fan. The tern morpankh indicates the tones of the peacock’s tail.
  • Yaqout : The word Yaqout means ruby and the tone referred to is of a deep red.
  • Qirmizi : The word qirmiz means cherry and the term refers to a deep red tone.
  • Arghavani : This is extracted from the Judas tree, and the colour is a purplish red.
  • Gulabi : The word gulabi is usually used for a rose in Urdu and Hindi. However, in Persian it literally means rose water. The tone it refers to is that of rose pink.
  • Atishi Gulabi : The word atishi  actually means fire and the term referred to is a shocking pink.
  • Tarbouzi : The word tarbouz means watermelns and the term referred to is a pleasant dark pink which is similar to that of the inside of a water melons.
  • Piazi :The word piaz means onion, and the term refers to a very subtle pink tone.
  • Banafsha : This a tone which is extracted from the banafsha flower and is violet in colour. This is not used as a colour in miniature painting since it is not permanent.
  • Falsai : Falsa is a berry like fruit which has a deep purple colour.
  • Jamuni : Jamun is a fruit resembling a date and its colour is mauve.
  • Malta : The word malta means the orange fruit.
  • Narangi : The word narangi is an orange like fruit which is used to make marmalade. The tone referred to is a deeper orange tone.
  • Sindhori : The word sindhor refers to the orangeish – red strip of paste that is applied to the parting of a married woman’s hair in India.
  • Shangrafi : This is a tone similar to that of the Shangraf flower which is yellow in colour.
  • Zafarani : The word zafaran mean saffron.
  • Ambari : The term ambar refers to amber which is black in colour.
  • Fakhtai : The word fakhta means to dove and the tone referred to is grey with a tinge of red.
  • Sunehra : The word sona means gold. This term is used to refer to the tone of gold and is generally also used to mean the rays of the sun.
  • Rupehla : This  is used to describe the moonlight and refers to the tone of silver.

Gum arabic:

Gum arabic was the most commonly used medium for both the ground and the pigments. The decision of how much medium to use was always delicate and based on personal experience. Too much subjected the pigment layer to stress and cracking, too little and it would flake away in a fine powder. Artists avoided too much arabic with pigments of brilliant colour like lapis lazuli, as it spoiled the colour by making it duller.

[1] ibid

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