Pigments used in egg-tempera icon painting by early Italian masters and the search for modern equivalents

by Guillem Ramos-Poquí

Today there are hundreds of artists’ dry pigments available on the market. This research is based on a comparative study of the colours, taking as reference points works at London’s National Gallery, the Courtauld Institute, the Byzantine section of the British Museum, and the icon collection at the Temple Gallery in London. The object of the exercise was to decide on a ‘limited palette’ of twenty-four permanent dry pigments (twenty colours, some of which are mixtures, two whites and two blacks) which could readily mix with egg-tempera medium without the need for grinding. Also, to find mixtures of contemporary pigments which could act as equivalents to historical colours, some of which have been discarded as being exorbitantly expensive (lapis lazuli, vermilion), highly poisonous (red lead or minium, lead tin yellow, white lead), non-permanent (carmine, rose madder, indigo), or coarse-ground and therefore too gritty (some varieties of malachite, azurite, chrysocolla). The resulting limited palette of single pigments and mixtures of two or more to enhance colours aims to provide an ideal adequate range.

This selection of pigments is made not for restorers but for those artists who wish to recreate or reinterpret today the works of the old masters – Giotto, Duccio, Monaco and others. It is advisable that those interested do their detective work by making their own samples of the mixtures given here and maybe others, in order to compare them directly with the colours in works in museums and galleries. A large colour-wheel chart of pigments, with graduation from white and black (available from many different makers and suppliers), mixed with egg tempera, and other charts of these pigments and their mixtures, were taken to compare with the colours in the actual galleries. Notes were taken of possible optional combinations and checked again. For the colours of the historical pigments, equivalent mixtures of dry pigments are given in the limited palette under (M), but you should test these mixtures against the historical pigments to refine them and find the right proportions.


  • Cor = Cornelissen
  • K = Kremer
  • Mai = Maimeri
  • OH = Old Holland
  • WN = Winsor & Newton

Pigment range. The names of the various pigments have been highlighted only once. Those marked with an asterisk are not essential for the limited palette.

White and black. Unless otherwise indicated, titanium and zinc whites (or even better, a mixture of both) and K47400 Spinel are used.

Numbers in square brackets identify those colours selected for the limited palette.

(M) = pigments to be mixed dry in quantity, ready to use.

the limited palette

Yellow, yellow-orange, and ochre

Lorenzo Monaco’s yellows must have been two varieties of lead tin yellow, one warmer than the other (available at Cor). These are found in Monaco’s Coronation and can be replaced with:

[1] (M) Cor Cadmium Yellow Middle mixed with Titanium White.

[2] (M) WN Cadmium Lemon mixed with Cor Cadmium Yellow Middle, and Titanium White.

For yellow-orange, there is an ‘enhanced’ ochre used in many of the paintings (Monaco, Lorenzetti, Borghese Di Piero; in the case of Monaco it appears as the darker side of the yellow graduation), which can be obtained through a mixture of:

[3] (M) K1330 Titanium Orange with Zecchi 812/Z501 Yellow Ochre Light, a colour found in icons of St George and Christ, in Giotto, Lorenzetti, and Jacopo di Cione. With the addition of OH Light Red, we find it in Duccio and in icons of e.g. St Nicholas.

Orange and red-orange

For bright orange Monaco must have mixed the lead tin yellows with minium or red lead (available at Cor). This mixture can be replaced with:

[4] K2110 Cadmium Orange no. 1 Middle. This colour is very close to minium (red lead) and can be found in icons (appearing in e.g. walls, red cheek colour in the face, etc.). This colour, mixed with K2111 Cadmium Red Orange Vermilion (see Reds), can be found in a floor painted by Monaco.


[5] K4063 Raw Umber, in a garment by Monaco.

[6] K40090 French Ochre Soforouge, with a small addition of white, and enhanced with a bit of K2110 Cadmium Orange Middle and/or Titanium Orange K1330. Alternatives to the K40090 French Ochre are K17100 Burnt Sienna Monte Amiata, or K4160 Terra Ercolano enhanced with a small amount of K1330 Titanium Orange.

[7] K4160 Terra Ercolano; see Skin Colour (base) and Red-Purple mixtures.

Skin colour: base and lights, and hair

[8] OH Ochre A352 (or alternatively K4020 Ochre Avana with a small amount of white), is the skin base in Monaco’s Coronation, and in an icon of St Peter. — OH Ochre A352, enhanced with a bit of a pale mixture of K1330 Titanium Orange, K4160 Terra Ercolano, and white, is the skin base for Christ in an icon of the Deësis.

[9] K4028 Amberg Yellow, mixed with white, is the base in Piero’s Baptism. With a small addition of Zecchi Warm Italian Ochre it is found as the base colour in an icon of the Virgin and Child.

[10] Cor Terre Verte or, alternatively, K4081 Bohemian Terre Verte*, with a bit of white, is Duccio’s base skin colour.

[11] Zecchi Warm Italian Ochre (alternative: K5235 Transoxide Red Orange), mixed with increasing gradations of white for lights.

[12] Cor Raw Umber (a warmer shade than the already mentioned K4063 Raw Umber) and a little white, is found in Christ’s hair in an icon of the Deësis.

Red and red-purple

For the best red, both Italian masters and icon painters used vermilion. This can be replaced with:

[13] K2111 Cadmium Red Orange Vermilion (alternatively Cor Cadmium Vermilion*). However, I have found that vermilion is a unique colour that is indispensable, and since you will only be using very small amounts, I would advise you to buy some of good quality (e.g. Cor Genuine Vermilion). The masters will also have used carmine1 (from the cochineal beetle), which can be replaced with:

[14] K23402 Quindo Rose, or alternatively K2329-A Permanent Red*. These two synthetic organic colours, however, are relatively too bright, and to approach a carmine-like colour could be lightly toned down with a very small addition of WN Cadmium Red Deep. WN Cadmium Red Deep mixed with K23402 Quindo Rose and a bit of white is to be found in an angel’s shirt in Piero’s Baptism. Rose madder (extract from the roots of a plant) will have been used by the masters, in its pale form or in a darker form with the addition of another colour.

An equivalent for a pale rose madder colour: A mixture of K23402 Quindo Rose, K4160 Terra Ercolano and white (alternatively OH Madder Pale 27 Geranium Light Extra* mixed with a bit of white).

An equivalent for the deep red madder colour can be obtained in two ways:

[15] WN Cadmium Red Deep (mixed with a small amount of Titanium White and maybe a tiny bit of black), found in an icon on the Virgin’s cloak.

— WN Cadmium Red Deep mixed with either K23402 Quindo Rose (two alternatives: K2329-A Permanent Red, or K73200-B Madder Lake) and a small amount of Cor Terre Verte, white, and a tiny bit of black, is found in a garment by Fra Angelico, and in icons e.g. of St Nicholas. 1 Called kermes at that time, from the name of the insect from which the dye was obtained before cochineal red was brought back from the New World in the sixteenth century.

Mauve 2

Mauve and dark mauve are hardly ever used. However, we see it in Piero’s angel in his Baptism, a bluish-mauve colour that looks like:

— K4510 Ultramarine* mixed with Terre Verte and white, though Piero’s is a bit more grey. Mixed with K4511 Ultramarine Dark* it is found in the Virgin’s garment in Monaco’s Coronation.

Or a reddish dark mauve in Monaco’s shirt of Christ at the Courtauld: — K4580 Cobalt Violet Dark* mixed with K23402 Quindo Rose, and white, and a tiny bit of black.


The masters will have used either the best grades of lapis lazuli, or a good blue grade of azurite (copper acetate). For our range we recommend:

[16] (M) WN French Ultramarine with a small addition of zinc white, K4520 Milori Prussian Blue, and Cor Terre Verte. This mixture approximates the colour of lapis lazuli and can be found in Fra Angelico’s Virgin’s robe. K4520 Milori Prussian Blue mixed with some of the lapis lazuli equivalent mixture can be found in Giovanni da Milano, Piero, Daddi, and on Christ’s robe in an icon of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. A lapis lazuli equivalent mixture mixed with Mai Cobalt Blue Deep can be found in Duccio’s Christ’s robe and in the Wilton Diptych.

[17] Mai Cobalt Blue Light mixed with white or without it, found in Monaco and Fra Angelico (angel’s shirt, St Peter’s garment).

[18] Mai Cobalt Blue Deep (alternative Cor Cobalt Blue*), which could be toned down slightly with a very small amount of a mixture of black, raw umber and white, or alternatively with a small addition of K23100 Indanthren Blue* and white. A colour very similar to K23100 Indanthren Blue* mixed with some white can be found in an icon of St Peter and in a cloak by Monaco.

— Two shades of azurite equivalent can be obtained by mixing either Mai Cobalt Blue Deep or WN French Ultramarine with some OH Cobalt blue. One of the shades of indigo (a fugitive colour) can be obtained by mixing Mai Cobalt Blue Deep with some black and white.


[19] OH Turquoise (or alternatively K4575 Cobalt Blue Turquoise) mixed with a tiny bit of white and black. A colour found in a garment in Giotto’s Pentecost at the National Gallery, in Monaco’s colour for water, and in Ugolino di Nerio at the Courtauld. Mixed with a bit of OH Cobalt Green Deep it appears in the Virgin’s garment in an icon of the Deësis, and in the colour of a garment and in the sea in icons e.g. of St Nicholas.

Green and yellow-green

The early Italians must have used the best grades of malachite. Malachite is available today in brighter or greyer-green shades and needs to be very finely ground for it to mix well.

— Cor Terre Verte: see Skin Colour (base)

— (M) K4420 Chromium Oxide Green mixed with equals amounts of Cor Terre Verte. With some Cor Raw Umber it appears in a book held by a saint in a work by Daddi.

A beautiful emerald-type green for which they must have used malachite as a pigment (e.g. K10310 Natural Malachite*) could be obtained by: [20] (M) A mixture of Unison Cobalt Green (alternative: K4428 Permanent Green) and OH Turquoise, with very small amounts of black and white, with or without the addition of a small amount of Cadmium Lemon, to be found in works by Fra Angelico, Monaco, and in icons of the Virgin and Child, and St George.

For yellow-green these masters would have used, obviously, mixtures of yellow and green. However, Cor Cadmium Green* mixed with a lot of white looks like the colour in a sleeve in Monaco’s Coronation.


Pure white lead* is the best white by far, and it has been used since antiquity. However, like red lead (minium) and lead tin yellow, it is highly poisonous. Once inhaled it remains in the system permanently. Alternatives today are:

[21] Titanium White (by any well-known manufacturer), an opaque white. 2 i.e. the violet section of the colour-wheel, a tertiary colour; before the invention of artificial mauve in the mid nineteenth century, violets mostly had to be created by colour-mixing.

[22] Zinc White (by any well-known manufacturer) is a transparent white of little strength, it is hygroscopic (absorbs humidity from air and becomes gritty), and unlike titanium white it has the advantage of not making the colours dull.


[23] Zecchi Roman Black, a fine warm black.

[24] K47400 Spinel Black (also available at Cor). It is both very black, and very transparent. Or use a mixture of both. With the addition of some Cor Raw Umber it is similar to that found in one of the works by Duccio.

Retail suppliers of the above pigments

Kremer and Zecchi sell their pigments online:

For Winsor & Newton, see

Old Holland products may be ordered through Jackson’s Art Supplies, 1 Farleigh Place, London, n16 7sx, tel. 020 7254 0077, or online:

  1. Cornelissen, 105 Great Russell Street, London, wc1b 3ry, tel. 020 7636 1045, nearest tube station Tottenham Court Road.

For Maimeri, contact Stuart R. Stevenson, 68 Clerkenwell Road, London, ec1m 5qa, tel. 020 7253


Guillem Ramos-Poquí