JAIC 1991, Volume 30, Number 2, Article 2 (pp. 125 to 144)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1991, Volume 30, Number 2, Article 2 (pp. 125 to 144)



ABSTRACT—The paper includes a comparison of information about pigments in the literature on Persian painting to an analysis of the pigments in a group of Persian paintings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A description of the classical medieval Persian painting technique is given as it is described in the liteature.


THE AIM of this paper is to compare information obtained through a technical analysis, using modern scientific equipment, of some Persian paintings with the information available in the literature on Persian painting technique. The sources of information ranged from a translation of a 16th-century manuscript written by Sadiqi Bek to current technical analyses of the materials used in the manufacture of Persian paintings. The technical information given in this paper was obtained from a study of 19 Persian paintings dating from the 15th to the 17th centuries in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) collection. The miniatures were executed in Persian art centers such as Herat, Shiraz, Tabriz, Bukhara, Qazvin, Isfahan, and Gilan. They were chosen because of known provenance and secure dating.

The LACMA paintings were examined using a binocular microscope, ultraviolet fluorescence, and infrared reflectography. Pigment identification was based primarily on energy-dispersive x-ray fluorescence analysis. This nondestructive technique provides an elemental analysis of selected color areas of each painting but is reliable only for those pigments containing elements with atomic numbers above that of potassium. The presence of particular elements is indicative of certain pigments and thus aids in their identification. Pigment identification can be confirmed by x-ray diffraction and/or polarizing light microscopy in conjunction with x-ray fluorescene.

Many pigments were also analyzed using a polarizing light microscope. This combination of analytical techniques allows the researcher to identify pigments that would not be detected by the x-ray fluorescence spectrometer. Every pigment in every painting was not analyzed, but every color in a painting (e.g., red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, white, black) that could be analyzed was. Further differentiation among the green pigments was done by x-ray diffraction. This analysis enabled the identification of a variety of copper-containing green pigments.

This paper is a preliminary comparison of scientific data with the texts about Persian painting technique. Keeping in mind the incomplete state of scholarship concerning the materials of Persian manuscript painting, the reader should remember that the following exposition is only a preliminary investigation of the pigments employed, their sources, and their manufacture or preparation.


ONLY TWO translations into English of technical treatises on Persian painting exist. One is Qanun us-Suvar (Canons of Painting) by Sadiqi Bek, a royal painter in the 16th-century Safavid Iran. Sadiqi Bek wrote the Qanun sometime between 1576 and 1602 (Dickson and Welch 1981). The second work, Gulistan-i Hunan (Rose Garden of Art), was an appendix to a text written by Qadi Ahmad circa 1608 (Minorsky 1959).

In his treatise, Sadiqi Bek discussed theoretical aspects of painting such as the basic categories of decorative art and its different idioms, including animal and decorative drawing. He also gave practical information on the techniques of manufacturing artists' supplies and the application of colors. In Sadiqi Bek's opinion, two types of drawing require different types of observation. For instance, for human figures only careful study from nature would do, while for animal figure studies one must study the past masters as models. A popular type of drawing featured animals locked in battle, and Sadiqi Bek advised that the animals be drawn with tense bodies in a clawed grip (Dickson and Welch 1981). A toned drawing of animals locked in battle included in this study (M.73.5.12, fig. 1) does follow these rules.

Fig. 1. A Lion Attacking a Dragon That Has Wrapped Itself a Ram, Iran Safavid period, Isfahan, 1691, Ink and color washes on paper, 12.75 × 20.25 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Nasli M. Heeramaneck Collection, Gift of Joan Palevsky. M. 73.5.12.

Sadiqi Bek stated that a painting would have a two-layer ground. The bottom layer would be a mixture of glue, plaster, and grape treacle; on top of that would be a layer of white lead and oil-varnish. The term for oil-varnish in Persian, rang-i rowghan, is difficult to translate, but Dickson and Welch (1981) determined it probably meant a cooked oil and resin varnish. This study is concerned only with paintings on paper, and we found no such ground on any of the paintings. This type of ground was probably intended for book bindings or paintings on stiff layered paper (like cardboard) surfaces (Dickson and Welch 1981).

Sadiqi Bek also described the manufacture of some of the colors used in a painting (Dickson and Welch 1981). The only white pigment he mentioned was white lead produced by melting lead in a closed vessel and then, after it had cooled, alternately washing it with a saline solution and pounding it with sal-am-moniac and vinegar. To make red lead, the white lead was roasted. The green pigment, verdigris, was made by burying copper plates, immersed in vinegar, in a pit two meters deep for one month. Sadiqi Bek also described a red lake that was made from boiling lac in a soda solution to which possibly lime was added. He instructed the artist to make vermilion by pounding mercury and sulfur in a mortar and then heating it for several hours.

The Gulistan-i Hunan was written around 1608 A.D., but probably not by Qadi Ahmad himself (Minorsky 1959). While less thorogh than Sadiqi Bek's treatise, this appendix, nonetheless, covers some different topics. For instance, it includes instructions for ruling framework, or drawing decorative margin lines around calligraphy. As far as one can discern, given that the original is written in medieval Persian and that there are inherent pitfalls in translating ancient languages, those margins would be (from the interior line to the outside line) black, ultramarine, black, gold, ultramarine, black, and pale green. Other margin suggestions are arrangements of black, gold, and ultramarine.

The author then explained how to grind and dilute the pigments made of lapis lazuli and gold. Gum arabic was the only medium mentioned, and artists were advised to add it to colors. The pigments included in this section of the treatise are cinnabar, lapis lazuli (ultramarine), orpiment, and white lead. All these colors would be washed as a final preparation step by adding water to the pigment in a vessel, allowing it to settle; and then decanting the liquid. Gum arabic was added to the colors before they were ground. The passage describing this process is difficult to understand. At one point the artisan is advised to add vinegar to lapis lazuli (a blue stone) and grind it until it turned green. In another the artisan is instructed to mix verdigris (a green) with white lead to make pink. Such instructions suggest that at least some information in this treatise is inaccurate. This appendix also described four methods of preparing a black ink: one from lampblack, another from baked wheat starch paste, another with gallnuts and lampblack, and the last with tin and mercury. A 17th-century version of contemporary liquid correction fluid is also given: mistakes could be covered with white lead and then the surface burnished to make writing disappear (Minorsky 1959).

Both treatises give directions for making pigments. Sadiqi Bek described the production of white lead, red lead, verdigris, vermilion, and a red lake (Dickson and Welch 1981). The appendix to Qadi Ahmad's text included instructions for preparing ultramarine, gold, cinnabar, and so-called red orpiment, but it is devoted mostly to the preparation of black inks (Minorsky 1959). Although the authors of these treatises use different names for a red pigment—vermilion and cinnabar—the pigment is the same chemically. Vermilion is manufactured by grinding mercury and sulfur together, while cinnabar is the naturally occurring form that is simply ground (Gettens and Stout 1966).

Much of the information on materials used in Persian paintings offered in 20th-century art historical literature has been based on speculation rather than factual evidence. One author incorrectly stated that peori (Indian yellow, an organic yellow pigment) is a yellow earth (Martin 1912, 108–9). Another refers to verdigris (a copper acetate) as an arsenical green (Gray 1961). Even those authors dealing specifically with the technical aspects of Persian painting disagree on such basic matters as the primary constituents of the vehicle (or binder) for the pigments. Laurie (1935), who seems to have been particularly interested in the materials used in Persian paintings and made many astute pigment notations, speculated on the possible use of several materials including gums, waxes, and oils. Behzad (1939) stated that albumin was the earliest medium, followed by glue and gum arabic, but he gave no documentation. Martin (1912, 109) suggested a variety of materials, including gum arabic water, glue water, and linseed water as well as sugar. It is hoped that this study and others like it, will help to determine what Persian artists actually used by examining the art works with scientific analytical equipment.



VERY LITTLE substantive chemical or physical analysis of the materials of Persian-manuscript painting has been published. Other individuals have carried out pigment analyses of Islamic manuscript paintings previous to this study. Four unpublished papers discussed here were written by students at Harvard University. A fifth is an article by Gordus (1968), who was mainly interested in demonstrating the advantages of neutron activation analysis. With that analysis, he identified cinnabar, orpiment, and verdigris in an unidentified Persian painting. The sixth paper, by FitzHugh (1988), published in a catalog of the Vever collection at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., was a study of the pigments in some of the paintings of that collection.

Holmberg's paper (1978), one of the student papers, described the identification of pigments on pages from the Demotte Shahnama, so named because an early 20th-century dealer, Demotte, sold 58 individual pages from an early 14th-century copy of Firdawsi's epic poem, the Shahnama (Book of Kings), to different patrons. Holmberg examined 11 paintings to determine whether they had been retouched. The analytical methods used were microscopic examination, microchemical testing, energy-dispersive x-ray analysis, semiquantitative laser spectrographic analysis, and x-ray diffraction. Miniatures in three separate collections were examined: three in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; two in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and six in the Fogg Art Museum, now in the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University. Holmberg concluded that all the miniatures had been retouched and sometimes she found evidence of more than one layer of retouching.

St. Laurent-Lockwood (1981) sampled blue, white, and yellow from four Persian paintings in the Sackler Museum, Harvard University. She found that the only blue pigment used was ultramarine, the only white was white lead, and the only yellow was orpiment.

The other two student papers were studies of royal Persian paintings and compared royal workshop paintings to provincial ones. One, by Khoury (1985), was an analysis of four royal Persian miniatures from the 16th and 17th centuries. Khoury found that the technique used in the execution of the miniatures was the “classical technique,” except in one case in which the artist was particularly innovative. She found no Indian yellow in the Persian paintings. The fourth student paper by Bailey (1985) compared four paintings, two royal and two provincial, and found that the traditions for both were the same but the provincial works demonstrated the need to economize by using, for example, carbon black to imitate tarnished silver.


According to our observations, pigments were rarely used as pure color; the artists apparently preferred mixing their pigments for more subtle coloristic effects. The pigments used in a medieval Iranian kitabkhana, or workshop, were probably manufactured there. Some of the pigments used by the Persian artists were produced from mineral ores and, in some cases, semiprecious stones. The purity of the color in those pigments would depend on the quality of the natural mineral and the care of the preparation.

The pigments of medieval Persian manuscript painting can be conveniently divided into two chemical groups, inorganic and organic. Apparently, the artists relied much more heavily on inorganic pigments, and some scholars insist that only inorganic pigments were employed in Persian painting (Behzad 1939). The artists must have valued inorganic pigments for their superior covering power and their relative physical and chemical stability in addition to their resistance to fading. Many of the inorganic pigments were prepared from mineral ores, while others were chemically manufactured. In the finest examples of Persian painting, the purity of the colors as well as the precision displayed in the finish attest to the careful preparation of the pigments. Ore that is relatively unadulterated is necessary for the production of a good natural mineral pigment. Generally, the raw material must be fractured and coarsely ground. To purify and reduce the mineral to a powder suitable for use as a pigment, washing in water and levigation—a procedure of grinding and washing in which fine particles float while coarse ones sink—should follow. In most cases, the finest grades of pigment are removed in the first washings and levigations. Alkaline washings can be employed to facilitate the separation of the finest grades as well (Minorsky 1959).

Some earth pigments derived from clays are simply mixed in water. While the desired portion of the clay remains in suspension, sand and heavy impurities sink to the bottom and humus floats to the top. Chemically manufactured pigments often require grinding. When a pigment is produced by altering another finely ground pigment, further grinding may not be necessary. The procedures outlined here are essential to the manual preparation of fine pigments in all parts of the world.

Organic materials constituted the second major group of pigments. They must have gained acceptance as painters came to value an enhanced variety of color harmonies. Many of these pigments were derived from extractions of vegetable matter or from insects. In some cases, the raw organic material, when properly powdered, could serve directly as a pigment.

A tendency to fade and a lack of covering power characterize organic pigments, and most were likely relegated to a subordinate role in painting.

Although pigments known as lakes have been used in Western artworks, the use of lakes in Persian painting has not been studied. To produce a lake, the raw material, usually an intensely colored dye or stain, was precipitated on a finely powdered, colorless or white inert substrate such as calcium carbonate (chalk or limestone) in order to function as a pigment. The final pigment color could vary depending on the substrate. The gradually expanding range of colors found in Persian paintings from the 15th and 16th century and the ready availability of organic lake pigments used at that time in the textile industry strongly support the hypothesis that these pigments were employed in manuscript paintings (Wulff 1966, 189–92).

3.2.1 Blue Pigments

Most scholars of Persian painting have acknowledged natural ultramarine as the most important blue pigment in the Persian painter's palette (Welch 1972; Laurie 1935; Martin 1912, 108). The use of ultramarine was mentioned by Sadiqi Bek and in the appendix to Qadi Ahmad's treatise. Gettens and Stout (1966) reported early occurrences of ultramarine as a pigment in the 6th and 7th centuries in the Iranian plateau. Lapis lazuli, the mineral from which natural ultramarine is prepared, was readily available from the mines of Badakhshan along the shores of the upper Oxus (in modern northern Afghanistan), a source known since antiquity (Laufer 1919, 520). The brilliant blue of ultramarine was extracted in an alkaline solution (lye) from a kneaded wax resin ball containing powdered lapis lazuli. The blue was then thoroughly washed to remove any residual alkalinity. Laurie (1939) suggested that the improved method of preparation for ultramarine was first developed in Europe and later transmitted to Iran in the 15th century. However, he provided no conclusive evidence as a basis for his suggestion.

In this investigation ultramarine blue was found to be one of the two most commonly used pigments, white lead being the other (see table 1). The ultramarine was very finely ground for Rustam Approaching Tents from a 16th-century copy of the Shahnama at LACMA (M.73.5.592). It was also found in a more coarsely ground form in a chapter heading from a Khamsa of Nizami (M.73.5.606). Both were executed in the 16th century, so it appears that different types of preparation methods could have existed in different workshops or for different purposes.

TABLE 1 Pigments Identified in 19 Medieval Persian Paintings in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Another blue pigment used in Persian painting was azurite. Holmberg (1978) found azurite in the Demotte Shahnama, made in the 14th century. The paintings analyzed in her study date from the 15th through the 17th centuries, and azurite was found in six of them. It may have been more widely used in earlier times according to Laurie (1935), who described a blue in a 14th-century Persian manuscript as azurite but without any analytical evidence. Farooqi (1977) did not even list it as part of the Persian or Indian palette. Vajifdar (1981) did, however, include azurite in his list of Persian pigments.

The Chinese, who employed azurite more than any other blue pigment, may have exported it to Iran (Schafer 1963). Wulff (1966, 3) has mentioned that northern Iran is rich in copper carbonate ores. Since azurite is a basic carbonate of copper, the raw material for the pigment may have been obtained there. Ground comparatively coarsely, azurite provides a deep blue pigment; it loses its color when ground too finely.

Another blue pigment, indigo, is a vegetable extraction from Indigofera tinctoria and other plants and was introduced into Iran from India in the middle of the 6th century according to Laufer (1919, 370). It had long supplied textile dyers with a deep blue stain. As a blue pigment, it is relatively stable and has good covering power. The use of indigo as a pigment was documented for neighboring regions by Gettens and Stout (1966), suggesting its importance in the Persian palette.

Laurie (1935) also listed two organic blues he felt may have been employed in Persian painting. One was indigo, and the other was more of a purple, the Tyrian purple made from shellfish. Vajifdar (1981) and Farooqi (1977) mentioned indigo. It cannot be certain that the organic blue found in this study is indigo, but the 16th-century scene of a Prince and Princess in a Garden (M.73.5.16) does contain an organic blue pigment. This evidence is contrary to Behzad's (1939) contention that only mineral colors were used in Persian paintings.

3.2.2 Red Pigments

Another organic pigments found during this analysis was a red used in a Youth Pouring Wine M.73.5.570). This painting is unusual among the paintings in this study because it was produced as an independent work of art in 1681 and not as an illustration in a narrative manuscript. We cannot determine what type of red organic pigment this is, but there are several possibilities.

Wulff (1966, 189–90) has commented on the presence of the kermes (Kermes vemilio) and the cochineal (Coccus cacti) insects in parts of Persia. The red colorant carmine was extracted from the bodies of the dead female insects and precipitated on a white or colorless inert substance to produce kermes (grain or crimson) lake and cochineal lake. The kermes lake is one of the most ancient of the natural dyestuffs, and cochineal lakes were imported to Europe from the New World in the 16th century (Gettens and Stout 1966). The root of the madder plant (Rubia tinctorum), which was cultivated in Persia, provided the deep red color of madder lake (Wulff 1966, 190). Another red lake, imported from India, derived its color from the exudation of the lac insect (Coccus laccae) (Schweppe and Roosen-Runge 1986). As already noted, whether Persian painters made use of organic colorants as lakes or in pure form has not been investigated.

The other red pigments found in our study were all inorganic and are also mentioned in the literature. Cinnabar or vermilion (red mercuric sulfide, HgS) can be produced by grinding the mineral cinnabar (referred to as cinnabar) or it can be manufactured from mercury and sulfur (to make vermilion) (Gettens et al. 1972). These were the most widely used red pigments found in this study, but they have been combined in table 1 because the process used to indicate the mercury-containing pigment (x-ray fluorescence) did not allow for differentiation. Rich in sulfide ores, Iran may well have supplied the demand for vermilion within its own borders (Wulff 1966, 3). It has been found in many works of art, even in antiquity (Filippakis et al. 1979).

The appendix to Qadi Ahmad's treatise offered instructions for making the red from cinnabar, and Sadiqi Bek described the manufacture of vermilion by pounding mercury and sulfur together before heating (Minorsky 1959; Dickson and Welch 1981). From earlier times, the pigment had also been manufactured from mercury and sulfur (Kopp 1843–47; Cennini 1960, 24). This red has long been valued for its stability and excellent hiding power. Many other authors have referred to the pigment, so this information reconfirms the general opinion regarding the importance of vermilion (or the natural form in the mineral cinnabar) for Persian artists.

Several iron oxide reds (earths or ochres) may have been employed by Persian artists, including a brick red, sometimes called Venetian red, and a deep purple-red rich in the mineral hematite, also known as Indian red. This is an ochre, one of the earth pigments which include clays, ochres, siennas, and umbers. Ochres consist of silica and clay, and red ochre is colored primarily by anhydrous iron oxide (the mineral hematite). Extensive deposits of iron oxide exist all over the world, one particularly good-quality source is the island of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf (Gettens and Stout 1966). Iron oxide has been used extensively as a pigment throughout history and prehistory, and it is no surprise that it is found in these paintings. It is mixed with white lead and vermilion in two paintings (M.73.5.412 and M.73.5.437) to give a richer, cooler red. Of the red pigments, iron oxide red was the second most frequently occurring red pigment in this study.

Red lead is the only other red pigment identified in these paintings. Laurie (1935) considered it to be a particularly fine orange type of red lead and observed it in Persian paintings as early as the 13th century. Red lead is produced by roasting white lead. The result is red tetroxide of lead (Pb3O4) that is, as Laurie correctly identified it, a very finely textured orange-red pigment. Red lead is less stable than the other reds found in these paintings, a characteristic that might explain why it is used less often. It was identified in only five of the paintings studied here, and in none of those was it the only red pigment used.

Another red pigment mentioned in the literature is realgar (Vajifdar 1981). This is an orange-red sulfide of arsenic that is closely related chemically to and associated in nature with orpiment. Qadi Ahmad's appendix mentioned a “red orpiment” that resulted when yellow orpiment is ground exceptionally fine. He claimed that the more it was ground, the redder it became (Minorsky 1959). The pigment described is more likely to be realgar, the natural sulfide of arsenic. This is a separate pigment and does not result from grinding orpiment. It is not as plentiful in nature as orpiment, and it seems reasonable to expect that it would be found less often as a pigment. It was not found in this study.

3.2.3 Yellow Pigments

A variety of yellow pigments were mentioned in the literature. Some, like orpiment and yellow ochre, were from mineral sources. Others, like gamboge and Indian yellow, were organic pigments (Minorsky 1959; Laurie 1935, 1939; Vajifdar 1981). Other inorganic yellow pigments, like massicot, could be manufactured. Not all the yellows mentioned in the literature were detected in this research.

The most popular yellow pigment was orpiment, affirming Gettens and Stout's (1966) opinion that orpiment as a yellow was widely used, especially in the East. Wulff's (1966, 3) comment on Iran's wealth of sulfide ores suggests that orpiment, the yellow sulfide of arsenic, was available from local sources. The mention of orpiment in the appendix of Qadi Ahmad's treatise provides additional evidence of its importance in the Persian palette (Minorsky 1959). This pigment is no longer used because it is poisonous (Gettens and Stout 1966). Orpiment may have fallen out of favor because of a technical problem as well, for it can cause white lead to discolor and turn gray (White 1984). The two pigments do not need to be mixed together or applied on top of each other for this discoloration to occur; it can occur even if the orpiment is only adjacent to the area of white lead. An example of the discoloration of adjacent paint is seen in the faces of the Flaying Scene (M.73.5.437). In the painting Laila and Majnun at School (M.73.5.417, fig. 2) orpiment and white lead were mixed together before application, and the yellow robe worn by a figure on the right side of the schoolroom shows discoloration. This problem of discoloration did not deter artists from using orpiment, however. It was used throughout the three centuries investigated.

Fig. 2. Laila and Majnun at School, miniature from manuscript of Khamsa by Nizami, Persia, Shiraz, 924 A.H. (A.D. 1517). Opaque watercolors on paper, 24.0 × 14.0 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Nasli M. Heeramaneck Collection, Gift of Joan Palensky. M.73.5.417

The other yellow pigment mentioned in the literature was yellow ochre, and it was found in only three paintings. All three were earlier paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries, depicting The Appearance of Sakyamuni (M.73.5.412), Laila and Majnun at School (M.73.5.417), and Lady with a Fan (M.73.5.587). We cannot be sure if there is any significance to the fact that yellow ochre was found only in earlier paintings. Further study may disclose any possible trends. According to this research, Persian artists preferred inorganic yellow pigments, possibly due to their availability and color stability. The problems mentioned with orpiment notwithstanding, its color is stable.

Organic yellow pigments were not found in this analysis, but they may have been used. Indian yellow, a brilliant, stable, yellow pigment prepared in Bengal from the urine of cows fed on mango leaves, may have been used by Persian painters. Saffron, a rich golden yellow powder from the flower of the plant, Crocus sativa, that was cultivated from Sassanian times in Iran, probably could have served directly as a pigment (Laufer 1919, 320). The Persian painters may have found this powder particularly useful in combination with gold pigment. Because saffron has always been dear, less expensive colors such as the orange from safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) or the yellow from shoots and roots of tumeric (Curcuma domestica and Curcuma longa) were often combined with saffron as adulterants (Laufer 1919, 309–10; Wulff 1966, 191). Wulff (1961) has indicated that both colors were employed in Persian textile production as well. Iranian textile dyers employed yet another yellow prepared from Persian berries (Rhamnus infectorius) as a lake; it might have been used as a pigment, too.

3.2.4 Green Pigments

The most common green pigment mentioned in the literature on Persian painting techniques is verdigris (Dickson and Welch 1981; Laurie 1935; Vajifdar 1981). Historically, verdigris is a general term for green corrosion products that form on copper, brass, or bronze. Sadiqi Bek gave the most complete instructions for the making of verdigris. One must dig a pit two meters deep and in it bury copper plates immersed in wine vinegar for a month (Dickson and Welch 1981). Other recipes include vinegar and copper but can include salt and sugar (Farooqi 1977). The various recipes produce verdigris with different chemical compositions. Kühn (1970) found that verdigris could contain one copper acetate or a mixture of different copper acetates. Depending upon its chemical composition, verdigris can have a basic or neutral pH. The neutral verdigris (Cu(CH3COO)2H2O) is produced by grinding basic verdigris in strong acetic acid; this could be accomplished by recipes that include vinegar. Banik et al. (1981) investigated the deterioration of green copper pigments and the destructive effect on paper supports. In several of the paintings examined, copper greens have turned the paper below it brown and finally made it so weak that it cracked and broke apart.

Malachite is found in nature as a mineral. It is a basic copper carbonate, chemically similar to azurite and occurring with it but with different proportions of carbonate to hydroxide. The synthetic product is known as green verditer (Banik et al. 1981). Malachite, although a natural mineral, can cause degradation in a paper substrate at elevated temperatures (Banik et al. 1981). There was only one questionable occurrence of this pigment in the LACMA paintings. Holmberg (1978) did not find malachite in the Demotte Shahnama.

Green earth pigment may have been employed by Persian painters as well. Its simple preparation and its availability in the form of green clays (or earth) have contributed to its early and continuing widespread use in all parts of the world (Gettens and Stout 1966). Green earth was not found in this study or by FitzHugh (1988) in the Vever paintings.

We did identify some other copper greens in the paintings from the LACMA collection. One of the unusual greens, a basic copper sulfate identified by means of x-ray diffraction, was brochantite. Our observations are preliminary and tentative, but the brochantite seems to have caused less damage to the paper substrate than the basic copper chlorides, atacamite and/or paratacamite. The painting that contains brochantite (M.83.27.2) has been mounted so the reverse of the painting cannot be examined. Plesters has also identified brochantite by x-ray diffraction in a sample of powdered artificial green supplied from old stock given to her by an English colorman (Gettens and FitzHugh 1974).

Farooqi (1977) gave the ingredients for an “artificial verdigris” as orpiment and indigo. Such a pigment, a green that was a mixture of orpiment and an organic blue pigment, was found in the trees of the image Prince and Princess in a Garden (M.73.5.16). In that same painting, however, a copper green was found in the rug used by the royal couple. The paper beneath the copper green pigment has turned brown while the paper under the “artificial verdigris” has not. A similar situation with regard to degraded paper substrate in conjunction with two green paints was observed in Laila and Majnun at School (M.73.5.417). The chemistry of copper green pigments, and their effect on paper, require further research.

3.2.5 White and Black Pigments

The two most essential pigments in any painter's palette are black and white. The unanimous choice for white in these paintings was white lead. This finding is consistent with treatises, which mentioned white lead as the only white used (Minorsky 1959; Dickson and Welch 1981). Other writers, however, listed other possibilities: whiting, chalk, and zinc white (Laurie 1935, 1939; Vajifdar 1981; Farooqi 1977). Whiting and chalk, are two natural forms of calcium carbonate (Gettens and Stout 1966). Zinc was detected in one of the LACMA paintings (M.73.5.417) with x-ray fluorescence spectrometry, but only in a tiny and insignificant amount. We found titanium only in inpainted areas of one painting (M.83.27.2). Zinc and titanium whites were not commercially available until the 19th and 20th centuries respectively (Gettens and Stout 1966) and so would be found in inpainted areas. St. Laurent-Lockwood (1981) also found white lead to be the only choice of Persian painters.

Chandra (1949, 19–20) suggested that zinc white might have been available in Iran long before its initial mass production in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century. He used the term safeda, however, which could refer to zinc white or to white lead, so it is impossible to determine which pigment he meant (FitzHugh 1988).

Black pigments are mentioned by Laurie (1939) in his discussion of the Persian painters' palette. He thought the material of the black pigment was lampblack, an understandable conclusion since lampblack is the only black mentioned in some treatises. Bukhari (1963) and Vajifdar (1981) mention lampblack as a black pigment. In the appendix to Qadi Ahmad's treatise, however, are four recipes for black inks (Minorsky 1959). Two require lampblack, or soot, combined with a gum in addition to other ingredients. The lampblack was produced by collecting the soot deposited on an inverted earthenware bowl from a lamp burning hemp oil. Baking the collected soot in the center of a dough ball extracted oil residues and resulted in a pigment consisting largely of amorphous carbon, a deep black powder. The other two recipes require charred wheat starch or tin combined with quicksilver (mercury) to provide a black substance (Minorsky 1959).

In all the black paint samples in this study only one black pigment, charcoal, was identified by polarizing light microscopy. Charcoal is not mentioned as a pigment in the literature on Persian painting techniques; it is mentioned only as a material used in underdrawings. Charcoal was used in the form of a charred tamarind twig as a drawing tool or powdered and then pounced (by means of a cloth bag) through pricked stencils used to transfer drawings (Titley 1983, 216). With powdered charcoal already available to them, it makes sense that Persian painters would use it as a pigment.

In her analysis of the pigments in the Demotte ShahnamaHolmberg (1978) also suggested that the black pigment was charcoal rather than lampblack. Perhaps lampblack was not used as a black paint in paintings or in illuminations, but the recipes mentioned are only for black ink. Was it used as an ink? We could not explore the question extensively, but the ink sample examined was lampblack. Therefore, there may well have been separate types of black color used in separate workshops. Perhaps the finer texture of the lampblack made a superior ink for writing, while the coarser-grained (and more easily produced) charcoal made a better color for the painter. The particles that result from lampblack, made by collecting the soot of burned oil, are tiny and round, while the particles from ground charcoal are larger and more fractured in appearance under the microscope (Gettens and Stout 1966). Using a polarized light microscope to view particle morphology, we concluded that the paintings examined for this study did not contain lampblack as a pigment.

3.2.6 Metals

Metallic powders crowned the precious palette of Persian miniature painting. Iran was rich in alluvial gold and copper ore (Wulff 1966, 2, 13–14; Laufer 1919, 510–12). The mines of Badakhshan supplied Iran with silver. Two forms of colors are recorded as being used: ground particles in a binding medium and metallic foil applied on a binding medium (Dickson and Welch 1981). The paintings examined did not contain gold leaf used as a color. Gold was used, but in the form of ground particles in a medium. This finding corroborates Laurie's (1935) observations that a gold paint was used on most Persian paintings.

The preparation of the gold paint was a laborious process. First, gold leaf was made by pounding gold between layers of deerskin until the gold was extremely thin. Then the gold leaf was pounded on iron or stone with glue until it formed paste. This paste was dissolved in water and allowed to settle. The water was poured off, and the sediment was mixed with dry glue and saffron. The gold paint was then ready for use. Another possible preparation of powdered gold included mixing the gold with honey or glue between one's fingers, which could take hours, and then dissolving the resulting paste in water. After the gold was applied with a brush, it was “cooked,” meaning burnished, until it was a bright glossy gold surface (Behzad 1939). St. Laurent-Lockwood (1981) describes the mixing of gold with copper to make the gold a warmer color and with silver to make it cooler. In Youth Pouring Wine (M.73.5.570), gold was mixed with silver for the vessel the youth holds, which is a noticeably cooler gold than the gold of his boots. This metal combination was compared with other gold areas in other paintings by x-ray fluorescence and confirmed.

Laurie (1935) mentioned a “heavy dull grey gold” used in Persian paintings of the 13th century. Although he observed it in later works, it was rare in subsequent centuries. An example of this gray-gold may be present in a Battle Scene from the Big Head Shahnama (M.75.24). In this painting a charcoal gray was applied over the gold helmets of the warriors.

Silver was also used, but is now only seen as black in the paintings because it is tarnished. The water in the image of King and Sage in Landscape (M.73.5.29) is silver, as are the gray steps in Zahhak Enthroned with Two Sisters (M.83.27.2). Holmberg (1978) also found tarnished silver during her study. When the silver is as tarnished as the examples in these paintings, the techniques used for this analysis cannot determine whether the silver was applied as particles in a medium or as silver leaf. The Persians must have known that silver tarnished because Bailey (1985) found carbon black where silver would have been expected in a composition from Shiraz. This Shiraz painting could have been copied from an older, tarnished model.

Any identification of pigments employed in Persian painting by simple visual examination is highly unreliable. Differences in the source and manufacture of each pigment, which produce variations in the finished color, complicate the problem of identification. The large body of technical information on painting techniques, tools, and pigments used in Western paintings has proved valuable in dating, authenticating, and distinguishing between original painting and restoration. Persian painting techniques and tools are so different from Western painting traditions that a new body of information needs to be assembled before it can be applied to the study of Persian paintings.



IT IS important to note that the information in this section is a compilation of the literary evidence only. No analytical work was done on the media. Materials with adhesive properties like vehicles and paper sizing can be most conveniently divided into four groups: proteinaceous materials including gelatin, glue, egg yolks, and egg whites; starches from rice or wheat; vegetable gums; and waxes and oils.

Schulz (1914, 22) has suggested that gelatin, a highly purified form of glue, was employed as sizing for some paper in Persia. Without providing convincing evidence, other scholars have postulated the use of glue as a binder for many pigments in Persian painting (e.g., Behzad 1939). The writer of Qadi Ahmad's appendix mentioned glue as a binder for gold pigment. He also indicated that egg yolk was employed as a vehicle for some pigments (Minorsky 1959). Schulz (1914, 23) has speculated that egg white might have been employed to prepare the surface of writing paper.

Hunter (1978, 194) claimed that starches were the most commonly used sizes in Persian papermaking. Wheat starch cooked in water to make paste was required for laminating papers and for inlaying miniature paintings as well (Grohmann 1967, 126).

The appendix to Qadi Ahmad's treatise discusses the addition of gum (arabic) as a vehicle for many pigments (Minorsky 1959). Grohmann (1967, 128–29) has carefully documented the use of gum arabic as a vehicle for black and colored inks. Such convincing evidence supports the notion that gum arabic (From Acacia senegal) constituted the essential component of the medium employed in most miniature paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries. Gum tragacanth, which swells considerably in water, could have provided an alternative adhesive to starch pastes, according to Grohmann.

A number of scholars have suggested that, in addition to the aqueous base of gum arabic, the vehicle used in Persian painting must have included one or more materials to impart greater flexibility and durability to the paint films. One such combination, wax and gum arabic, postulated by Laurie (1939) as the binder in Persian painting, has handling characteristics and a finish that probably would not have met the requirements of the Persian painter. Grohmann (1967, 128) commented on the addition of linseed oil. One can still find the addition of oil to gum mentioned in modern literature on artists' techniques as a method of strengthening the medium (Mayer 1970). Another combination suggested by Martin (1912, 108) includes glue. Persian miniaturists could have added a variety of other materials to particular pigments in combination with the vehicle. Honey and sugar, due to their hygroscopic qualities, when combined with gum arabic solution, might provide flexibility (Mayer 1970). Grohmann (1967, 129) has mentioned the addition of pomegranate juice to cinnabar. No doubt throughout the period under consideration Persian artists employed several variations of the basic medium, depending on availability of materials and changes in technique.


According to the literature, the Persian artist used a charred twig, possibly of tamarind, for drawing. Powder from the charred twigs for pouncing and a finely pointed awl (minfad) for punching holes through the paper were both important to the Persian technique of copying (Martin 1912, 103; Grohmann 1967, 126).

According to Grohmann (1967, 126), calligraphers (and possibly painters), filtered the dust and other unwanted particles from their inks (or paints), by saturating a lump of cotton wool with color (liqa) from one palette and transferring it to another by squeezing the color from the wool with a conoid, ebony rod (milwag). During the painting of a manuscript illumination or an individual painting, the paper was secured to a portable, smooth wooden panel with a clamp (Welch 1972, 26). The painting technique depended on extensive burnishing. Polished agate, rock crystal, or carnelian could have served as the burnisher (Martin 1912, 108; Behzad 1939). The bristles of the painter's finely pointed brushes probably consisted of either the hairs from the throat of a Persian kitten or the hairs from the tail of a squirrel (Behzad 1939).

Behzad (1939) has described a method for making brushes that might have been followed in Iran. Hairs for brushes were collected and floated on water to separate them. They were then laid on a smooth, slick surface such as a faience slab. When dry, they were gathered with a silk thread, fitted directly into the quill opening, and secured. According to Behzad, the painters preferred the first three feathers of the pigeon's wing for the production of brush handles. Sadiqi Bek gave an elegant description of the making of a brush from squirrel's fur. The hairs from the squirrel's tail were combed, sorted according to length, and then tied together with three separate knots (Dickson and Welch 1981).


Paper was manufactured in Iran perhaps as early as the 8th century. The Arabs learned the craft, so the story goes, from Chinese craftsmen (Vajifdar 1981; Pedersen 1984, 61). Rag papers, or papers made from linen fibers, were available as well as silk papers. Locales known for their paper production were Samarkand, Zasim Beg, and Tabriz as well as sites in India and China (Vajifdar 1981). Pedersen (1984, 64) also notes Baghdad and Egypt as places where paper was made as early as the 12th century. Paper made in Tabriz was characterized by a yellowish color, according to Farooqi (1977). All paper was not necessarily from rags, however. An 11th-century description of papermaking from plant fibers mentions a quicklime process for softening raw fibers (Bosch et al. 1981, 28). Snyder (1988) found evidence in the papers that she examined of both rag and plant sources for the paper fibers. In Islamic paper, the mold left laid lines in the paper but not chain lines because the horsehair thread used to stitch the mold together did not leave impressions in the paper (Snyder 1988). Watermarks, common in European papers, are not found in Islamic papers (Bosch et al. 1981, 30).

All the paintings in this study were executed on burnished paper. Snyder (1988) found inclusions in the papers she studied that might have been introduced in the papermaker's vat or during the burnishing process.

The majority of paintings in this study were on thin, fine paper. In this context, “fine” denotes a paper with very few incompletely beaten fiber inclusions. One painting was on a thicker sheet of paper that was equally fine. Four paintings were on sheets of coarser paper, implying that the paper contained small, uneven clumps of paper fibers. Not all the paintings were done on a single sheet; four were on layered paper. All the papers were a creamy white color, and only one had been decorated with flecks of gold prior to the application of paint. None of the paintings in this survey were on tinted paper, although tinted paper was used in Persia, (Bosch et al. 1981, 34).

In this discussion a concerted effort has been made to include all possibilities and to indicate which materials and implements were most probably employed. With additional technical research, such as the pigment analyses reported here and others mentioned in the pigment section of this paper, future discussions of Persian painting will benefit from a more substantial base of documented information.


The techniques described in this section are those employed during the golden age of Persian painting that began early in the 15th century. The Persian method of painting can be properly described as a watercolor technique since an aqueous gum solution probably most frequently served as the essential ingredient of the pigment binder (see section 4.1). Western terms such as “wash” (in which the color of the paper creates the lights through translucent or transparent layers of paint) or “gouache” (in which opaque, sometimes thick, often textured and chalky layers of paint include their own highlights through the addition of white or light pigments) are not applicable to Persian technique (Cohn 1977). Persian painters aimed to produce slightly glossy, smooth, opaque layers of paint. And while creating the illusions of three-dimensional space and a natural light source constituted primary goals for Western painters, Persian artists did not concern themselves with these illusions. The beauty of Persian technique derived both from a harmony of colors and from a poetic interplay of line and pattern with the solid colors. At the same time, the paintings depict animals or figures in landscapes or architectural settings, illustrating the poetry with which they often appear.

Before the preliminary drawings for the paintings could be made, the paper required preparation. The paper support received a thorough external sizing, possibly with wheat or rice starch, egg white, or gelatin. The starch was cooked in water, probably diluted in the same, and applied in a thin coat to the paper's surface. The papermaker must have performed this part of the preparation (Hunter 1978, 194–95). The paper was thoroughly burnished on both sides with a crystal egg, polished agate, or other polished stone (Hunter 1978, 196; Brown 1924). The paper was placed on a smooth hardwood plank and burnished until front and back surfaces achieved the proper gloss. The preparation resulted in a slick, somewhat impermeable surface.

In Western watercolor painting, the paper must be stretched to prevent excessive cockling (Cohn 1977). This practice precludes reversing the paper during painting since all the edges must be attached firmly to a rigid support. In the Persian technique, in which reversals throughout the painting procedure were critical for burnishing, the paper was not stretched. The artist, seated on the floor, one knee raised to support the drawing board with paper clamped to it, began his work (Welch 1972, 26).

Preliminary drawings followed the preparation of the paper support. The great masters of the traditional technique may have made the initial sketch with a slightly wetted, finetipped brush or a charred twig of tamarind. The artist set basic geometric forms and lines with this sketch. He may have elaborated on the rough underdrawing with outlines made by a fine brush. Persian sources seem to refer to such an underdrawing as the tarh, which connotes diagram or program rather than sketch or study (Schroeder 1942, 10).

In the paintings examined for this study we found clear evidence of 12 underdrawings in a variety of colors. Two of those had brown underdrawings, two were partially red. The other colors (pink, purple-red) would likely have been combinations of pigments, possibly mixtures of leftover pigments in the painter's palette. The remaining underdrawings found were done in black. Only one of the underdrawings, a black one, had a white wash, or a translucent white layer of paint, over it. This type of preliminary wash over the entire drawing is common in Mughal paintings but not usually found in Persian works (Johnson 1972). An unusual example of underdrawing found in a painting of the Appearance of Sakyamuni (M.73.5.412) was executed partially in red and partially in black. Only one painting revealed a change from the original underdrawing in the final painting; instead of the boots shown in the underdrawing (revealed by ultraviolet examination), leggings were depicted in a painting of a Youth Pouring Wine (M.73.5.570). Although perhaps not an underdrawing, the drawing of a Lion Attacking a Dragon (M.73.5.12) is done in both brown and black.

Apparently even master painters employed tracings copied from other paintings or drawings as an aid in creating new compositions. In that way isolated elements could be repeated in the new compositions. In order to copy a partial or entire composition, a thin piece of paper (or translucent gazelle skin) was laid over a master drawing or painting. The design outlines were then traced; possibly with a piece of charred tamarind twig. The tracing was then carefully pierced along the traced lines. Charcoal powder held in a thin fabric (pounce) bag was then pounced through the piercings of the tracing onto a sheet of prepared paper (Martin 1912, 108; Chandra 1949, 39). Such pierced tracings could be used repeatedly for copying (Welch 1972, 26). Outlining concluded the copying technique. Lentz and Lowry (1989) discussed the repeated use of compositional elements, or even whole compositions, in 15th-century Timurid Persian art. They thought the repetition of images allowed Timurid artists to create a codified visual aesthetic.

Apprentices ground each pigment to its proper particle size (Brown 1924). The artist then mixed his pigments with vehicle. The paint also required proper dilution in water. For broad areas of color, the paint must have been diluted just enough to flow easily, but not as much as a Western watercolor wash would have been. For lines and details, the paint may have been somewhat less diluted. The outlines of the preliminary drawing determined the basic color areas of the painting. In each area, the artist applied one thin layer of the appropriate color at a time with a medium- or large-tipped brush according to the size and shape of the area. Layer was built upon layer, with each allowed to dry completely and burnished frequently until a slight gloss, opacity, and the desired intensity of hue were achieved.

Not all colors were burnished, however. Sadiqi Bek warned the reader about ultramarine blue (Dickson and Welch 1981, 266). This color should be “laid directly with the medium” and not polished to a lustrous sheen. Instead, the artist was advised to apply medium (possibly with a rabbit's foot) over the ultramarine and then gently smooth it with his hand. This step was taken to smooth any cracked surfaces in the paint. We found evidence of this technique in the illuminated colophon (M.73.5.518) dated 1564–65 from Bukhara. Neither was the ultramarine in Flaying Scene (M.73.5.437) burnished. This technique particular to ultramarine seems to have been used on both illumination and miniature paintings because it occurs in two pieces from the same manuscript produced in Shiraz in 1517, the Khamsa of Nizami: a chapter heading page of calligraphy (M.73.5.606) and an illustration of Majnun at the Kaaba (M.73.5.423). Another exception, gold pigment, was burnished directly if the artist wished to create a glossy finish or through a thin piece of paper when he wanted a more raw appearance (Behzad 1939).

The colors of the painting were applied over the underdrawings and often in sequence. That is, one color would be applied wherever it was desired throughout the painting and then the next color would be applied in the appropriate areas. The painter seems to have begun with the background colors and then moved to the animals and figures, applying the flesh tones first and finishing with the clothing (Binyon et al. 1933).

The sophisticated Persian painter apparently cut, or mixed, his colors, sensing that the interplay of pure hues would result in a garish effect rather than the desired harmony. A good example of this toning of colors for the sake of visual harmony is found in a 15th century painting from the Shahnama of Firdawsi, entitled Isfandiyar and the Simurgh (M.73.5.410). In this painting, two different shades of yellow were used in the Simurgh's body. The primary pigment in both these yellows is orpiment, but gold, vermilion, and white lead have been added to the yellow in the body to make a warmer tone. The yellow in the bird's wings, however, has ultramarine added to it to produce a cooler tone. Colors were never cut to the extent of creating an atmospheric perspective, however. Particular combinations of pigments for flesh tones, water, landscapes, and the like may have been favored by the Persian artists (Minorsky 1959).

Certain pigments may have required the addition of white to display their brilliance and to assist in developing opacity. In this study, white lead was found in many colors of the paintings. Even colors used for animals or clothing that appear to be black contained white lead. In the Flaying Scene (M.73.5.437) a horse, which appears black, contains white lead.

Adjustments or corrections were necessary. When two adjacent color areas required the same hue, the painter could render one slightly more brilliant or cut the other slightly. To brighten a color already applied, the artist simply moistened the area and, employing a brush loaded with a dilute solution of the same color, swept it in rapid strokes (Chandra 1949, 43). Besides cutting a shade by adding a little black or a complement, the miniaturist could also deepen a color by applying more layers of the same. To compensate for specks, unevenness, or other slight imperfections in a color, another layer could simply be added (Chandra 1949, 44). When removal of a color was desired, the area could be wetted and stroked with a dry brush, this procedure being repeated until all the color had been removed. If a color overlapped a previously fixed line, the final outline was adjusted to accommodate the change. The aesthetic demands of the overall color harmony determined the choice of colors for the details as much as representational or naturalistic considerations.

Two of the most important finishing procedures were final outlining and the shading and blending of colors. For these procedures, the miniaturist used the finest of his fine brushes, the tips of which culminated in no more than a few hairs. Employing a cut shade or an intense, closely related hue, he reinforced the outlines of the color areas. Black was often used for this purpose. The sweeping calligraphic strokes used to accomplish the final outlining demanded great finesse.

Persian painters also delighted in blending and shading colors for purely decorative effect and coloristic enhancement. A repertoire of essential techniques provided the artist with the means of achieve those ends. The techniques included stippling or dotting as well as parallel hatching. The effect of this hatching or stippling could be varied by altering the thickness and the spacing of the elements. Often, the elements were applied so that each remained distinct, but they could also be executed so that one blended into the next. Incredible precision and facility were absolutely necessary to execute the subtle variations in Persian technique successfully. In some cases, the work is so fine that it must be viewed with the aid of magnification to detect clearly the individual elements of shading or blending.

During our examination we observed some techniques not mentioned in the literature. One was delicate punchwork, or a pattern made of tiny impressions, that can be seen in the gold areas of some paintings. An example is Yusuf in Meadow (M.73.5.443) in which punchwork is seen in the gold of the flames and around the central figure's head. St. Laurent-Lockwood (1981) also noticed punchwork during her examination of Persian miniatures.

In a painting from a Khamsa of Nizami, however, another technique was used to depict the floor tiles on the smooth burnished paint. The outlines of the floor tiles in Laila and Majnun at School (M.73.5.417) were gently incised into the paint to create the image of rectangular floor tiles. Paint is used for the vertical and diagonal lines in the floor, but the horizontal lines in the floor are incised. A linear design on the floor is also incised in another work examined for the study, the Prince and Princess in a Garden (M.73.5.16) dated 1580 from Qazvin.

Another technique not in the Persian painting literature was used on two paintings, both possibly from the same Shahnama dated to the late 15th century. In these works, a layer of saturating medium was applied to some colors to tint and enhance them. This application was made around the edge of the pit in Army a in Pit (M.73.5.23), where the stronger pink perimeter was produced by a layer of semitransparent medium rather than a direct application of more pigment. The medium layer, when analyzed under the polarizing light microscope, did contain a few grains of pigment, but the dominant visual effect was caused by the saturation of the underlying color. The rosy cheeks of the soldiers were produced using the same technique. In other painting (M.75.24) the horse's reins were made shinier and darker by an application of a layer of saturating medium.

When a painting was complete, it was given to a binder. Marginal decoration may have been added to the painting before it was bound. Alternatively, the decoration could have been done at the time the preliminary drawing was complete. Qadi Ahmad gave a detailed account of the rulings that should be applied in Persian manuscripts (Minorsky 1959). One set of rulings observed in this study was done in this manner, a page of calligraphy with a delicate illuminated panel at the top, and rulings of black, gold, blue, and pale green (M.73.5.518). The rulings cover the edges of applied borders, so further examination is necessary to determine the completeness of the piece.


THIS PAPER has presented an overview of the information available on Persian painting technique. The tools and paint application techniques used have been reported with evidence of those tools and techniques found in specific paintings. The pigments discussed in the literature about Persian paintings have also been reviewed and compared to a scientific analysis of pigments found in paintings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Simple visual identification of pigments has proven to be unreliable, as has been seen in the literature. The work reported here has provided more specific pigment identification. Ultramarine blue and white lead were the two most popular pigments used in the paintings examined in this study. Other blue pigments used were azurite, found in six paintings, and an organic blue. The evidence of an organic blue is contrary to Behzad's (1939) statement that only mineral ores were used by Persian painters.

Another organic pigment, a red pigment, was detected in a painting produced as an independent work of art and not as a manuscript illumination. The source of this red cannot be identified at this time. Vermilion (or cinnabar in the natural form) was the most used red pigment. As oxides were plentiful on the island of Hormuz, it is not surprising that iron oxide red was found in the paintings. Next to vermillion, iron oxide was the second most frequently occurring red pigment. Realgar was not found, although it has been found in previous studies.

The number of yellow pigments mentioned in the literature was not reflected in this research. Out of the five mentioned in the literature, orpiment was the most popular yellow pigment, despite its poisonous character and its graying effect on white lead. Yellow ochre was found in only three, earlier paintings, but no significance can be attached to that fact at this time.

The only green pigments found were copper greens. Brochantite is a basic copper sulfate, and atacamite and/or paratacamite are basic copper chlorides, but brochantite may have had a less damaging effect on the paper substrate. Further exploration of this effect is needed. Verdigris, a copper acetate, was found in several paintings. Greens resulting from the mixture of yellow and blue pigments were found in two paintings (M.73.5.16 and M.73.5.417). The mixtures were not the only green in the paintings, however, because both paintings also contained copper greens.

The unanimous choice for white in the paintings in this study was white lead. Although lampblack was the only black pigment mentioned in the literature, charcoal was the only black pigment found in the paintings examined in this study. Lampblack was found in an ink. Future research on carbon pigments is needed to make such identifications certain.

Gold was not applied to the paintings as gold leaf, but as ground particles in a medium. The “dull grey gold” mentioned by Laurie (1935) was found to be a layer of charcoal paint applied over the gold in a Battle Scene from the Big Head Shahnama (M.75.24).

Because the silver in all the paintings examined was tarnished, it was not possible to determine how it was applied. Bailey (1985) found carbon black used to imitate tarnished silver in a Shiraz painting.

The information found in this study is admittedly preliminary. Further study of the materials and techniques used in Persian paintings should be done. The simple visual identification of pigments is not accurate, as mixtures, method of manufacture, and natural source can all have an affect on the color in a finished painting. We hope that additional studies will add to the body of information about Persian paintings and can be applied to advance the study of these beautiful works of art.


We would like to thank Victoria Blyth-Hill, John Twilley, and Thomas Lentz of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for their help. We would also like to thank Elisabeth West FitzHugh for her encouragement and advice. Part of this research was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.



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NANCY PURINTION graduated from the University of Delaware/Winterthur Art Conservation Program. She has had internships at the Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. At the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, she held the position of conservator for the collection. She is presently a conservator at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia. Address: Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, 264 S. 23d Street, Philadelphia, Pa. 19103.

MARK WATTERS took his bachelor's degree in art from Stanford University in 1975. He specialized in paper conservation at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, taking his master's degree there in 1980. He interned at the Intermuseum Conservation Center in Oberlin, Ohio. More recently his work in the paper conservation studio at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was supported by a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Currently he works in private practice with colleague Robert Aitchison. Address: Aitchison and Watters Inc., Conservators of Art on Paper, 740 North La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, Calif. 90038.

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Copyright © 1991 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works