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)




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.

Copyright 1991 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works