JAIC 2002, Volume 41, Number 3, Article 2 (pp. 225 to 242)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 2002, Volume 41, Number 3, Article 2 (pp. 225 to 242)



ABSTRACT—A multidisciplinary team of chemists and art historians from the University of Buenos Aires and the National Council of Scientific and Technological Research (CONICET) has examined the green, yellow, and red pigments used in a collection of 29 paintings from the highlands of Peru in the Andean region during the colonial period (1610–1780). The results described in this paper are a continuation of previous research on blue pigments found in the same corpus (JAIC 38 [1999]: 100–23). The results show how the artists from the big workshops of Cusco and the cities of the Alto Peru (the highlands of Bolivia and N.W. Argentina) followed the recipes for color preparation included in the technical treatises written by Spanish painters. Once again, the figure of Mateo Pisarro, an artist active in the Puna of Atacama at the end of the 17th century, emerges as an exceptional investigator of color-rendering problems.

TITRE—Les pigments verts, jaunes et rouges dans la peinture sud-américaine (1610–1780). RÉSUMÉ— Une équipe multidisciplinaire, formée de chimistes et d'historiens de l'art de l'Université de Buenos Aires et du Conseil national de recherche scientifique et technologique (CONICET), a analysé les pigments verts, jaunes et rouges employés dans un ensemble de 29 peintures de la période coloniale (1610–1780), et provenant du haut plateau de la Bolivie et du nordouest de l'Argentine (l'Altiplano) dans la région des Andes. Les résultats décrits dans cet article font suite à une recherche au préalable sur les pigments bleus, que l'on peut retrouver dans le même corpus (JAIC 38 [1999]: 100–23). Les résultats démontrent de quelle manière les artistes, qui ont œuvré dans les grands ateliers de Cuzco et des villes de l'Altiplano, ont suivi les recettes de préparation des couleurs que l'on retrouve dans les traités techniques écrits par les peintres espagnols. Une fois de plus, Mateo Pisarro, un artiste actif dans la puna de l'Atacama à la fin du XVIIe siècle, fait figure exceptionnelle de par son investigation sur le problème du rendu des couleurs.

TITULO—Pigmentos verdes, amarillos y rojos en la pintura suramericana de 1610 a 1780. RESUMEN—Un equipo multidisciplinario de químicos y de historiadores del arte de la Universidad de Buenos Aires y del Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET) examinó los pigmentos verdes, amarillos y rojos utilizados en una colección de 29 cuadros del Alto Perú que datan del periodo colonial (1610–1780). Los resultados descritos en este articulo son la continuación de la investigación hecha anteriormente sobre los pigmentos azules encontrados en las mismas obras (JAIC 38 [1999]: 100–23). Los resultados muestran cómo los artistas de los grandes talleres de Cusco y de las ciudades del Alto Perú (las ciudades en la región andina de Bolivia y el noroeste de la Argentina) siguieron las recetas para la preparación de color encontradas en los tratados de pintores españoles. Una vez mas, la figura de Mateo Pisarro, un artista activo en la Puna de Atacama a finales del siglo XVII, se destaca como un investigador excepcional de los problemas que se presentan al querer lograr colores específicos.


The aim of the present work is to extend the study of the colonial Andean palette following the same guidelines used in our earlier work on blue pigments (Seldes et al. 1999). In the first part we were able to correlate the historical data and the results of chemical analysis. The data refer to the uses of several blue pigments (indigo, azurite, smalt, Prussian blue, and their mixtures) mentioned by the Spanish theorists of the Baroque period (e.g., Vicente Carducho, Francsico Pacheco, Antonio Palomino de Castro y Velasco) and their application in South American colonial paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries. It was found that most workshops of Cusco and the cities of the highlands of Peru (whose production was an important part of the study) closely followed the recipes for obtaining blue hues quoted by the authors mentioned above. An outstanding example was identified from a group of paintings attributed to Mateo Pisarro (active final third of the 17th century and beginning of the 18th century). Pisarro worked in the Puna of Atacama (northwest of Argentina, south-west of Bolivia, and northeast of Chile) for a landowner, Juan José Campero, marquis of Valle de Tojo, at the end of the 17th century. He produced a considerable number of paintings for churches and chapels dispersed over the marquis's possessions. Pisarro showed exceptional skill and originality in the search for special tints of chromatic intensity when looking for visual effects. These talents led him to experiment with smalt pigment and its mixture with azurite for making blue. Pisarro's aesthetic invention relied on that alchemy, while his European counterparts preferred the expressions and symbolic enigmas of iconographic subtleties.

This second part of our study focuses on 29 paintings selected from the corpus of 106 works that we studied in the first part. Those 29 works of art belong to the Cuscan and Alto-Peruvian schools of painting or were painted by Mateo Pisarro, with one exception—Virgin with Baby Jesus (painting 3.1.1) in an altar at the Yavi chapel—which probably came from Flanders to South America in the 17th century. The results describe the practices of colonial times used to obtain green, yellow, and red hues in painting. The main hypothesis was, once again, the remarkable performance of Mateo Pisarro when dealing with pigments other than blue: viz., green, yellow, and red tints. Pisarro's originality led us to examine a particular relationship between him and Melchor Pérez Holguín (second half of the 17th century), a great master of the Potosinian school who also obtained brilliant results in the field of color rendering. Market conditions in South American colonial cities were considered a main force in the process of artistic production, not only from masters of traditional workshops in Cusco but also from Mateo Pisarro himself.

A brief description of the Cusco and Alto-Peruvian schools of painting in colonial times follows. According to the guidelines established by three Italian artists active in the viceroyalty of Peru at the beginning of the 17th century—Bernardo Bitti (1548–1610), Angelino Medoro (1547–ca. 1630), and Mateo Pérez de Alesio (ca. 1545–ca. 1616)—Cuscan painting followed the manner of the High Renaissance until 1650. In the second half of the 17th century, local painters such as José Espinosa de los Monteros (second half of the 17th century), the Indian Basilio de Santa Cruz (active 1661–1700), and the mestizo Diego Quispe Titos (1611–1681?) in Cusco, and Mechor Pérez Holguín in Potosí (Bolivia) introduced and adapted to Andean society the Baroque style that they knew mainly from copies of Spanish canvases and engravings produced in the Flemish, French, or Italian workshops, all of them spread by trade throughout the entire Spanish American territory. During the 18th century large series of works were produced in an almost industrial fashion by artists such as Marcos Zapata (second half of the 18th century, active 1748–1764), Basilio Pacheco (middle of the 18th century), Diego de Aliaga (second half of the 18th century) in Cusco, or Gaspar de Berrío (second half of the 18th century) in Potosí. All developed and standardized the characteristics of the Andean Baroque style: dynamic compositions, emphatic expressions in faces and gestures, light and shadow effects, and a rich palette.

It is important to point out a non-European variable that could have influenced the artistic reception of Native viewers of Christian religious painting in colonial times: the symbology of colors in the Inca and other pre-Columbian civilizations of the Andean regions. In pre-Hispanic South America, the color red, as well as blue, green, and yellow, were symbolically associated with the Inca himself and the gods. For the Native population, the bright and glittering, well-defined colors in the clothes and headdresses of noblemen were a symbolic manifestation of holiness and an expression of social inequalities, domination, and political, economic, and military power.



The 29 works studied were part of a restoration and preservation project undertaken by the Fundación TAREA of Buenos Aires. Both qualitative and quantitative methods were used for the analysis of the pigments. In some cases, chemical microscopy studies were carried out on cross sections or on unmounted samples. The specific microchemical tests used for each pigment are described in each pigment's section. A scanning electron microscope (PSEM 500) equipped with an energy dispersive xray detector (EDX-4) was used for inorganic microanalysis. It was operated at 30 kV with diffusion pump vacuum in the mode of secondary electrons. The samples were coated by sputtering with a thin (less than 80 Å) layer of gold.

X-ray diffraction (XRD) was performed on a Phillips diffractometer (PW 1050), with copper radiation and nickel anticathode with different voltages for each spectra, depending on the sample. Tandem mass spectrometry (MS-MS) for the detection of indigo was performed on a ZAB hybrid spectrometer (Micromass, Manchester, UK) (BeqQ), filtering the molecular ion of indigo with B (magnetic sector), colliding with helium in the second, field-free region, and analyzing the fragments with E (electrostatic sector).

Copper resinate appeared transparent and viscous green under the optical microscope, and it did not show evidence of particles. The small amount of sample available prevented exact identification of its components by gas chromatography–mass spectrometry, but oil or protein could be excluded and the presence of signals like terpenes similar to those of some conifers could be observed. The presence of copper was determined by SEM, in addition to microchemical tests using rubeanic acid (Plesters 1956). Feigl's procedure (Feigl 1958, 80–82) was also used to determine the presence of copper by catalyzing the iron thiosulfate reaction through the presence of copper ions. None of the aforementioned methods was useful for detecting the acetate group.

Among the analytical criteria used for the identification of malachite are solubility and effervescence in cold 3N hydrochloric acid (HCl) and in concentrated nitric acid (HNO3) (Gettens and FitzHugh 1993), performed on the cross sections. A test for copper in malachite using rubeanic acid (Plesters 1956) was performed on the samples. When a solubility test in ammonia was performed, the solution turned deep blue, indicating a copper-ammonia complex. SEM elemental analysis indicated in all cases the presence of copper as a sole component or sometimes with minor impurities such as lead, silicon, calcium, aluminum, or iron.

Orpiment was identified where SEM results indicated the presence of arsenic (As) and sulfur (S). Some microchemical tests were also performed. The pigment was soluble in 3N hydrochloric acid, giving off hydrogen sulfide, and in concentrated nitric acid, giving off arsenic. It was also soluble in sulfuric acid and in 4N sodium hydroxide (Plesters 1956).

Vermilion was identified where SEM results indicated the presence of mercury (Hg). The pigment was not affected by dilute or concentrated nitric acid, hydrochloric acid, or sulfuric acid. It was also unaffected by 4N sodium hydroxide.

Red earth pigments such as hematite were identified from the presence of iron (Fe), detected by SEM analysis.

To identify carmine lake, a small sample was hydrolyzed and analyzed by thin-layer chromatography (TLC) on acetylcellulose according to the procedure described by Masschelein-Kleiner and later compared with results obtained for a genuine sample of carminic acid (Masschelein-Kleiner 1967; Masschelein-Kleiner and Heylen 1968).

Red lead was indicated by the presence of lead in SEM analysis. Some microchemical analyses were also performed, such as insolubility in 4N sodium hydroxide and solubility in dilute acids.


Available references on the pigments (apart from blue) used in colonial South American art refer to cardenillo (verdigris), coravari (chrysocolla), and earths for green hues; génuli, jalde (orpiment), and saffron for yellow hues; grana de México (cochineal from Mexico) or magna, achiote, vermilion, minium, dragon's blood, and red earths for red hues; and white lead for white hues and lights, as well as ochers, earths, and ivory black for shadings. Understanding pigment nomen-clature has been problematic. Undoubtedly due to transcription errors from the original sources, changes in terminology, and the wide range of materials used during this period, some differences have been identified. Thus, Mesa and Gisbert (1982, 267) refer to “Castilian colors” imported from Spain, based on a 1581 contract in which the master gilder Juan de Ponce was commissioned to gild the retable of the Church of Our Lady of Mercy in Cuzco (Cornejo Bouroncle 1960, 161–64). They quote a phrase from this document that mentions “genolis en borlazar con bermellón,” which we understand as referring to génuli, azarcón (red lead), and vermilion.

Specific treatises and manuals, such as Carducho's ([1633]1979), Pacheco's ([1649]1990), Palomino's ([1723]1988), and Manuel Samaniego y Jaramillo's (Vargas 1975) offer a broader palette including a wide range of hues as well as recipes and recommendations for mixing and applying pigments. Pacheco mentions mountain green (a copper ore that results in a light green hue, which may be related to malachite), earth green, and verdacho (also used by Palomino)—all of them derived from mineral sources. Among other pigments used during this period, red lead (in Spanish, azarcón) is also mentioned. It is a burnt lead oxide, orange-red in color, and also known as minium or Saturn red. This color was considered by Palomino ([1723]1988) among the “false colors” because the colors shifted and became duller as the paint dried (literally,“when drying it casts out crusts which strip away all gentleness from the painting” [135–36]). Another such pigment is the encorca, mentioned by Pacheco and Palomino as “Flanders' encorca,” which yields a dark yellow hue.

There are documents on pigment traffic and how pigments were transported from one place to another. An anonymous manuscript of the 17th century, probably written by a converted Portuguese Jew, gives information on shipments of cochineal (carmine) from Mexico to Peru and also from Guatemala and Nicaragua. This “Memoir of All Kinds of Merchandises Necessary for Peru, Which Cannot Be Obtained Because They Are Not Made in This Country” records powdered cochineal from Valencia and verdigris (Lewin 1958, 121). Several private contracts and inventories were studied, such as the 1581 contract commissioning of Juan de Ponce to gild the retable of Church of Our Lady of Mercy in Cuzco. Other examples are the registrar book of the Church of Yucay in 1679 (Mesa and Gisbert 1982, 268–69); the accounting book of the Chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary in the monastery of Saint Dominic in Quito, dated 1823; and a list of tools and materials inventoried at the missions of Paraguay after the Jesuits were expelled from Spanish territory in 1767 (Ribera and Schenone 1948, 60).



Analyses of all green pigments indicated a copper ingredient (table 1). Electron microscopy showed crystals resembling malachite, mentioned in ancient treatises and in documents as mountain green. Chemical tests revealed the specific combinations and proportions that differentiate it from green earths.

3.1.1 Copper Resinate

Six paintings were found to contain copper resinate, and these are listed in table 2. Copper resinate is a compound of cardenillo (verdigris) and a vegetable resin, similar to those obtained from some conifers or from copal trees, used as incense by Native Americans. It is composed mainly of copper salts of resinic acids. Spanish art literature refers to this resin as grassa or grasilla, also called sandarac by the Arabs. It was commercialized in Europe in liquid form, as a powder (dissolved in linseed oil to make a varnish similar to the liquid vernice of the Italians), and also in grain form (vernice in grana). It is worth mentioning that Spaniards used the green cardenillo varnish for coating or making velature on a dried base of añil (indigo) and white, whereas it was found in some of the paintings of this collection applied directly on the primer layer, a procedure that produces an intense green. Mateo Pisarro used these recipes in his works, experimenting to obtain different hues, as exemplified by his ingenious use of copper resinate as a velatura upon an azurite blue for the Virgin Mary's garment in Yavi's Coronation. Cardenillo varnish was also known in 18th-century Cuzco workshops: it has been found in the collections from the province of Córdoba (Saint Catherine's and Saint Rose's). It was used for trees as a velatura on indigo, though with time it darkened to black. The initial bright color could be appreciated only when the original frame was removed for restoration (Seldes and Bucucúa 1998). Palomino knew it was a very unstable pigment and recommended varnishing it once it dried to prevent its transformation into a dark, dull color. In Quito, Samaniego used it mixed with earth green and génuli to make a velature on a dried layer of añil or black with white. Upon the velatura, he reinforced dark hues with black and clear hues with ancorca. No such technique was found in our study.

Table . Results of Pigment Analyses on Green Hues

Virgin of the Rosary of Pomata, at Casabindo (painting 1.1.3 [fig. 1]), is an interesting case because the above-mentioned resin may be found mixed with a pigment whose dissolved crystals are similar in appearance to malachite rather than to cardenillo. This fact is rather striking, since it contradicts recipes from classical manuals. Although we cannot confirm the presence of malachite, it is noteworthy to find such an unorthodox procedure in the techniques of a master like Pisarro, who ventured daring and subtle technical experimentation to achieve different hues.

Cardenillo, or verdigris, is basic copper acetate, the greenish or bluish corrosion that gathers on objects made of this metal. Palomino defines it as the “beautiful green of copper rust, under the vapors of vinegar” or lemon juice ([1723] 1988, 558). Although it is extremely poisonous, it was highly appreciated for its drying qualities in oil painting. However, Pacheco advised against its use in the following terms: “I do not use cardenillo, except with thin and cheerful blue ashes.” He obtained light and dark green hues by mixing this blue pigment with génuli and encorca ([1649] 1990, 484). Cardenillo is also mentioned in the 1679, 1767, and 1823 documents. When Don Francisco Chihuantito (first half of the 17th century), a painter from Cuzco, was commissioned by the merchant Francisco Camacho de la Pila to paint four canvases depicting the life of Saint John of la Mata, he was offered as payment for his work, apart from the canvases and six stretchers, a certain amount of this pigment. His patron made the offer in the following terms: “said Don Francisco Chihuantito will be further congratulated with a gift of a pound of cardenillo for his paintings” (Mesa and Gisbert 1982, 175). The immediate inference is that the price of this pigment was high. Cardenillo is also mentioned by Bernabé Cobo, who refers to it as copaquira (1890, 269).

Table . Pigments Identified in Green Hues on Paintings

Fig. 1. Attributed to Mateo Pisarro, Virgin of the Rosary of Pomata, ca. 1690, oil on canvas, 147.0 × 105.0 cm, parish church, Casabindo, Jujuy Province, Argentina

In extended areas painted with copper resinate, the original green color appeared as a faded brown layer. Such a surface-degradation phenomenon was clearly noticeable in stratigraphic cross sections, and the underlying layer had the original green color. Moreover, this alteration of the original color was absent in areas not exposed to light, i.e., in areas protected by frames or bordering tapes. It is possible that this discoloration might result from a photocatalytic reaction, specifically that such change in color may involve the photo-oxidation of the organic components of the pigment accompanied by the probable reduction of copper species to copper (I). At present, however, there is no experimental evidence to support this suggestion (Goetghebeur and Kockaert 1980–81).


The three paintings that were found to contain malachite are listed in table 2. The malachite-based pigment, a basic copper carbonate extracted from the semiprecious stone of the same name, certainly came from the copper mines of Cerro Sapo, Bolivia (near Cochabamba), and Cazpana, Chile (province of Antofagasta), where azurite was also extracted (Seldes et al. 1999). Spanish manuals record it as mountain green or granillo, “which contributes to green hues” (Pacheco [1649]1990, 454). It was also known as green verditer, verde azzurro, Armenian stone (Montagna 1993; Roy 1993; Calvo 1997), chrysocolla, or chrysolite, according to Cobo: “A green stone that the Indians from the province of Lipes bring from their ancient mines to Potosí for sale, and is called coravari by the Indians of Peru … is none other, it seems, than the gem Dioscorides named chrysolite. Besides being useful for painters for its lovely green hues, it is of avail for many other purposes” (1890, 272).

Malachite, a close relative of azurite, resulted sometimes in a greenish blue hue. Some sources refer to a blue-green color, a mixed color derived from the frequent combination of azurite and malachite in the same vein (Palomino [1723]1988, 557; Cobo 1890, 289). It seems that this color had been used from pre-Hispanic times and had—according to Father Alvaro Alonso Barba, priest at Saint Bernard's parish at the Imperial Villa of Potosí—optimum qualities for painting as well as healing powers. When referring to the colors of mineral ore extracted in the Andean area, Barba precisely described this hue as a “greenish blue” and explained that it is derived from the “Armenian stone or cibairo of the same color, and therefore painters call the color resulting from it blue-green” (Barba [1640]1967, 59). He later noted purging melancholy as among its powers.

3.1.3 Indigo and Orpiment

A mixed green of indigo and orpiment was found on two paintings, which are listed in table 2.

3.1.4 Prussian Blue and Orpiment

A mixed green of Prussian blue and orpiment was found on one painting, described in table 2.


The results of the analyses of yellow pigments are shown in table 3. All five paintings that had yellow hues were found to contain orpiment. These paintings are listed in table 4.


Warnings from scholars against the use of orpiment led to this pigment's gradual disappearance from the European palette, so its occurrence in our corpus is noteworthy. Also known in Spanish as jalde, orpiment

Table . Results of Pigment Analyses on Yellow Hues
Table . Pigments Identified in Yellow Hues on Paintings
is a highly poisonous arsenic sulfide (As2S3) that, according to Pacheco ([1649] 1980, 484), could be “dangerous for the mind.” Palomino complains about precautions for its use, since it dries slowly and should, therefore, be used with driers (powdered glass, copperas, burnt bone, or some other quick-drying pigment, like powdered red lead) and later varnished to avoid blackening with time. In works from Cuzco and those attributed to Pisarro it has been verified that painters either applied the pigment in pure form or ground with white to obtain intense hues and imitate the glitter of gold in jewels and brocaded cloths, or superimposed it onto earths to obtain duller or darker hues. It was undoubtedly the most prized yellow for our artists, even when mixed with blues to obtain greens, whereas génuli, a lead yellow (favored by Pacheco and Samaniego, in whose palette orpiment is absent), cannot be found in our samples. The absence of génuli in the present corpus agrees with available documents, as this pigment is mentioned only in the 1582 contract and Samaniego's manual.

3.3 REDS

Both red and blue pigments have a prominent place within the color spectrum because of their economic and social meaning. In 15th-century Tuscany, carmine was the most expensive and highly prized pigment, even more than ultramarine. In symbology, it had the same status as purple, an expensive and highly coveted color from classical times onward, insofar as its presence in cloths suggested the dignity of kings and cardinals.

The results of the analyses of red pigments are shown in table 5, and the paintings bearing red pigments are listed in table 6.

3.3.1 Vermilion

Vermilion, also called cinnabar, is a natural mercury sulfide (HgS) extracted from quicksilver mines in Almadén, Spain, and Idrija, Slovenia. In America, it was almost certainly extracted from Huancavelica mines (Peru, near Ayacucho), which were already exhausted in the 18th century. Cobo says that “the Indians from Peru use the name of Llimpi for quicksilver, the same metal from which they get vermilion” (1890, 322) for their paintings. Thus, the Jesuit priest José de Acosta emphasized the use of this pigment called Llimpi by the Incas and natives from Peru: “it is highly prized for the same purpose Pliny has reported, … that of painting or dyeing their own faces and bodies as well as those of their idols, a very frequent practice in the past, especially in wartime, and also nowadays for feast days and dancing, which they call embijarse, because in old times they thought that thus painted their faces inspired awe, and now they feel they are decked in their best” (Acosta 1940, 251–52). Barba remarks that, before the conquest, the Indians from Potosí were not great consumers of quicksilver because the only use they made of it was to obtain cinnabar or vermilion for ritual purposes ([1640] 1967, 55).

Such intense red color might be associated, then, with domination and war practices: it is also known that red was essential in the war attire of the Andean region (Molina and Albornoz 1988, 103) and was involved in rituals that were probably representations of war (as in the case of t'inku) and various sacred ceremonies. The Spanish word embijarse suggests a linguistic shift from bixa, the American name of a vegetable dye that was later adopted in botany to designate Bixa orellana or achiote (Arona 1883). Artificial vermilion was also known at the time, a vivid red color resulting from the roasted mixture of mercury and sulfur. The aforementioned documents of 1581, 1679, and 1823 explicitly cite vermilion in their list of colors. In the set of paintings under study, the fine grinding in works from Pisarro's workshop should be noted and contrasted with a coarser one in Marcos Zapata's paintings.

Of the paintings in which vermillion was found, four are attributed to Mateo Pisarro or his workshop, two are from Cuzco, one is from Alto Peru, one is by Marcos Zapata, and one is probably of European origin (see table 6).

3.3.2 Hematite

Earths were widely used as pigments in the Andean region. Most of them are light and dark yellow or red earths containing hydrated iron oxide, as in the case of hematite or almagra. Palomino ([1723]1988, 581) considers this pigment “good for all kinds of paintings, which is even truer of Spain's almagra.” In his History of the New World, Cobo mentioned in the Aimará language some Native pigments as tacu (Armenian bole), quellu (ocher or ground earth), pitu (orange earth), and puca alpa (almagra). Paul Marcoy maintained later that ochers and earths of every hue could be found in the neighborhood of Cuzco (Cobo 1890, 245–47). In his General History of the Indies and Life of Hernán Cortés (ca. 1552), discussing the “quality and mettle of Peru,” Francisco López de Gomara also says that there were “colored earths, as Parnionga and Guarimei, some of red color, others black, of which they make dyes; and also yellow, green, magenta, and blue earths you can make out from a distance and look fine enough” (quoted in Becco 1992, 284).

Table . Results of Pigment Analyses on Red Hues

Hematite was found in a painting from Tomás Cabrera and in one canvas from Cuzco, both from the 18th century (see table 6).

3.3.3 Organic Red Lake

Carmine is an organic pigment, a red lake

Table . Pigments Identified in Red Hues on Paintings
Table .
obtained from cochineal. Its main dye constituent is carminic acid (7-a-D-glucopyranosyl-9,10-dihydro-3,5,6,8-tetrahydroxy-1-methyl-9,10-dioxo-2-anthracenecarboxylic acid, C22H20O13). It was also known as magna, India carmine, Mexico's carmine, Guatemala's carmine, and Honduras's carmine. Scholars distinguish this color from Florence or Italian extra fine carmine (a sort of lake obtained from madder root). Cochineal (called grana by Spaniards) was known in New Spain from pre-Hispanic times under the name of nocheztli (literally, “that fed on nopal leaves”). The so-called “cochineal from this country,” according to the original sources of this period, was obtained from a species of insect known as Coccus cacti (a hemipteran), from which fine Mixtecan cochineal was derived, as well as from Coccus silvestris, from which a pigment of lower quality was derived, although it was usually mixed with the former (Motolinia 1985, 334). From the 16th century onward there was a remarkable increase in cochineal “growing.” Cochineal became one of the main income sources for the Spanish crown, as evidenced in the report written in 1620 by the secretary of the Council of the Indies in which references are made to the benefits derived from “growing” that species (Dahlgren 1990, 16). The cochineal-breeding regions included Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. The product, later exported to Europe and the Philippines through Spain, became a genuine monopoly, utterly transforming the dye industry. It was frequently beleaguered by political intrigue, business disputes on adulteration, plundering, and indis-criminate exploitation of Natives in the manufacturing process. Controversies on its animal or vegetable origin—which arose from the 16th-century chroniclers' expression “a highly prized fruit” as well as the seedlike appearance of the insect—benefited Spain, as the confusion protected the secret of its monopoly. The 18th-century scientific community contributed to this error, and only at the end of the century did certain authors, such as José Antonio Alzate, undertake a thorough research based on direct observation and existing manuscripts. By the mid-19th century, the less costly aniline-based pigments made their appearance and put a sudden end to this thriving business, with the subsequent collapse in the markets and the economic decline of entire towns dedicated to such trade, such as Oaxaca.

As for South America, there are reports of wild cochineal in Loja, Ecuador; Carora, Venezuela; Tucumán, Argentina; Peru; and Brazil, though most sources show, as in the case of añil, a wide proliferation of the species together with a scant production and consumption.

For cochineal “growing” to result in a bountiful “harvest,” a series of precautions and specific steps, which were entrusted to the Indians, were required. The whole process might be described as follows: First, nopal trees were planted, and after two or three years' growth, they were “seeded”—in other words, female cochineal insects ready for reproduction were scattered on the trees. The females were transported inside nests built with various materials and tied up to nopal stalks. Once the brood was born, they clung to the nopal tree, getting nourishment from its juices. When the new generation abandoned the nests, females were collected with soft brushes: it is from their dried bodies that the dye is obtained. When the final stage of the cycle was reached, the remaining cochineal were removed and killed using various methods—toasting, boiling, or steaming—and dried, in order to extract carminic acid, the desired dye of intense red color. The pigment itself was sent to market in loaves, in which form, to our knowledge, it reached the workshops of the artists. It was also used to immerse and ornament patterned clothes of lesser quality or cheaper price. The 1679 document cited above mentions the use of vermilion and magna.

Organic red lake was found in two paintings, one by Tomás Cabrera and the other by Marcos Zapata (see table 6).

3.3.4 Hematite and Vermilion

Hematite appears in South American colonial sources related to vermillion in descriptions of ritual indigenous practices (Cobo 1890, 246). Paintings found to contain the mixed red of hematite and vermilion are listed in table 6.

3.3.5 Red Lead and Vermilion

To obtain an orange-red color, painters used red lead, also known as minium or Saturn red, a burnt lead oxide (Pb3O4). This pigment was difficult to obtain, since it involved heating white lead under an air stream—the greater the oxidation, the darker the color—until it eventually turned bright orange. Mixed with linseed oil, red lead was used as a drier for carmine and vermilion. As mentioned above, Palomino classified red lead among “false” colors because of its tendency to shift to duller hues as the paint dried. However, this dulling could be prevented by purification with a vinegar washing. Pablo de Céspedes, according to a quotation found in Pacheco's work, ranked it among the “florid” and very expensive tempera paints and called it vermilion, a clear indication of the terminological confusion of the times with respect to these colors and many others ([1649] 1990, 445). In the Art of Metals, Barba himself considers red lead and vermilion the same mineral ([1640] 1967, 59). There are references to this pigment in the 1581, 1679, 1767, and 1823 contracts mentioned above.

The mixture of red lead and vermilion was found in a painting from Mateo Pisarro and in another from Marcos Zapata (see table 6).

3.3.6 Hematite and Organic Red Lake

Paintings containing mixed reds of hematite and red lake are listed in table 6.


Andean artists mixed their pigments with white to obtain halftones and used the pure pigment, dark earths, or some other pigment of the same color and different degree of saturation to reinforce dark strokes. White lead or ceruse, a basic lead carbonate (PbCO3Pb(OH)2), was used for whites. It was extracted from Azángaro mines and was widely used by painters, despite its being very toxic, for hues and lights, as were orpiment, verdigris, and sandarac.1 Traditionally, carbon black and bone black were used for blacks. In the current set of paintings it is not apparent that black has been used. Painters added a greater proportion of white, ocher, or light earths for halftones and used pure white brush strokes for highlights indicating brightness or polish. As far as lights are concerned, the style conforms to classical treatises. Only for painting carnations did some artists mix basic dyes with blue or green to render volume (Mateo Pisarro's subtle brush stroke should be recalled here). Expert in the various properties of each pigment and well informed about its market value, painters used the most expensive ones to “bathe” an area previously painted with a coarser pigment, applying carmine onto a vermilion layer and red earths to create bright red cloths or onto a red lead layer for orange-colored cloths. Unique among these paintings, the Casabindo works—attributed to Pisarro's workshop—render the ancient firearms known as harquebusers using a finely ground vermilion dispersed in a transparent organic resin.

Samples obtained from Zapata's paintings exclusively show greens obtained by mixing indigo and orpiment, the resultant mixture sometimes applied onto a red earth. Considering the unsystematic sampling, the possibility of Zapata's using pure greens for some areas cannot be ignored, although it seems unlikely because of the relative scarcity of green in his palette, limited as it is to three colors (blue, red, and yellow or ocher) in the current series.

Once again, the case of Mateo Pisarro is quite different because he created a wide variety of greens, either by applying his so-called velature “smalt” on green backgrounds—as in the case of warrior angels at Casabindo (paintings 3.1.3 [fig. 2] and 3.1.4) or by using copper resinate, as in one of the Virgin of the Rosary of Pomata (painting 1.1.3 [see fig. 1]) from Casabindo's Parish Church, in the Coronation of the Virgin by the Holy Trinity (painting 1.1.1 [fig. 3], and in The Unfailing Hour (painting 1.1.4 [fig. 4]), both in Yavi.

Fig. 2. Attributed to the workshop of Mateo Pisarro, Archangel with Harquebus, 2, ca. 1700, oil on canvas, 126.5 × 85.0 cm, parish church, Casabindo, Jujuy Province, Argentina


When trying to understand how painters from different schools and regions used available pigments, we are puzzled at first glance by the variety of the results obtained. Such differences stem not only from the skills, knowledge, and experience of each artist, but also from the economic value of the works involved, which was preestablished by contract, and the social conditions in which they were created. There is, on the one hand, the variegated palette and subtlety in color use of Pisarro's workshop in the Andean plateau, which constructs volumes, details textures, and manages to obtain flushes in carnations through the use of soft, thin brushes. On the other hand, there is Marcos Zapata's work, showing a limited palette and resorting to thick brush strokes that define extended areas of flat color (see, for example, the bulging, rigid cloaks of the important figures in the series of Humahuaca paintings (1.3.2 [fig. 5], 3.1.9, 3.4.3, and 3.5.2). Stratigraphic studies showed a significant difference in the quality of the pigments used in these two workshops: unevenly bound pigments of irregular, coarse grain, untidy mixtures, and ill-defined layers in Zapata's samples; neat layers of well-ground, well-bound pigments, homogeneous mixtures, valuable pigments, and velature in Mateo's works. Surprisingly, Pisarro's technique—especially the elaborate work on the brocaded cloak of the Pomata Virgin (painting 3.1.2), which has three superimposed layers of vermilion, lead yellow, and white lead—is very similar to the technique revealed in stratigraphic cross sections from Virgin with Baby Jesus (painting 3.1.1) that crowns Yavi's retable and is probably of Flemish origin. The presence of thin, neatly separated layers of finely ground colors (which may result from thorough drying between one layer and the next one) and the final velatura in translucent white suggest that Mateo Pisarro might have carefully studied this painting or some other European paintings from the Flemish region, which he might have seen when he visited Pérez Holguín's workshop at Potosí.

Fig. 3. Attributed to Mateo Pisarro, Coronation of the Virgin by the Holy Trinity, ca. 1690, oil on canvas, 78.5 × 83.0 cm, parich church, Yavi, Jujuy Province, Argentina

Fig. 4. Anonymous from Cuzco, The Unfailing Hour, first half of the 18th century, oil on canvas, 99.0 × 79.0 cm, parish church, Yavi, Jujuy Province, Argentina

Even though Zapata was a highly renowned master and was commissioned for fine works, as was the case of the series for the cathedral entitled Litanies of the Virgin, his hastily and carelessly made canvases are characteristic of the large-scale production at the workshops of Cuzco during the 18th century. The lack of local workshops, added to the prestige of Cuzcan painting, brought about a steadily increasing artistic traffic toward the south of the viceroyalty, to satisfy the great demand for religious images required to evangelize new settlements and towns. There was an urgent need to speed production and reduce costs, which limited the colors in the palette, restricted the number of superimposed layers of paint, and resulted in rather coarse and unrefined color mixing.

The dedication of Pisarro to achieving a particular shade in the rompimiento de gloria (literally, “the break of glory”) behind sacred figures, the smooth gradation of his haloes, his pentimenti on the Marian symbols in several of his paintings, and his unexpected skill in drawing grisailles in the monstrance of the Immaculate Conception of Yavi and in the book exhibited by Saint Ignatius at Uquía (where he proudly appended his signature once and for all)—all evidence an artist who handles color with a knowledge deeper than that of his contemporaries. Very little is known about Pisarro's technical training and less about his intellectual education, although it may be ventured that he knew Pacheco's treatise. Schenone (Burucúa et al. 2000) has concluded that, during the last decade of the 17th century and the first years of the 18th, Pisarro served the landowner and encomendero Juan José Campero y Herrera, later marquis of Valle de Tojo. Charitable deeds and the construction and ornamentation of seven churches in the lands of Yavi-Tojo, as well as the prosperity of the encomienda and the concern of the marquis for the welfare of the Indians entrusted to him, reinforce his image as a charitable “great blessed prince,” famous for his patronage of the arts. In his court, he supported a workshop headed by Pisarro that created beautiful images for the churches of the marquisate. Among the possessions inventoried when he died at his Yavi estate were a “small box of approximately half a yard containing 14 papers with glass beads” and a “box of crystal glass which had come from Spain.” Among those beads, perhaps, were the blue beads Mateo Pisarro might have used to make his “smalte.” “A small bundle of colors for painting” is also mentioned, as well as a box of medium size containing “Chilean clay and small earthenware pots from Italy” (Inventario 1991, 425). The presence of such objects might support the hypothesis that there was a painting workshop at Yavi, for which Campero himself might have provided the necessary materials. Moreover, the discovery of a few works by Mateo Pisarro in chapels at Jujuy that did not belong to Campero's encomienda and the concentration of artistic objects at Tarija, on the royal highway and the closest to Potosí of Campero's estates, suggest that the marquis was also dedicated to trade in paintings.

Fig. 5. Marcos Zapata, King Solomon, 1764, oil on canvas, 207.0 × 166.0 cm, cathedral, Humahuaca, Jujuy Province, Argentina

The authors wish to draw attention to the unusual circumstances of a painter, Mateo Pisarro, living in the periphery of the American colonial empire, who felt such an urge to solve the aesthetic problems posed by the appropriation and re-creation of European models that reached him in black and white through engravings. It is not unlikely that he might have been spurred by the demands of the man who commissioned his works, his employer, Juan José Campero. It should be noticed that we do not have any specific example of iconographic derivation from European engravings to Pisarro's paintings, but we do know that this method was the most widespread and universally accepted among Spanish American colonial artists.

Finally, the authors wish to emphasize the relevance of interdisciplinary efforts such as the present one, since using a methodology derived from cultural history, based on heterogeneous sources such as images, chemical tests, and written documents, chemistry, and history of art together bring us closer to discovering the working methods and practices of South American artists of the colonial period.


1. The term “sandarac” is used with different meanings in the language of art materials. As a pigment, documents and manuals mention sandarac as a synonym of realgar, i.e., orpiment or burnt orpiment, hence its poisonous properties. It is also known as a synonym for red lead. Furthermore, the same word was also applied to a resin exuded by various trees, especially white cedars, which was used to make varnishes.


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ALICIA M. SELDES is professor in the Department of Organic Chemistry in the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires, senior researcher of the National Council of Scientific and Technological Research (CONICET), and adviser in chemistry at the Fundación TAREA. Her areas of research interest are the analysis of traces of organic compounds and their structure through mass spectrometry techniques and the study of biologically active natural products of both marine and terrestrial origins. Since 1988, her link to the Fundación TAREA has extended her research to organic and inorganic materials used in colonial easel painting. Address: Department of Organic Chemistry, Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences, University of Buenos Aires, Pabellón 2, Ciudad Universitaria, (1428) Buenos Aires, Argentina.

JOSÉ EMILIO BURUCÚA studied history of art and history of science with Hector Schenone, Carlo del Bravo, and Paolo Rossi. He obtained his doctorate at the University of Buenos Aires, where he is now professor and chair of modern history. He has been the director of research at the National Museum of Fine Arts, Buenos Aires, and vice-dean at the School of Philosophy and Letters, University of Buenos Aires. A member of the National Academy of Fine Arts and adviser in the history of art at Fundación TAREA, he has published books and articles on the history of perspective and on the historical relations between images and ideas. Address: Julio E. Payró Theory and Art History Institute, University of Buenos Aires, 25 de Mayo 217, (1002) Buenos Aires, Argentina.

GABRIELA SIRACUSANO is assistant professor of research methodology and of the historiography of art at the School of Philosophy and Letters, University of Buenos Aires, and assistant researcher of the National Council of Scientific and Technological Research (CONICET). She is also a staff researcher at the Julio E. Payró Theory and Art History Institute, University of Buenos Aires, and president of Argentine Center of Art History Researchers (CAIA). She has carried out and published studies on the relations between art and science. Address as for Burucúa.

MARTA S. MAIER is assistant professor in the Department of Organic Chemistry, Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences, University of Buenos Aires, and assistant researcher of the National Council of Scientific and Technological Research (CONICET). Her areas of interest include biologically active compounds in echinoderms and the synthesis of their analogues. Since 1992 she has extended her scope to research on the organic materials found in colonial easel painting. Address as for Seldes.

GONZALO E. ABAD is a student of pharmacy at the University of Buenos Aires. He collaborates with the project of materials used in colonial easel painting. Address as for Seldes.

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