Chemistry and Art: Baroque Art

Everything was pretty dramatic in the Baroque period!


k-mistry21600 – 1700 AD

Most of the paintings made in the era were huge and had loads of colour, shadows, energy and drama going on! Some even used pretty cool optical illusions to make things look even bigger and even more exciting.

During this period, a particularly important scientific discovery was made by chemists that totally changed the art world and it was to all to do with the colour blue…


Johann Diesbach was a German dye producer who one day accidentally discovered a revolutionary was to make the colour blue!

220px-Handmann_JFFunkI.At the time, Diesbach was making a lake pigment. A lake pigment is one made out of a vegetable or animal dye, mixed with a compound to bind it.

Lakes were used to colour fabrics as well as make paints.  Red lake was popular as it was kind of translucent, which helped to make painted velvets look really lush!

Diesbach faced a problem when he ran out of one of the key ingredients in his laboratory that he shared with an alchemist called Johann Dippel. Alchemists were scientists and inventors who thought they could create gold out of rocks and lead!

Sadly, it turned out this wasn’t possible!

earth1bTo make a red lake, Diesbach would use a mix of the minerals iron sulphate and potash. On this particular day, he used potash that had been mixed with animal oil.

Tp Diesbach’s surprise, instead of getting the red lake pigment he wanted, he got a different pigment altogether! He managed to concentrate this pigment down to a rich blue, which became known as Prussian Blue!

Within ten years, this new pigment – one of the very first to be made from scratch – was being used by artists the world over!

Prussian Blue helped artists make huge sweeping skies, which wasn’t always possible when blue paint was more rare.

386If you look at Prussian Blue under a microscope, you’ll see that it’s a mass of tiny crystals!

However, the size and the shape of the crystals isn’t exactly the same which means the colour you get from the pigment can vary a little.


Colours have a lot to do with the molecules and chemistry inside the paint.

So what makes things blue and not a different colour?

FloodlightWell, we see objects when light shines on them and colours are made by the way an object affects that light.  When light shines on something, some of the light will pass into it – that’s known as ‘absorbed’ – whilst other light bounces back or ‘reflected’.

The amount of light ‘absorbed’ and ‘reflected’ depends on the materials from which the object is made.  Different pigments absorb and reflect different colours of light, so we see each pigment as a different colour!

If you think that’s clever, come with us as we go to the Romantic Period!

Next: Romanticism Art