Minium is one of the pigments that has been used in paintings and other artwork for thousands of years. It is also known as 'red lead'
although today, we would say that it has quite a distinct orange colour - the reason for this is that it was called red in a time when
there was no 'orange colour at all - orange was named after the colour of the fruit. Also, think of people with ginger hair being called
'red heads' and the 'red fox' and so on.
In the middle ages and more recently, it was used in illuminated manuscripts in its own right and also as the ground for applying gold
leaf - people tend to use oxides or iron now such as red bole and yellow ochre.
Minium is made by heating up lead white until it turns into red lead - this transition possibly being a contributor to the notion of
turning base metals (like lead) into gold (before lead white turns into red lead, it becomes litharge which is a golden colour).
The colour varies slightly according to how well it has been oxidised and how big the pigment particles are - crystals of the naturally
occurring mineral are quite red.
In RGB, its value is roughly d24000
You can see its spectrum in the graph on the right. If you look at the area between 600 and 700nm (corresponding to the red band,
'd2' in the hex code), you can see that virtually all of that band is reflected. Looking at the next band between 500 and 600nm
(corresponding to the green band, '40' in the hex code), the reflectance falls very sharply so that it is only 10 percent by the
time it gets to 550nm and the blue band between 400 and 500nm is almost all absorbed ('00' in the hex code). Such a sharp fall
can cause problems as you will see below.
When you see a pigment, there are a number processes going on that allow you to perceive it the way that you do.
First of all, the light comes from the light source and hits the pigment. The light is then processed by the pigment and the medium
that it is in, and then ends up going into your eye where your retina picks it up and turns it into signals that are processed by your
That might sound a little vague but the above description is deliberately so. In reality, the colour of light will influence how you
perceive the pigment.
If you have ultramarine and look at it in daylight, it will look a lot brighter than it does in incandescent light such as tungsten
light. You can see from the spectra on the right that tungsten light has a lot of orange in it with hardly any blue. Both of these light
sources are continuous - they contain some level of all colours of visible light and your eyes will adjust to the levels so that a white
sheet of paper will look white. In light with a continuous spectrum, the hue will look the same to you but the relative brightness of each
colour will vary with availability of that colour in the light source's spectrum.
However, not all light sources are continuous.
LED lighting is a type of fluorescent lighting where a high-output, blue LED stimulates a yellow phosphor - if you have a single LED
torch, you might have noticed that it produces a beam of light that is yellow on the outside and blue on the inside.
Between the phosphor and the LED, light across the visible spectrum is produced so it looks white although, if you look at the spectrum
on the right, you can see that it certainly is not a continuous spectrum, it is a mixture of blue and orange light.
You can get LED lights that have different apparent colour temperatures which is simply a different balance between the amount of blue
and orange light - ie, change how much phosphor you put on the device. There are also variants with different spreads of phosphor and again,
this can be achieved by changing which phosphorescent compounds end up on the device.
Colours that have changes in reflectance in spaces between the peaks in the light's spectrum will have interesting results.
Mercury Vapour Discharge Fluorescent Lighting
Fluorescent lights use mercury vapour to produce ultraviolet light which then excites the phosphor on the inside of the tube. The
resultant light has a fairly smooth emission from the phosphor but there are large spikes that end up in the light from the tube and
the one in the blue is sufficiently strong for the manufacturers to not represent that colour in the phosphor. This uneven light
spectrum can lead to problems in the colours that you see. For instance, I used to have a green jumper that looked blue under the
fluorescent lighting of the local supermarket.
Mercury Vapour Emission Spectrum
You can see from the spectrum on the right that this is where the problems of the fluorescent tube lie. If you increase the pressure
in the tube, there is an increase in the amount of light emitted in the visible part of the spectrum and it starts to fill in the gaps
with a continuous spectrum - this is the blue-green light you see in mercury vapour street lamps.
So, we know what happens with the light from the source to the pigment and how it interacts with it so what about how the light is detected?
The eye uses three chemicals to detect the three colours that we perceive. You can see from the spectrum on the right that red and green
sensors have a lot of overlap. However, if you look at the height of the lines at a particular wavelength you can see that there is
enough and your retina and then your brain do a lot of processing that allow you to see that colours that you do.
If you look carefully at the lower left of the spectrum, you will see that the red sensors also pick up the light at the 400nm end of
the spectrum and this gives the blue at that wavelength the purple tinge that we see.
So, ideally, we would have a camera's sensor that had the same colour sensitivities as our eyes and use colours that each excite only
single sets of sensors.
Clearly, this cannot happen from the way that the sensors in our eyes respond to colours.
As an alternative, you could have a set of sensors that respond to bands of colours and when the image is displayed, these bands are
replicated. Whilst this might sound okay, we are going to run into problems with some pigments such as Minium
We end up with the spectrum on the right - the three pigments used in the Bayer Mask that is used in virtually all cameras.
Which isn't too bad. However, if you look at the green, the response where the main change in minium occurs - between 550nm
and 600nm - doesn't have a lot of representation.
Here again is the minium spectrum, just so that you can compare it with the Bayer Mask
As you can see, the green doesn't get much of a look in.
So, what effect does this have on the colours we see with real pigments when they are recorded photographically?
For the following tests, I used a printout of a partial spectrum from red to yellow that is a hue from 0 to 60, centred at
30. Of course, the computer sends those colour values to the printer and it faithfully prints them out. On each strip, there
was a patch of minium (encaustic in this case) and under the lighting conditions, I marked
where on the spectrum, the hue of the mimium matched the colour on the spectrum.
However, the dyes that are used in laser printers, like those in inkjet printers, are victims of the circumstances of
real-life dyes and as a result, you cannot expect them to be perfect. So, in the shot was also a colour scale bar as you can
see in the photograph below and this was used to correct the colour layers in each photograph.
The spectrum was then photographed by a Samsung mobile phone, and for comparison, also photographed on a cheap camera, a
Samsung ES71 camera and scanned on a HP DeskJet 2540 scanner (home scanner).
Then, the images were taken from the scanner and the cameras and the colours were balanced using the Gimp image processing
package that will run on virtually any platform.
Next, the hues of the ends and middle of the recorded printed spectrum were determined along with the hue of the sample
of encaustic minium and the hue where the arrow was. These are noted as visual for the arrow position, Minium for the sample's
hue and the shift between the two was noted.
The hue of the position on each spectrum was noted along with the hue values at the ends and middle of the spectra. The
reason for this was that: firstly, no printer will ever print a spectrum correctly; and, secondly, noting the hue of where the
arrow and the hue of the pigment sample electronically takes the guess work out of it.
Different Light Sources
||1 ||25 ||51
||19 ||11 ||-9
||This is direct sunlight - a continuous spectrum where the predominant light is the disc of the sun.
|North-Facing Clear Sky
||4 ||24 ||53
||15 ||14 ||-1
||This was taken in north-facing light - the clear blue sky but no direct sunlight.
|Normal LED Room Light
||7 ||21 ||55
||16 ||11 ||-5
||This one was taken in normal LED room light, that is to say that the colour temperature is similar to an incandescent (tungsten)
lamp with a colour temperature of around 2,800K.
|Bright - high colour temperature - LED Bathroom Light
||6 ||27 ||53
||18 ||9 ||-9
||This one was taken in light from a high colour temperature LED bathroom light, that is to say that the colour temperature
is more similar to sunlight with a colour temperature of around 5,400K.
|Bright - high colour temperature - LED Bathroom Light
||5 ||26 ||57
||20 ||1 ||-19
||This one was taken by a flatbed scanner. If you have ever looked at a scanner scanning
with the lid up, you will notice that as it scans, it steps the sensor to its new position and then stops. Then it illuminates,
in turn, the object with red, green and blue light. The sensor is the same, monochrome sensor so instead of something like a Bayer
matrix, it just uses the one sensor illuminated with three different light sources. In this way, each pixel has all three RGB
For the comparison, I held up a sample of the minium against the screen in normal lighting conditions and
noted where it matched the spectrum.
One spectacular difference here is the way that the minium is evaluated by the scanner. If you remember the Bayer filters
next to the spectrum of minium, you will see that red sensors get a pretty good amount of light from the minium but the green
gets hardly any. Here, you can see what that looks like.
On the right, you can see the photographic output from three different devices:
Here are the results:
- A Samsung mobile phone which was used to take the pictures of all of the above images except for the flatbed scanner;
- A Samsung ES71 camera (I found this at last - I had been looking for it for nearly two years. Nice to have it back);
- A Cheap camera (a Polaroid brand camera for £30 from the local supermarket; and,
- The Flatbed Scanner.
||4 ||24 ||53
||15 ||14 ||-1
||North facing light produces good results with these cameras. The spectrum lacks a little
of the range towards the yellow end but the evaluation of the minium is reasonable.
|Samsung ES71 Camera
||3 ||24 ||55
||11 ||11 ||0
||Here, like the phone, the spectrum is shifted a little to the red end at the red end and into the
middle, flattening out the red half. However, the minium is reproduced fairly well, like the phone. .
|Polaroid-branded Cheap Camera
||0 ||20 ||58
||11 ||11 ||0
||Here, the spectrum is shifted a little to the red end at the red end and into the middle, flattening
out the red half. However, the minium is reproduced fairly well, like the Samsung phone. The main disadvantage of the cheap camera is the
awful quality of the image and lack of control over the way it is processed in the camera.
||5 ||26 ||57
||20 ||1 ||-19
||Finally, the flatbed scanner produces a spectrum similar to the phone but even though the sensor is a
monochrome sensor and the colour information is obtained by changing the colour of the lights, the red and green separate the colours into
distinct bands too much to reproduce the orange colour of minium properly.
Making a photographic reproduction of an artwork is potentially an opportunity for a real mess. However, understanding what happens can help you choose
the right light source and the right instrument for recording the image.
Single pigments are always preferable to mixtures where possible because they produce cleaner colours that stimulate the viewer in ways that four colour
reproductions cannot. However, if your artwork is aimed at producing prints in one form or another, either you need to accept that some colours might not
reproduce as expected or you need to paint using colours that are not as saturated but give better results in the final image.
Of course, you might think that this is all splitting hairs as most of the results are all right but there are circumstances when accurate colour
reproduction does matter - such as when you are producing pictures for sale.
All images and original artwork Copyright ©2020 Paul Alan Grosse.