Pigments and Re-Materialization of Chinese Painting

Quincy Ngan, University of Iowa


This paper uses the symbolic value and the unique visual appearance of mineral pigments to explore the materiality of traditional Chinese painting. It focuses on azurite blue and malachite green — two of the most historic, costly, and versatile mineral pigments in traditional China. These two pigments, weaving together disparate fields of knowledge and symbolism, conditioned traditional painters’ decisions as to what grade and where colors were placed in a composition. By studying the intricate relationship between color, motif, subject matter, and format, this paper presents cases in which pigments encode and signify meaning beyond simple coloration and serve as communicative conduits for painters, patrons, and viewers. For example, the locations of azurite and malachite in a composition can reinforce iconography and narrative. Or, using the prized azurite as the color of a throne or opulent robes in a painting converts the inward desires of emperors and the rich into an outward sign. Lastly, using azurite rock as a motif can even evoke one’s geographical imagination, for the alluring hue of the mineral has been associated with the color of the immortal land. Indeed, examining the color of a painting solicits close observation of a broad realm of much-neglected pictorial elements such as technique, composition, motifs, and formats in traditional Chinese painting, thus prompting a broader investigation of the use of pigments in architecture, cave temples, and tombs.