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Periodic Graphics

Periodic Graphics: 6 chemical stories of colors through time

Chemical educator and Compound Interest blogger Andy Brunning paints a vivid picture of how colorants have been created and used throughout history.

by Andy Brunning, special to C&EN
February 26, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 6


An infographic highlighting six colorants and their chemistry and history.
Scheele’s green, which is copper arsenite, was used in wallpaper and produced toxic fumes of arsine when the wallpaper was damp and moldy.
Tyrian purple is 6,6’-dibromoindigo extracted from the mucus of several species of sea snails. The technique for making it was lost and only rediscovered in the early 2000s.
Prussian blue, iron ferrocyanide, was discovered accidentally. When used with photosensitive paper, it creates blueprints, and it is also used to treat some types of radiation poisoning, with the side effect of blue poo.
Indian yellow is a mixture of salts of euxanthic acid. It was made from the concentrated urine of cows purportedly fed with only mango leaves and water.
Sepia is produced from the ink of cephalopods and is a type of melanin. It’s well known for lending its name to the treatment that gives photographs sepia tones.
Minium is lead tetroxide. It was used to decorate manuscripts in the Middle Ages and is the source of the word miniature. Today it’s used less, because of lead’s toxicity, but lead tetroxide still finds use as an electrode in lead-acid batteries.
Credit: Andy Brunning

To download a pdf of this article, visit

References used to create this graphic:

Mari, Francesco, Elisabetta Bertol, Vittorio Fineschi, and Steven B. Karch. “Channelling the Emperor: What Really Killed Napoleon?” J. R. Soc. Med.( 2004). DOI: 10.1258/jrsm.97.8.397.

Siddall, Ruth. “Sepia: The Grant Museum.” Pigment Timeline Project, University College London, July 29, 2016.

St. Clair, Kassia.The Secret Lives of Colour. John Murray Press, 2016.

Whitney, Carrie. “The Bizarre Link between Van Gogh’s Signature Yellow and Cow Urine.” HowStuffWorks, Feb. 28, 2023.

A collaboration between C&EN and Andy Brunning, author of the popular graphics blog Compound Interest

To see more of Brunning’s work, go to To see all of C&EN’s Periodic Graphics, visit



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