Scientists Say: Pigment

Pigments are compounds that give materials their colors

The Scream painting

Pigments are substances that give materials, such as paints, different hues.  In Edvard Munch’s 1910 painting “The Scream,” cadmium yellow pigments brighten up the sky and central figure.

Irina Crina Anca Sandu, Eva Storevik Tveit/Munch Museum

Pigment (noun, “PIG-ment”)

Pigments are compounds that give materials their colors. Pigments are used to color plastics, fabrics and many other materials.

Pigments can also refer to molecules in cells that give plants and animals their signature hues. The pigment melanin, for instance, is responsible for skin and hair color. Chlorophyll is a pigment that makes plants green. Other pigments give fruits and vegetables bright colors such as yellow, orange and red.

People have used other pigments to create paints and inks for millennia. Our early ancestors used the earth-based pigment ochre to decorate cave walls. And metallic cadmium pigments once gave Munch’s painting “The Scream” and some Legos their vibrant colors.

Pigments appear as certain colors because of the way they interact with light. These colorful compounds absorb some wavelengths and reflect others. Red pigments, for instance, reflect only red wavelengths of light. Since those are the wavelengths that bounce off the pigment and reach our eyes, that’s the color we perceive the pigment to be.  

In a sentence

Finding evidence of ancient pigments in fossils could help reveal what dinosaurs looked like.

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Maria Temming is the assistant editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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