The History Of Colour
The invention of paint as we know it began as early as 40,000 years ago and consisted of combinations of soil, animal fat, burnt charcoal and chalk. This, in essence, created the basic pallete of red, yellow, brown, black and white. Since then, the history of colour has been one
long journey of discovery and exploration, some through chance and others through scientific advancement. The invention of new pigments often sparked new developments in art history, from Renaissance to Impressionism.
Because of the lack of technology and just general lack of access to pigments, paints started out as very neutral, natural toned colours. They were all made out of materials that could be found in nature. Things like natural clays, rocks as well as minerals and precious stones
would all be utilised but certain animal products could also be used as a pigment.
First used in prehistoric cave paintings, red ochre is one of the oldest pigments still used today. In the 16th century, a red pigment was discovered that came from a cochineal insect, a creature that was only found on the prickly pear cactus in Mexico. These little bugs produce
such a potent red dye that it quickly became the third greatest import out of the “New World”. Third only to gold and silver. Raphael, Rembrandt and Rubens all used cochineal as a glaze, layering the pigment on top of other red to increase intensity. Because the pigment is
non-toxic it still used today to colour lipstick and blush.
Ever since the medieval era, painters have depicted the Virgin Mary in a bright blue robe, choosing the colour both for its religious symbolism as well as its hefty price tag. Mary’s iconic hue, called Ultramarine blue, comes from lapis lazuli, a gemstone that could only be found in a single mountain range in Afghanistan. For hundreds of years, the cost of lapis lazuli rivalled even the price of gold. In the 1950s, Yves Klein collaborated with a Parisian paint
supplier to invent a synthetic version of ultramarine blue, Klein said, “Blue has no dimensions. It is beyond dimensions.”
Few artists in history have been known for their use of yellow, though William Turner and Vincent van Gogh are the most notable exceptions. For his sun-lit seascapes, Turner used the experimental watercolour Indian Yellow—a fluorescent paint derived from the urine of mango-fed cows (banned less than a century later for its cruelty to animals). For brighter touches, Turner used a synthetic Chrome Yellow, a lead-based pigment known to cause
delirium. Vincent van Gogh also painted his starry nights and sunflowers using Chrome Yellow which, in part, contributing to his declining mental health.
While the colour green evokes nature and renewal, its pigments have actually been some of the most poisonous in history. In 1775, a deadly hue called Scheele’s Green was invented, a bright green pigment laced with arsenic. By the end of the 19th century, Paris Green—a
similar mixture of copper and arsenic—replaced Scheele’s Green, enabling artists like Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir to create vivid, emerald landscapes. However, it was still highly toxic and may have been responsible for Cézanne’s diabetes and even Monet’s blindness. Unsurprisingly, it was eventually banned in the 1960s.
For centuries, the colour purple has been associated with greatness: immense power, big personalities and artistic genius. Cleopatra and Julius Caesar covered themselves and their palaces with it. Impressionists like Clause Monet became so obsessed with the colour that they were accused of contracting “violettomania” The invention of collapsible tin tubes to store premixed paint was revolutionary for the fine art world. It led to the production of nuanced, pre-mixed paint shades, such as Manganese Violet, the first affordable mauve-coloured paint that meant artists no longer had to mix red and blue to make purple.
Black is technically an absence of light. Where reds, blues, greens are examples of chromatic colours, black is achromatic. It is without hue, like white. Black was one of the first pigments ever used and over the course of art history, there have been many different kinds of black
pigment. Charcoal, which was inexpensive but produced a gritty paint that was difficult to apply. Bone black, literally ground burnt animal bones tended to have a warmer, brown-black and lamp black (burnt vegetable oil) and vine black (charred grapevines or other vegetable products) gave cooler shades. Artists like Frank Stella, Richard Serra, and Ad Reinhardt all created monochromatic black paintings, stripping the canvas of any subject matter other than the paint itself. Taken together, these painters prove that black is as nuanced a colour as any other, capable of many permutations, tones, and textures.
Of all the pigments that have been banned over the centuries, the colour most missed by painters is likely Lead White. This hue could capture and reflect a gleam of light like no other, though its production was anything but glamorous. The 17th-century Dutch method for manufacturing the pigment involved layering cow and horse manure over lead and vinegar. After three months in a sealed room, these materials would combine to create flakes of pure white. While scientists in the late 19th century identified lead as poisonous, it wasn’t until
1978 that the United States banned the production of lead white paint.
As we spoke about in our last post, the psychology of colour is a fascinating and diverse area of thought and in history, the act of using colour has often served as a way of representing something, usually within the realms of mystical, divine and royal. Colours in different cultures can also represent very different things. For example, white in Western culture represents purity and marriage whereas Asian cultures see white as the colour of mourning, grief and loss.
One must examine how colour has been used over time and how the development of technology has influenced the way we see and use colour. We are blessed to live in an age where we can walk into any old art store and find any colour under the rainbow in a tube on a shelf. And even now we have access to colours that are metallic, neon or even glow in the dark. It can be both very freeing and overwhelming at the same time. So just imagine you’re
one of the old masters, grinding up pigments made from rocks shipped from the centre of Africa. That’ll make things easier!