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The History Of Colour

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!

Colour Theory and Colour Mixing

Sir Isaac Newton was the first person to develop the colour wheel as we know it. He created the first circular diagram in 1666. Since then, artists and scientists have studied and designed many variations on the traditional ‘colour wheel’ as we know it today. There is a surprising amount of debate about the validity of one variation over another but honestly, any circle of colour that presents a logically arranged sequence of colours and hues has merit.

There are also categories of colour based on the basic colour wheel, basically divided into three parts.

Primary Colours: The primary colours are easily the most common and make up the foundation of the world around us in terms of colour. The primary colours are red, yellow and blue and cannot be mixed using any other colours. The primary colours, however, make up the rest of all the colours we see and use.

Secondary Colours: At its most basic form, colour theory tells us that if we mix equal parts of two primary colours then we will create green, orange and purple. These are your secondary colours and are thus made using the primary colours as a base. However, depending on the paint you use and the quality of the pigment, it may take a higher ratio of certain colours to create a true middle tone. For example, in many brands of paint, yellow is a weaker pigment. Therefore, an equal ratio of yellow and red or yellow and blue is more likely to be influenced by the stronger pigment of red and blue so you would need more yellow to balance it out.

Tertiary Colours: A tertiary colour is an intermediate colour and is a step between a primary colour and a secondary colour. It’s made mixing a higher ratio of one colour over the other. Another easy way to look at it is by mixing an adjacent primary and secondary colour together, you will end up with the tertiary colour. By adjusting the proportions of the primary and secondary colours you can create a wide range of subtle colours. Essentially you can further versions for the tertiary colours by repeatedly mixing each neighbouring pair until you have a seamless, continuous transition.

Something else to consider is that the particular hue of your colour is important. There isn’t only one option in terms of a shade of yellow, for example. For example, The colour blue has many many variations even as a primary colour. We obviously have primary blue but ultramarine blue, prussian blue or pthalo blue are all different iterations of the same colour. So the particular hue of your primary colour will influence the outcome of your mixed colours, whether they’re secondary or tertiary colours. These differences may be subtle but it’s important to know that they will happen and how to predict the outcome. The best way to learn this is to practice and experiment but make colour charts for yourself in a small notebook or make colour swatches as you’re painting and take notes of the colours mixed and the ratios that you’ve used to get there.

So with these primary factors taken into consideration, what we are going to look at now is how to apply these colours to your artwork and everything you can do with colour theory as an artist. First, we need to look at colour harmony and what that means. Harmony itself is an arrangement of pleasing parts, whether it be music, poetry, colour or even a platter of cheese and dried fruit. In a visual sense, harmony is something that is then pleasing to the eye. It creates a sense of order, a balanced visual experience and is pleasing to the eye. If something is not harmonious it’s either boring or just chaotic. Harmony has to be something that is not extremely overworked, otherwise, it isn’t stimulating but extreme complexity leads to over-stimulation. Harmony should be dynamic.

Colour Formulas for Visual Harmony

Complementary Colours: Diving even deeper into colour theory, we come across one of the most important parts of colour mixing. Complementary colours are opposite each other on the colour wheel. In their most basic form, they are a primary colour and a secondary colour that is made by mixing the two-remaining primary colours. This is a small formula to remember if you tend to forget what the complementary colours are. So let’s look at red as an example. Because red is a primary colour, its complementary must be a secondary colour. Both orange and purple can be made using red, therefore green must be complementary to red. Therefore, blue is also opposite orange and yellow is opposite purple. These are the core complimentary colours but in essence, you could take any subtle variation of a colour and find its complementary but locating it on a colour wheel.

So now that we have covered the basics of mixing to create every colour under the sun, we have to think about how to make these colours lighter and darker. In colour theory, this is called making a tint or a shade. A tint is a colour that appears lighter so we would add various levels of white to create a spectrum of true colour to white, true colour being a primary, secondary or colour. A shade is a colour that appears darker, so we have to add black to get those darker tones. A tone is a colour that has grey added into it to create a more subtle variation of a shade or a tint. Toning a colour neutralizes some of the brightness of a colour without taking it too far down the shade or tint scale.

How to use the power of colour in your art

The power of colour is both emotional and practical. On an emotional level, colour can affect how someone feels when they look at your art, whereas on a practical level it can help a painting or artwork stand out from a crowd. Certain colours can evoke certain emotions and the colour tone of a painting can determine the mood that your painting sets. For example, red can symbolize many different things. It can represent fire, danger, passion or blood and is a bold, energetic and powerful colour. Green. on the other hand. has very different connotations, Green can represent nature and the environment and thus, in turn, the idea of growth and organic, natural senses. However, it is also the colour of envy, which has entirely different connotations. A mood of the painting can be cool, warm or neutral, In essence, warm colours are reds, some browns, yellow, orange, or earthy greens. Cool colours are blues, greens, non-red browns, blue-toned purples, amongst many others. The tone of your painting can determine how someone feels when they look at your work. The www.arttherapyblog.com/  has a really great post with a more in-depth break down of each colour. Check it out here!

The world of colour is massive and you could dedicate your whole life to studying colour and still be amazed by what you learn. The real fun part is just experimenting and learning as you go. Make colour swatches as you paint, take photos of things that you like the colour of and just see what works for you. Remember that the colours you choose affect the overall feel and mood of your paintings and it can be hard to choose a theme or colours for your artwork. So, check online for some ideas but here are a few websites to start with!

Paletton.com Canva.com Coolers.com