There was a time, when humans had no influence over colour creation – granted it was before the discovery of fire, but our artistic creations were limited to chipping and carving rock surfaces. Move forward in time and we find indigenous populations creating fabulous cave art with the help of clay, charcoal and ochre (rock pigments of iron oxide). We learned to bind pigments with blood, egg and urine and make paints, and here the journey of colour progressed.
Why dive into the history of colour?
There was a time, I was a teacher of chemistry and to understand chemistry truly, students need to understand electrons, light, oxidation and the behaviour of transistion metals – these are the attributes that make colour! To understand the behaviour of electrons moving into and out of excited states, for example, is a study of colour. More than this though, the study of the history of colour brings us on a journey through time in fashion and art. There is a reason why our world became more colourful over time. There is a reason why purple was the colour of regency. There is a reason why so many Ancient Egyptian artefacts are blue and green – and it all is related to our discovery of chemistry and colour.
Black and White
Technically, not colours, black and white required the least human agency to create – clay such as kaolin and charcoal from lightning fires created the materials needed to create art and decorate the person in ritual or early proto-fashion designs. At this time in history, nature provided beautiful greens, purples, blues, yellows and red, but we could not recreate them in any sustainable or manageable way. Humans were surrounded by colours they could perceive but not create.
The earthy tones: yellow, reds and browns
Cave art from Australia, Africa and Europe shows a predominance of ochre colours: red, yellow and browns. Cave art used not only the black and white already acquired, but also pigments from special coloured, iron-rich rocks – ochres. The importance of these colours is noted in the extent to which the distance between the source of the ochres and their presence in cave art can be seen. Some colours travelled across continents to grace rock walls in designs that we still marvel at tens of thousands of years later!
Though we now see some yellow and red – they are not the colours we know and love today, nor did they mirror the yellows and reds in nature – but it was a beginning into our colour history.
Blues and Greens
Look to Egypt for some of the earliest blues and greens that transversed time for centuries. The copper-rich ores of malachite and azurite were collected and crushed by Ancient Egyptions and appear in personal decoration and art throughout Egypt (and continue into Mediaeval art). As you can imagine, Egypt, surrounded by desert, was a sandy place – and there was some use of these pigments medicinally to help with eye irritations, however, consider the art and fashion. It is here, in this time, that our ability to add blue and green becomes notable and we see jewellery featuring coloured stones, the creation of blue-green faience glass and temple art clearly showing the lushness of the Nile river flats in greens and blues. Here, too, we really began our journey into make-up and fashion. The ore of mercury, gave us a lovely red – worth putting on our lips! It is notable here – that we are now also using mirrors fashioned from polished metals to see our own image and curate it.
Purples and violets
An innocuous mollusc was the revelation in purple and the reason that the Roman elite were recognised by their purple robes. The ink of the disturbed creatures could be harvested and used to dye fabric and our fascination with the purple colours increased.
Indigo, avaliable from a plant, also was extracted and we get that blue-purple later used to dye denim jeans.
As time moved forward, our colour pallete grew and the colours became clearer. We embraced meaning and importance in colours and attached societal significance to them because some of the colours – like rich blue, were very hard to come by, hence very expensive and so only the most important people could afford them. The European Mediaeval era saw an explosion in our ability to colour our world. Not only are we dying fabrics and following fashion trends, we are wearing make-up and making stained glass! Humans have now conquered colour – or so it seemed. We have learned how to manipulate iron and copper, lead and manganese to create marvellous glass walls in towering cathedrals. We are painting our faces regularly (albeit with largely toxic mercury and lead based pigments).
Look now to the rise of blue in art and fabric – this is how we showed our wealth! The richest amongst us would have portraits painted of us wearing blue – the more blue in the art work, the more money we had paid. The world is now starting to resemble the colours of nature – even in man-made constructions, take for example St. Chapel in Paris (pictured below).
The Industrial Revolution and coal tar
The Industrial Revolution, saw not only the rise in machines and soot, but opened the door to a future in synthetic colour. Though it was about a century later, our ability to synthetically make colours owes its thanks to the chemists of coal tar. We now start to create a plethora of clear colours from mauve to orange without the need for mining mineral or extracting dyes from plants. The Industrial Revolution changed the face of the world in many ways – one of which was in the production of synthetic colour!
Here we are...
We now create a colourful world not only in pigments and dyes, but in light. Our digital world requires an understanding of how light (and those electrons) behave to create the colours we see on screens across the planet. Look closely at a screen with a drop of water on it and you are likely to see red, green and blue – the primary colours of light. And now enter quantum dots – a revolution in colour and clarity that makes those QLED TVs so masterful!