History of Color and Theory of Color: How Humans Make Sense of Color

Color has been around since before the big bang. However, the first pigments were created by early artists. The history of color and the theory of color is a fascinating tale around a concept so routine, we rarely take notice. If you do not often think about color, we give you two tasks. First, read this post. Second, search Youtube for videos of people with colorblindness experiencing color through the use of special glasses. You will find it much easier to appreciate the experience of color after that.

Color Production

Artists used a combination of soil, clay, animal fat, burnt charcoal, chalk, crushed flowers, and more to produce different shades. Color production by early artists created a basic color palette as early as 40,000 years ago. That range consisted of red, yellow, brown, black, and white.

Since the first color palette, the history of color from pigment to symbolism has been that of an evolving discovery. Paintings, furniture, advertisements, or inanimate objects are the culmination of years of color theory evolution.

Scientific advancements and the invention of new pigments throughout art’s most historic movements expanded the world’s color palette. From the Renaissance to Impressionism, artists expanded the spectrum of color we love and appreciate today.

Color Theory

Today we recognize color theory as the science behind human color perception. It explains our experience of color,  the perception of color, and the visual effects of color in the way they mix, match, or contrast with each other. Moreover, the theory of colors is how artists communicate their messages. Through the interaction of color and various mixed, matched, and contrasting pigments, they convey emotion. This also includes the methods used to replicate specific colors.

Of course, it all started with the early pigments mentioned above. Those pigments gave birth seven prominent colors on the color spectrum.

History of Colors

Here’s an overview of the history of those seven colors and their implications throughout history and into this century:

history of the color red

Red—or red ochre—has always been one of the most prevalent colors in nature. Its abundance is why we discovered it in caves. Readily available, red ochre was the choice of primitive artists.

The color red is historically recognized for its use in prehistoric cave paintings. Red ochre was one of the original variations of the pigment used, derived from clay. Other variations include hematite and cinnabar, derived from iron and mercury. These were also used in save paintings as well as pottery, makeup, ink, and clothing dye.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the most popular red pigment came from the cochineal bug in Mexico. The insect was white but produced a vivid red dye. This easily become one of the greatest imports from the “New World” next to gold and silver.

Throughout time red has also had a range of symbolic meanings. Red symbolizes life, health, vigor, anger, love, war, courage, danger, and religious fervor. The common factor is that all of these things require passion. Passion is the life force that drives them. Like the blood that courses through our veins and flushes our faces with color, passionate emotion drives us forward as well.

history of the color Yellow

Yellow has a very similar history to red. The earliest used yellow pigment was yellow ochre—also derived from clay and used in prehistoric cave paintings. Yellow’s notoriety in the art of the natural world came from its brightness in relation to the sun.

Yellow pigment became incredibly popular in ancient Greece and Rome. It grew into shades such as Naples yellow and lead-tin yellow. These are the signature pigments of the Renaissance era.

As a symbol of the sun and of eternity, yellow was also prevalent in ancient Egyptian art. It was also used as a dye.

While few artists in history have been associated with a love of yellow. Joseph Mallord William Turner and Vincent Van Gogh are two exceptions. They shared an obsession with the color.

Turner was known for experimenting with Indian yellow—a fluorescent water-color paint. This shade came from the urine of mango-fed cattle. He also used chrome yellow, which was led-based and known to cause delirium.

To this day, yellow is associated with the sun, joy, optimism, energy, happiness, and friendship.

history of the color orange

Orange, interestingly enough, was not considered its own color until the 16th century. Before this time it was always referred to as “yellow-red.”

The color orange blossomed when Portuguese merchants began trading oranges. Oranges were unknown to most of Europe. Since there was no English name for the fruit, the word orange was created for both the fruit and color.

Of course, the color dates back earlier than the 16th century. However, its use in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings reflected that of yellowish gold. The bright peel of the orange fruit came later.

Much like yellow, orange symbolizes energy and cheer. We also relate it to vitality, adventure, warmth, good health. In some cases, pure orange which has brassy tones may suggest bad taste or a lack of intellectual values.

history of the color green

Pedro Calderon de la Barca thought green was “the primary color of the world, and that from which loveliness arises.”

Green is another ancient color, although not as ancient as red or yellow. The earliest green pigment included Earth green and green Malachite. The inventors mixed yellow ochre and blue azurite to create this shade.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, artists used synthetic greens. They created them for glazes, glass blowing, religious paintings, and statues. This step brought a realness to the works that reflected the natural world.

The color green is symbolic of nature, renewal, longevity, eternity, growth, health, harmony, peace, and rest. However, physically it has been one of the most poisonous colors throughout history.

In the late 1700s, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a Swedish chemist, invented Scheele’s green using the toxic chemical arsenic. The pigment was beautiful as well as cheap to make. The shade was sensationally popular during the Victorian era. Historians believe that this pigment was single-handedly responsible for many deaths—including Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon’s bedroom wallpaper featured the color.

By the end of the 19th century, Paris Green was the trend. This pigment mixed copper and arsenic. This pigment produced vivid, emerald landscapes. It also likely caused the health issues of Cézanne and Monet.

By the 1960s, authorities banned Paris green. Safer synthetic greens took its place.

history of the color violet

The color violet, which we refer to mostly as purple today, has long been associated with royalty.

The color’s earliest pigment was Tyrian purple. The ancient Phonecian people in Tyre and Sidon produced it. The pigment came from the mucus of the Murex species of marine mollusks. This dye was both rare and expensive at the time.

For centuries, only royalty could afford this dye. It became the symbol of monarchies worldwide. The cost of this new purple dye also limited its use to textiles and art.

Adorning oneself with the color purple demonstrated not only royalty but also grandeur, independence, wisdom, extravagance, and pride. However, the color is also symbolic of passion, creativity, loyalty, trust, and devotion.

history of the color indigo

Indigo was another rare color. This shade is closely related to both blue and violet. The human eye actually has trouble seeing it.

The color indigo was so difficult to point out that it wasn’t until 1671 that Sir Issac Newton declared it to be an official color of the visible light spectrum.

Humans developed indigo from a plant known as Indigofera. It became one of the earliest colors to be used for dyeing textiles. Many historians believe the color originated in India. Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama found indigo during his discovery of a sea route to the country.

Throughout the Middle Ages, indigo remained a very rare commodity, much like violet. It wasn’t until the Woad plant was discovered that it could produce a chemically identical dye that the color became more widespread.

Indigo denotes a certain spirituality as it symbolizes faith, devotion, integrity, and deep sincerity, as well as justice and fairness.

history of the color blue

The color blue is without a doubt one of the most popular colors in history. Interestingly enough, blue pigment is rather scarce in nature. We see this color in flowing bodies of water and certain animals.

Blue pigment was scarce. Until the ancient Egyptians began producing it using lapis lazuli gemstones. Some historians argue that blue couldn’t even be seen until its production through gemstones. Moreover, many believe that early humans were colorblind. Our ability to see color grew over time. Eventually, we could see red, yellow, green. Blue was the last color on the list.

Scientists and historians aren’t the only ones who believe this either. In a quote from the Odyssey, Homer describes the ocean before him not as blue, but as a “wine-dark sea,” providing literary support in a lack of ability to see this primary color.

Once the pigment became more widely available, its earliest uses were for textile dye, ink, paint, and skin dye. When we think of blue, we think of calmness, health, stability, inspiration, wisdom, serenity, life, and sometimes sadness.

Nature of Color

The relationship between color and human emotions is profound but usually unnoticed. A typical art history class might awaken us to the theory of colors and grow our appreciation. However, for those who do not explore the science or history of color, recognition of color as one of our more fascinating subjects is unlikely to occur.  The typical human experience is awash in color. Only the absence of color might suddenly jar our gratitude for the vibrancy around us.

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