The history of colour is really fascinating and of course one of the reasons why I'm so passionate about colour.
In ancient times Artists invented the first pigments—a combination of soil, animal fat, burnt charcoal, and chalk—as early as 40,000 years ago, creating a basic palette of five colors: red, yellow, brown, black, and white. Since then, the history of colour has been one of perpetual discovery, whether through exploration or scientific advancement. The invention of new pigments accompanied the developments of art history’s greatest movements—from the Renaissance to Impressionism—as artists experimented with colours never before seen in the history of painting.
I will first start off with the three primary colours on the colour wheel which are red, blue, and yellow. These three colours are the true roots of colour and can be mixed to create so many various colours or hues. I will get into that in a later blog but for now let me start off with red.
The colour red in most primitive languages was and is the first colour named after black and white. It is the beginning of the colour spectrum, and along with it comes all the implications of mankind's beginnings. The most association with red is the colour of blood: the elemental life-giving force that brings forth both, vitality, activity, strength. Throughout the world the word red is typically derived from the word blood in many languages. Red has many symbols and meanings throughout the world as well, for instance
Found in iron-rich soil and first employed as an artistic material (as far as we know) in prehistoric cave paintings, red ochre is one of the oldest pigments still in use. Centuries later, during the 16th and 17th centuries, the most popular red pigment came from a cochineal insect, a creature that could only be found on prickly-pear cacti in Mexico. These white bugs produced a potent red dye so sought-after by artists and patrons that it quickly became the third greatest import out of the “New World” (after gold and silver), as explains Victoria Finlay in A Brilliant History of Color in Art. Raphael, Rembrandt, and Rubens all used cochineal as a glaze, layering the pigment atop other reds (like red ochre) to increase their intensity. A non-toxic source for red pigment, the cochineal bug is still used to color lipsticks and blush today.
Ever since the Medieval era, painters have depicted the Virgin Mary in a bright blue robe, choosing the color not for its religious symbolism, but rather for its hefty price tag. Mary’s iconic hue—called ultramarine blue—comes from lapis lazuli, a gemstone that for centuries could only be found in a single mountain range in Afghanistan. This precious material achieved global popularity, adorning Egyptian funerary portraits, Iranian Qur’ans, and later the headdress in Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665). For hundreds of years, the cost of lapis lazuli rivaled even the price of gold. In the 1950s, Yves Klein collaborated with a Parisian paint supplier to invent a synthetic version of ultramarine blue, and this color became the French artist’s signature. Explaining the appeal of this historic hue, Klein said, “Blue has no dimensions. It is beyond dimensions.”
Few artists in history have been known for their use of yellow, though Joseph Mallord William Turner and Vincent van Gogh are the most notable exceptions. Turner so loved the color that contemporary critics mocked the British painter, writing that his images were “afflicted with jaundice,” and that the artist may have a vision disorder. For his sublime and sun-lit seascapes, Turner used the experimental watercolor Indian Yellow—a fluorescent paint derived from the urine of mango-fed cows (a practice banned less than a century later for its cruelty to animals). For brighter touches, Turner employed the synthetic Chrome Yellow, a lead-based pigment known to cause delirium. Vincent van Gogh also painted his starry nights and sunflowers with this vivid and joyful hue. “Oh yes! He loved yellow, did good Vincent, the painter from Holland, gleams of sunlight warming his soul, which detested fog,” wrote the painter Paul Gauguin of his friend and artistic companion.