Colour Considerations – Tradition, Legend, Myth and Magic

Coloured Head

All cultures on earth have particular perceptions of, and about colour, which in its evolution has come to symbolize many things both collectively and individually. It also has many variants, is neither black or white and has many shades of grey in between. In that respect one could say colour is a metaphor for life. For centuries coloured stones helped primitive man record images associated with his traditions, myths, legends and magic. Pulverised into a powder and mixed with gum or sap the colours made were used for painting images of life, or to prepare the body for war, festivals and funerary rites.

While the whole concept of colour may seem to be reasonably simple to many the fact is that viewing colour for humans is an amazingly complex operation and a vast subject beyond the scope of this essay. If you wish to expand your knowledge visit the site all about colour vision

Of all the colours we have perhaps red would be the most dramatic and the most powerful. It is the colour of our life force, blood. Symbolically it represents the power of good and evil as well as faith and love and it is said to be the first colour man perceived.

To scare their enemies in battle the Aztecs from South America used crimson dye obtained from crushing the cochineal beetle to make themselves appear fearsome.

Ancient Britons rubbed their bodies with woad, obtained from the plant Isatis tinctor the only source for blue dye available until the end of the sixteenth century in England.

This is when indigo first started to arrive in Europe from the Far East.

In Ancient Greece figural sculpture and architectural details were highlighted with bright colours that over the centuries weathered and faded leaving only fragments for clues at what they had been.

The original Trojan archer (the so-called “Paris”) figure taken down from the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaia, ca. 505–500 BCE in its natural state over the centuries has had a complete loss of colour.

Modern day archaeologists have, through much investigation, been able to reconstruct what he may have looked like in all his colourful glory. He must have glittered in the noon day sun.

The temple of Aphaia he came from is considered one most delightful Doric temples of ancient Greece and dedicated to Aphaia a local Agenetan goddess.

When it was built the temple architecture was also lavishly decorated with vivid colours.

The sculptural composition of the pediments were unique, made from Parian marble they depicted scenes from the Trojan war and were put in place when the temple was completed around 490 BCE. When new they were brightly coloured.

The sculptures were stolen in 1811 and in 1813 Prince Ludwig I of Bavaria purchased them and had them restored to contemporary taste. He exhibited them in the Glyptothek Museum in Munich, where despite the ravages or war, many are still on display.

Peter Paul Rubens Artist

Peter Paul Ruben how about those flesh tones

By the time of Ancient Rome there were some thirty different known pigments, all of which had been derived from natural sources.

They included iron oxide pigments that ranged from dark brown to bright red and had the added advantage of not fading.

Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Europe this range of pigments was still being used by artisans, especially painters. Natural red chalks were popular from about 1500 to 1900.

They were dug out of the earth and shaped into sticks with knives to make them ready for drawing. Painters such as Michelangelo and Rembrandt used them to render preparatory drawings for what would become much larger works of art.

It may seem amazing in our day and age when such huge advances in colour are happening that the works of the so called Old Masters during the Renaissance in Europe were carried out with a limited range of colours.

The secret was in the mixing and the painters were all experts and their guild was one of the most powerful of all.

Young artisans were taught in the guilds how to first grind pigments, then how to mix them.

A Colour Wheel

A colour wheel

When they had proven their ability and technique well-guarded recipes for preparing tempera, oils, glazes and varnishes were disclosed and with further experimentation each artist could develop their own palette.

What we are talking about is an oil based medium, which until the early years of the twentieth century was prepared with white lead, pigment, linseed oil, and turpentine.

The finish, or degree of sheen was regulated by altering the ratio of the oil and turpentine. Getting this right was an important part of the process.

Leaves to be brought to the architect whereof to make his choice as to the colour. The colours for rooms ought not to be taken at random but to be chosen according to the much or little light, or space of the places etc.’

This 17th century comment remains contemporary in our own time.

The colours chosen for rooms for clients should take into account the aspect, the light available at every stage of the day, and the built or natural landscape viewed through its windows.

Historical Colour Range Papers-Paints, London

Historical Colour Range Papers-Paints, London

The basic stage of pigment evolution involved only elementary processing, such as washing, roasting or exposing to wine vinegar to produce a limited number of colours and this reality lasted right up to the end of the eighteenth century and the advent of the industrial revolution.

During the eighteenth century ‘Colourman’ shops were set up in London and Paris.

They offered for the first time a range of colours on hand painted colour cards

The arrival of two new exotic pigments Carmine from Mexico, which unfortunately had a rapid rate of fading and Indian Yellow was welcomed.

The latter was a bright sharp yellow, that unfortunately had a shocking odour. It was later banned when authorities discovered it was made from the dried urine of cows fed on a diet of Mango leaves.

The transition from archaic alchemy to modern chemistry during the nineteenth century would mean that new metallic elements, such as Chromium, could be treated with different acids and combined with various other metals to provide a wider range of colours.

Chromium yellow,  chromium orange and chromium red, as well as a completely new range of chromium greens became available. These pigments made in a laboratory setting were found to have all the properties, including durability and permanence, of their natural counterparts.

John Mallard William Turner (1775 - 1851)

John Mallard William Turner (1775 – 1851)

Chichester Canal JMW Turner

The principal of a small London-based UK company specialising in many aspects of paint and colour has gained a great reputation in his research into the fields of historical paint colours and has been appointed architectural paint specialist to the Queen.

Revolutionary artist, and inspiration for the Impressionist movement, John Mallard William Turner (1775 – 1851) explored the effects of light, colour and atmosphere.

He was one of the first artists in Britain to use the new colours with chromium yellow becoming his favourite.

The ultimate success story was the manufacture of synthetic ultramarine.

Lapis lazuli, the semi precious gemstone ancient Egyptians had so admired and crushed to make paint or jewellery for over 6,000 years, was finally produced synthetically.

Mined in the Badakhshan province of Afghanistan, the natural product was replaced by an imitation product that was seemingly identical in every way to the real thing and so much cheaper!

Monsieur Guimet in France discovered the secret of reproducing its intense blue. Emile Guimet (1836-1918), was a Lyons industrialist who devised the grand project of opening a museum devoted to the religions of Ancient Egypt, Classical Antiquity, and Asia.

Emile Guimet, Paris

Emile Guimet, Paris

He visited Egypt and Greece before traveling around the world in 1876, stopping off in Japan, China and India. He simulated the natural conditions on the planet when Lapis Lazuli was first formed in the ground by fusing together in his laboratory five simple inexpensive materials at a high temperature in a furnace.

They were sand, charcoal, sulphur, kaolin and sodium carbonate.

He became a very rich man indeed as the new product cost a fraction of the cost of the real thing. Not only did he have the patent rights to his product, but he set about manufacturing the pigment himself and so set himself up for life!

Claude Monet - Water Lilies

Claude Monet – Water Lilies

There was many other success stories in the nineteenth century, such as the development of a range of yellow pigments from the new element Cadmium.

Another was Cobalt Blue by Louis Jacques Thénard who was appointed répétiteur at the École Polytechnique.

In 1799 he developed the pigment known as Thénard’s blue in response to a request by French industrial chemist Jean Antoine Claude Chaptal for a cheap colouring matter.

Later in the century chemists were able to synthesise organic pigments such as, Indigo, Madder, Carmine, Tyrian Purple  and Indian Yellow. In 1905 the Nobel Prize was presented to Adolf Von Baeyer for his synthesis of Carmine and Indigo.  Needless to say the impact of all these new, bright, inexpensive pigments in tubes had a profound effect on art and artists, let alone work and workers.

For many years academics and academies had subscribed to a muted palette in the manner of the old masters. But suddenly in the 1870s a group of rebellious young impressionable artists burst onto the scene using fresh, clean colours on a white ground painting in colour directly onto a primed canvas.

The Impressionists, as they became known were followed by the Post Impressionists, Henri Matisse and Les Fauves (The Wild Ones) a short-lived grouping of early 20th century artists whose works emphasized painterly qualities and strong colour over the values of reality retained by the Impressionists.


Maurice de Vlaminck

Maurice De Vlaminck (1876-1958) a member of Les Fauves said to his friends ‘I want to burn down the École Des Beaux-Arts to the ground, with my vermilions and my cobalts.’

And so began an outpouring of modern art reflecting the arrival of a new age.

By the twentieth century saturated colour was being utilized purely for its energy and today colour is readily available to everybody.

It can be used in many different applications and environments.

If you are going to use colour in an interior remember it constantly changes in light and by using its intensity you can make objects advance or retreat.

A word about Black, which unlike white absorbs light rather than reflect it back to the eye.

Black is the lack of all colors of light, or an exhaustive combination of multiple colors of pigment that collectively suppress light.

It dissipates in the natural landscape so is great for tennis court wires and fences surrounding a farm.

Certainly as a coloured dye black allows a lot of people to actually look slimmer than they are.

Coloured HeadDuring the 21st century many advances in colour are being made taking into consideration how we care for, and about the environment, sustainability is now becoming strongly embedded in our culture.

The way we do and think has to become habitual, part of our daily lives continually challenging preconceived ideas of what is truly ‘green’. Colour developers must ensure sustainability is at the forefront of technology when developing new paint colours for consideration.

Trojan Archer Temple of Aphaia, Greece reconstructed depicting original colours Glyptothek Museum, Munich

Trojan Archer Temple of Aphaia, Greece reconstructed depicting original colours Glyptothek Museum, Munich

Colour alters all our perceptions evoking an emotional response. It can reflect a sense of warmth or coolness dependent on its hue. It can raise our spirits, provide a sense of calm, provoke both positive and negative feelings and above all, colour can define style.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2010-2014

*Henry Ford (1863-1947)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.