A brief history and evolution of colours

Pigments, dyes and hues

A brief history and evolution of colours

“Can you imagine a world without colour? Today, we have yellow, pastel yellow, shiny yellow, yellow ochre—and the list goes on. Recognizing colours and giving them some meaning has become a way of life, but how did we begin with creating a palette of these beautiful colours? A historical look at colour offers a more cultural perspective, defined by time and place rather than association. ”

Over 40,000 years ago, the unique combination of chalk, soil, animal fat and burnt charcoal was used by artists to form the earliest record of pigments known. This created a base of five colours which would be the foundation of art for years to come: black, white, red, yellow and brown.

Exploration, experimentation and both scientific and technological advances saw the discovery and creation of new colours. A progression in the history of art by colour is clear from the Renaissance to Impressionism, with new pigments discovered in every era.

Despite the traditional rhymes and songs associated with the colours of the rainbow, there are in fact no pure colours, as they all blend into a single continuous spectrum. Up until 1704, the rainbow was perceived to contain only five colours, until Sir Isaac Newton added indigo and orange, as he was fascinated with the number seven and its properties.

History dictates that the colours of the rainbow can vary, and when we delve into the cultural origins of these colours, we see significant differences. Interpretation of colours is important and has evolved by the nurturing of each rather than the natural perception of an individual colour.


In most languages, red was the first colour after black and white to be named. It was the first colour used in art (ochre) and has a heightened sense of symbolism, as it relates to blood and evokes strength and virility. Engravings from 75,000 years ago of lines, shapes and triangles in red ochre are believed to be the earliest form of cave art.


Though many think of pink as a predominantly feminine colour, this is a relatively recent trend. During the 19th and early 20th century the opposite was true, with pink being used for boys and blues for girls. The perception was that pink was considered a little boy’s version of masculine red, while blue was feminine due to the association with the Virgin Mary’s cloak (which had been portrayed in that colour since the sixth century AD). It was only in the 1950s that pink was marketed as a feminine colour.


In ancient Greek, Chinese, Japanese and Hebrew there was no name for blue and blue was considered as an extension of green. This continues today where several languages, including Korean, Vietnamese, and Thai have green-blue blurring.
The colour blue has worldwide popularity that derives from its calming effect. Sounds of seas, lakes, rivers and skies are often used as relaxation methods and images portrayed of mind healing are mainly clear blue waves or bright blue skies.


The state flower of Kansas, the sunflower, inspired the suffragettes' choice of yellow for their ribbons of defiance in 1867. Another notable connotation for the choice of yellow ribbon is associated with absent friends or loved ones in World War I. They would be worn in America as a symbol of commitment to sweethearts, husbands and fiancées fighting overseas.


The typical associations of green relate to the natural world but it has also picked up several less coveted connotations such as envy, jealousy, inexperience, illness and poison. The latter association comes directly from a pea-green pigment called Scheele’s Green, which was invented in 1775 for use in dyes and paints for carpets, fabrics, wallpaper, ballroom gowns and confectionery. It proved particularly lethal in wallpaper as it contained high doses of arsenic and released tiny particles of this into the air. It was this that aroused suspicion that Britain had poisoned Napoleon in St Helena in 1821 as the green wallpaper in his room contained arsenic.


The main factor in purple becoming the dominant colour linked to royalty was simply due to its high cost. Throughout history, it is ingrained in many important leaders and icons who draped themselves in purple to solidify their status or wealth. Its influence on figures such as Cleopatra, Nero and Julius Caesar cannot be understated. It was so significant that tradition eventually dictated that purple was only worn by royalty and prompted the use of colours to define class and gender for years to come. It can be argued that in today's society it still holds a place in promoting a certain hierarchy in some countries.

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