A Brief History of Color
"Colors aren’t just a gift from the natural world. They had to be discovered. And in many cases, invented. Consider the case of blue."
It’s easy to take colors for granted. I know this because I’m a designer whose life is centered around colors and I take colors for granted.
Most of us notice the various hues that animate our clothes, cars, homes, and all the other stuff of modern life. A few of us even appreciate them. But hardly anyone understands the work that went into their creation.
This makes sense. When I need to find the right shade for a particular brand, or audience, or even my daughter’s nursery, I simply open a swatch palate and make my selection. And when you can access, say, 200 versions of orange in a millisecond, it’s easy to overlook the wild, wonderful adventure that produced them.
The truth, though, is that colors aren’t just a gift from the natural world. They had to be discovered. And in many cases, invented.
Consider the case of blue.
In the premodern world, we didn’t have much of a vocabulary for color. This is because we were limited in our ability to create and use colors.
In The Odyssey, for instance, Homer rarely even described the color of an object. And when he did, he mostly categorized things as “black” or “white.” One color was entirely (and conspicuously) absent from his document: blue.
Here’s where our story begins.
Red, brown, and yellow objects existed – and exist – in the natural world, of course. Our ancestors would use their pigment to create paints, and so the colors red, brown, and yellow became part of our creative arsenal and the words red, brown, and yellow entered the lexicon.
But blue evaded us.
There were blue skies and blue bodies of water, but there weren’t many blue objects whose pigment we could harness to create blue paint. The color was hiding in plain sight.
That is, until the Egyptians made a breakthrough.
They discovered an elaborate process that could replicate something like the color of the sky. Here was their recipe:
- Grind limestone
- Mix with sand and copper
- Heat to 1650°F
- Crush and combine with egg whites
The resulting glaze was used to paint tombs, walls, furnishings, and statues. And, voila: the world had its first blue.
The Egyptians had the market on blue cornered until 600 AD, when Ultramarine came along.
Ultramarine was the first “true blue”; meaning it was created from a single pigment, not an admixture. The pigment in question was the lapis lazuli, a rare metamorphic rock that was mined mostly in Afghanistan, then exported to Europe where it was ground to create gorgeous paints and glazes.
Ultramarine was very beautiful and very expensive. So expensive that it was mostly used in works of art commissioned by the Catholic Church. And so beautiful that it set off a global race to discover a set of pigments, or a chemical process, that could recreate it.
And so we got Cobalt. Cerulean. Indigo. Navy. Prussian. International Klein Blue. And more.
The real winner of this race, from a modern perspective, was all of us. It’s the reason you and I have a near infinity of colors at our disposal.
The creation of new colors isn’t just history – the process continues to this day. Bluetiful, for instance, was born in 2017. It was the first new blue in over 200 years, and was recently joined by a new pink and black.
It’s a nice thing to daydream about – the growing variation and beauty of our common color library. We’re in, in many ways, a pessimistic time, but we have this going for us: Our children, and our children’s children, will live in a world more vibrant and colorful than our own.