Our ancestors once dug up a mineral from the ground, ground it against a rock, added water and started painting. That was some 250,000 years ago. Ochres – in red, yellow and brown hues – were the first colours used by humans to create art.

We’ve always used colours to communicate. In these days of synthetic paints, inks and dyes it can be easy to forget that the natural world provided our palette.

David Coles writes about that in a fascinating book I came across called Chromatopia: An Illustrated History of Colour.

Coles manufactures oil paints for artists in Melbourne, Australia. In Chromatopia, he notes that “from the first pigments drawn out of the earth…colour has played an integral role in the way we describe the world around us.”

How did all the colours get in our hands? Chromatopia offers dozens of origin stories. Ochre is one. Here are eight others from the book.

  • Gall ink: This was the standard writing ink in Europe from the 5th century on. In the spring, gall wasps puncture the buds of an oak tree and lay their eggs. The trees form small protective growths – oak galls – around the holes. We got intense black ink from a process of fermenting crushed oak galls to release concentrated gallotannic acid. Coles writes that the U.K. still uses gall ink for all birth, marriage and death certificates.
  •  Indigo: In the Indus Valley of South Asia, the Indigofera tinctoria plant was first cultivated more than 5,000 years ago. If you take bundles of its leaves, and submerge them in alkaline water, you can draw out the dye through fermentation. The distinctive blue dye became a major export item, especially from India to Europe. The word indigo comes from the Latin indicum, meaning “from or pertaining to India”. FYI, most blue jeans today are dyed with synthetically-produced indigo; one pair requires 3-12 grams.
  •  Sepia: When a cuttlefish is attacked, it injects a dark cloud from its ink sacs to help hide and escape. This ink could be turned into a deep and warm brown pigment, and was a writing ink from the time of ancient Rome. The pigment was named after the ancient Greek word for cuttlefish: sēpía. Many early photographs were sepia-toned to slow fading and deterioration.
  •  Red lead: In medieval times, manuscripts were adorned with small illustrations. These used red lead, known in Latin as minium. The deposits originally came from the Minius River in Spain. In Latin, miniare means “colouring with minium”. Miniatura means “manuscript illumination” and artists who painted with red lead were called miniator. That’s where we get the word miniature.
  •  Lapis lazuli: Among this rock’s minerals is deep blue lazurite. When it’s ground down, and iron pyrites and white calcite impurities are removed, you end up with ultramarine. Lapis is Latin for “stone”, and lazuli derives from a Persian word meaning “blue”. For centuries, the rocks were sourced mainly from Afghanistan and exported to Europe. The colour’s name came from the Latin ultramarinus – “beyond the sea”. Renaissance painters were drawn to ultramarine, but used it judiciously as it cost more than even gold; 100 grams of lapis lazuli yielded just four grams of ultramarine pigment.
  •  Saffron: This strong yellow came from the stigma of the Crocus sativus – commonly called saffron. It took 8,000 flowers to produce 100 grams of saffron threads. It was used as a perfume and medicine, and as a dye. The ancient Egyptians used saffron to dye mummy bandages. Saffron is also the most expensive spice in the world. A kilo can run $10,000.
  •  Verdigris: When you suspend copper plates over a vinegar bath, the fumes and metal react to form copper acetate. This blue-green pigment is the result of corrosion. The Romans called it aeruca, but we know it as verdigris, from the Old French term vert-de-Grèce – “green of Greece”. When the Statue of Liberty was assembled, it was reddish-brown. Within 30 years, its colour had changed to verdigris, as the statue’s surface consists of thin copper sheets.
  •  Titanium white: This white pigment actually comes from the black mineral ilmenite, which is rich in iron and titanium. A purification technique didn’t come until the 1920s, involving sulphuric acid and hydrated titanium dioxide. It’s the most brilliant white available to artists and, writes Coles, is the most widely used pigment of all time.

Colours have power.

Different cultures give them meaning, equating various colours with wealth, love, celebration, sorrow, strength, weakness, luck, trust, authority, security, hope, health, holiness, courage, happiness, etc.

We see the symbolism every day. Brands and graphic designers use every colour in the rainbow to evoke emotions. We wear certain colours to reflect a mood. And we paint and decorate our rooms with colours to set an ambience.

We even use colours as idioms to describe many of our outlooks – green with envy, feeling blue, seeing red, rose-coloured glasses, tickled pink. Maybe that shows our true colours.

Humans express themselves with words, sounds, facial expressions, movement, images and also colour. And it all started, writes Coles in Chromatopia, from “our ingenuity in fashioning colour out of dirt.”

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxmanconnect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More original posts coming regularly about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.

March 16, 2022

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