The Evolution of Colour
Colour is a funny thing. On one hand it appears ubiquitous, even mundane, and the other a unique, individually crafted, piece of history. We rarely consider it as the historic relic it is. It may sometimes occur naturally and that’s how we think of it. Although what we experience as colour is a product of man’s imagination.
It’s something we completely take for granted. We are so used to being surrounded by colour, from the lurid pink of neon to the deep indigo of jeans that we don’t see the invisible hand that created this sensation.
This feature isn’t meant to be comprehensive or explain the whole spectrum. All colours are equal, however, some colours are more equal than others- to paraphrase another quote.
On a slightly different note, many birds can see colours we can’t; a visual equivalent to the high pitched sounds dogs hear which we don’t. The extra colour vision does have a definite purpose. To be able to fly over water, see a fish, swoop down, and make it lunch demands that you be able to distinguish between fractional differences in colour. Being existential about it, that suggests the world we see isn’t exactly as we think it is.
Photography: Grant Turner
Black’s just black, right? Maybe, if you didn’t have Lamp Black, Carbon Black, Vine Black and Bone Black.
Carbon black goes back to pre history. Basically it’s made from burnt wood or plant material. Carbon is the most basic form of mark making and artists from cave painters to contemporaries have used carbon black, ranging from it’s basic form or a modern manufactured version. Carbon Black has great covering properties and is used in photocopiers still use carbon in black toner cartridges to create the image on paper.
Bone Black: Nothing too clever here, or even unrelated to Carbon Black. Bone Black is made from charring bones. Like Carbon Black it has great covering ability and was used in a significant way by Egyptian, Greek and Roman artists. Used in pre-historic paintings and right through to Rembrandt. He often used it in his portraits, specifically for black clothing, this enabled the subject to be prominent even on a dark background. A good example of this would be Rembrandt’s portrait of Aechje Claesdr.
Bone Black’s close relation is Ivory Black which was originally made from grinding charred ivory in oil.
Chinese Ink/Indian Ink: Another form of black that was traded from India but with it’s origins in China. This colour has a rich depth that was extensively used in China for calligraphy and ink paintings and dates back to Neolithic China.
Chinese Ink is made from soot and gelatin. The soot was originally made from burning pine with later versions using oil. The use of gelatin or animal glue as a mixing agent enabled the ink to set sold. After allowing it to set in a bowl, or as ink sticks, it could be used with a wet brush to write or paint.
The Tang dynasty considered colours vulgar and artworks were often made just using black and grey variations. A whole range of greys could be made by added different amounts water to the ink and combined with different weights of stroke a whole tonal range could be achieved.
The next time you see red object be it a jumper, bus or the latest Nike trainers you should remind yourself you are looking at a piece of history. A history wrapped in colonialism, religion and culture. Reds – mainly in the form or red ochre – have been used by humans since we first painted our faces and depicted scenes on cave walls. This rich, earth red, is derived mainly from mud and not like the vibrant reds we think of now.
Carmine based reds have a more thorny tale to tell. Aztec and Mayans used ground cochineal insects to make a fabric dye, its colour is the intense red we recognise today. One of the reasons we recognise it is because of the Spanish conquest of South America during the 16th century. The invading Spanish had never seen such a colour before, nor for that matter had any other Europeans.
Realising what a unique commodity it was they were quick to exploit it’s trade potential and started exporting it to Europe. The red of the Catholic Cardinals robes and army uniforms were a direct result of this trade. Such was the European demand for cochineal dye that it became a huge export for what is now modern day Mexico.
Today cochineal is still used in many things such as cosmetics, ink and food colouring. Although synthetic dyes are used to dye fabric.
Cinnabar: The red produced from Cinnabar was used in a diverse range of applications such as Mayan burial chambers, Chinese lacquer ware and Roman cosmetics.
One of these things is more apt than the other. Apart from producing a colour pigment it is also mined for it’s mercury content. The miners who worked at the Roman Cinnabar mines in Spain, for instance, were either slaves or convicts, so health and safety regulations were fairly low on the agenda. People were more than aware of the effects of mercurialism, typically, sensory impairment, disturbed sensation and lack of coordination.
One of the earliest white paints was Gesso, which was a combination of animal glue and chalk. For something so simplistic it’s been very useful in painting and sculpture.
Its contribution to painting has mainly been as a primer, covering surfaces such as wood and canvas. Its absorbent surface makes it ideal for painting; oil paint, tempera and water based paints all sit well on it. However, the downside of the glue content is that it’s prone to cracking.
For 3D forms gesso makes an ideal base as it facilitates the application of coverings such as gold leaf.
Lead white has some great qualities: quick drying, durable, maintains its appearance and resists corrosion. However, on the downside, it’s toxic!
Made from a preparation of metallic lead and a weak acid, such as vinegar, it was used extensively by artists up until the 19th century. After which time its manufacture was limited.
The crust, which is caused by the acid affecting the surface of the lead, was scraped off and ground to make the pigment. The grinding process was the most dangerous part of the process, as it was at this point that the resulting dust was easiest to inhale. Any form of inhalation or ingestion was considered a health risk.
Despite it’s many positive qualities it can become unstable in certain environments. For example The British Museum found that one of their 800-year old illuminated manuscripts had significantly changed colour in the time they had owned them. Large areas that had originally been flesh toned, a combination of red and lead white, had blackened. This was a result of the pigments reaction to the Victorian gas lamps that lined the streets near the museum, specifically hydrogen sulphide emitted.
Ultramarine is one of those pigments that’s as equally emotive sounding as it is physically. It’s literal definition in Latin is “beyond the sea”. Although Ultramarine trips off the tongue a lot easier, it sounds just as cool.
It’s origins in the Middle East – Afghanistan to be precise – have allowed it to make a significant contribution to the early religious art concentrated in and around that area. It’s been seen in 6th century AD cave paintings of the Zoroastrian as well local Buddhist temples. Even the illuminated manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxons and Normans have featured it.
Ultramarines route from religious cave art to contemporary art has also taken in China and India where it’s been used for paintings and murals respectively. Its influence in European art has been significant, particularly with reference to Italian renaissance frescoes and paintings. More recently it’s become a feature in itself with the work of Yves Klein who, with his patented International Klein Blue technique, built iconic works around Ultramarine.
Egyptian Blue is unique here in that it is considered one of the first, if not the first, synthetic pigment.
It was a very desirable colour to the ancient Egyptians who used it in many ways, wall paintings, jewellery and ceramics. Due to the large volumes needed to keep up supply and demand they developed the silica, lime, copper, and alkali based synthetic version. Similar, naturally occurring, colours made from the mineral azurite were not practical which demanded the man made version of blue.
The pigment has been found as far away as Asia and Italy. Unused pots of pigment have been found in Italy where it was used for wall paintings, this would have been a consequence of the Roman empire which extended to Northern Africa at the time. Not long after the decline of the Roman influence over Egypt the process of making Egyptian Blue was lost.