• The Adventuring Artist

The history of colors, the cool, the weird, the gross and the concerning.

Updated: Jan 14, 2020

Color, is quite literally, everywhere. You cannot escape it. Look to your left, somethings got color on it. Look to your right. same. close your eyes. What do you see? Even if the answer is just black, guess what, you're seeing a color. And if you are an artist, color is just about everything. Color theory is important in making a cohesive art piece. And whether you work with paint, markers, pencil, clay or a camera color is something you most likely consider. But have you ever wondered about how these pigments came about? Well, if your curious, bored or any other emotion keep reading and find out! (beware, it does get a little weird)

Today you can get just about any color under the sun in a tube or can using pigments, resin, solvents, and additives. But when artists first made pigments they had a basic palette of red, yellow, brown, black and white which was made using combinations of soil, fat, charcoal, and chalk. This was more than 400 lifetimes ago (about 40,000 years)

The first color, red, was used in cave paintings, and red ocher, which is found in iron-rich soil, is still one of the most used colors today. The cochineal insect became a popular resource for red, or carmine, pigments as these bugs produce a non-toxic brilliant red dye. The insect is still used today, coloring paints, glazes, and makeup (remember its non-toxic). It takes about 70,000 insects to make just 1 pound of pigment.

If you don't feel sympathy toward insects you can check out Business Insiders article to learn how they make the dye.

Blue is a brilliant color, and often the favorites of people (though mine is green) The color ultramarine blue, a brilliant deep blue, was originally made using Lapis lazuli, a gemstone that was more highly prized and sought after than gold for many centuries. When Yves Klein, a French artist, partnered with a Parisian paint supplier in the 1950's, they made a synthetic version of the ultramarine blue, which became his signature color, International Klein Blue.

Yellow is a less popular color, despite its common correlation to happiness. Joseph Mallord William Turner is one artist that did not shy away from this color. Rather he used the fluorescent hue of yellow, Indian yellow, which was a watercolor made from the urine of mango-fed cattle. He also used Chrome Yellow, which had a habit of causing delirium due to its lead base.

Green is my personal favorite color, and that may have something to do with its poisonous nature. Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented Scheele's green in 1775. The brilliant, bright hue included arsenic. This hue is rumored to have caused the death of Napoleon Bonaparte. Paris Green replaced Scheele's by the end of the 19th century, though it was no less toxic as it was still made with arsenic. By the 1960's it had been banned. Personally, I find any story with a bit of death involved much more colorful.

Purple's tale is not quite so exciting as that of green's but it did form the term “violettomania.” With the invention of collapsible paint tubes made of tin (which replaced the messy and fairly unappealing use of pigs bladders) to make paint portable, there also came a way to have pre-mixed colors. The most important of which was purple according to impressionist artist Claude Monet. The color Manganese Violet was so loved by the artists that critics formed the word violettomania to define the sensation and obsession with the color.

Black is a pigment that results from the complete absorption of light. The color used by the "old masters" (IE. Leonardo DaVinci, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael (not to be mistaken for the ninja turtles. or to be mistaken for them, whatever floats your boat) was called bone black and was made by burning bones (history books specifically say "animal bones") in an air-free chamber. Although impressionist artist avoided black, the 50's and 60's brought it back with magnificent monochromatic paintings and a rebirth of the beauty and many nuances of the color black.

White is a color that is generally passed by and missed by artists. But it has its place and when used intelligently and creatively can add beauty and individuality to your art. Just be happy that is no longer made using cow/horse manure + lead and vinegar. Although lead was identified as a poisonous substance in the 19th century the United States put off banning its use in the production of white paint until 1978. Some artist, such as Robert Ryman and Agnes Martin used titanium white and zinc whites to create monochromatic works. And some sculptors, such as Dan Flavin, would bypass pigment so their works would reflect white light directly.

In the 17th century, the first color wheel was invented.

The curious thing is that it was not an artist who invented the first color wheel. Sir Isaac Newton, the renowned mathematician noticed that when light reflected off of prisms a spectrum of colors was reelected. He believed that the hues shared a harmonious relationship. He then identified each hue with a corresponding musical note which he arranged into a square. Then, to see how the colors interacted together visually he creates the color wheel by placing them on a rotating disk.

But this is only the beginning. The wheel when through changes and renditions over the years. If you have a desire to learn more I would suggest visiting

The Wonderful Color Wheel by Jude Stewart. This three-part series goes over the history of the Color Wheel in amazing depth.

And if you are a fellow history nerd you can check out Newtons publication on his study of light and color at https://archive.org/details/opticksoratreat00newtgoog

if you want to find the perfect large painting visit


Rebecca Adams

The Adventuring Artist

What is your favorite color? What colors history did you find most interesting? Let me know in the comments and join me next time for another post!

Have a art topic you'd like to learn more about? Let me know and I'll make a post about it.


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