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The History of Color

Posted by Josh Rothman  September 13, 2011 11:05 AM

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Look around: We live in a world of color, in which everything, from our clothes to our walls to our food, has its own particular shade. It wasn't always so, as Jude Stewart explains in the fall issue of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. In an essay called "Cooking Up Color," she explores an archive's worth of recipes for dyes, paints, and pigments.

Today, she writes, thanks to industrialization, the colors you buy and wear are determined solely by your preferences. This obscures the fact that everyday, colored items -- like sweaters, piled up everywhere nowadays "in inviting retail stacks of purple, yellow, and dun brown," with all the colors priced the same -- are modern miracles. "An ordinary wonder like this would have stupefied dyers' guilds of any century before the Industrial Revolution," Stewart explains; brown would have been bargain priced, while purple would have been priceless, since "a single ounce of Tyrian purple dye required killing a quarter million snails."


Rubens, The Discovery of Purple: Tyrian purple is produced by Mediterranean sea snails.

The rise of cheap, safe, and plentiful industrial pigment, Stewart argues, has made color into something abstract, and purely aesthetic. For most of human history, though, color was artisanal, produced by guilds of "colormen." It was also resolutely material -- everyone that color came from the natural world. Colormen would start by gathering ingredients: inedible plants, like saffron and indigo; animals, including cochineal beetles (for red) and cuttlefish (for brown, which is in the ink); and huge quantities of rocks and crystals, like ocher, lapis lazuli, malachite, and lead. These ingredients would then be cooked up in elaborate, multi-day recipes to produce dye and paint.

The specific processes involved were often cloaked in secrecy. Sometimes this was for economic reasons: Spanish colormen, for example, spread false information about the source of their distinctive red dye, claiming that it came from a nonexistent fruit called a "wormberry." (In fact it came from a specific species of New World beetle.) Other ingredients had to be kept secret for aesthetic reasons. Manure, unfortunately, was a crucial part of the process for making white paint; human urine was used to turn indigo into blue; animal urine was the main ingredient in a shade of paint called Indian yellow ("specifically, the urine crystals of cows fed entirely on mango leaves"). In Europe, a specific brown paint, "Egyptian brown," or "mommia," was made with crushed-up mummy remains -- "an ingredient," Stewart notes, "that was by definition in finite supply." People knew a lot about the specifics of the colors they paid for. The scarcity of ingredients was often reflected directly in the price of goods; patrons and artists would agree beforehand about exactly which pigments were to used in a painting.

In our modern world, anyone can choose from thousands of colors at Home Depot or J. Crew (though many of them, of course, are synthetic); we enjoy a historically unique freedom to mix and match colors at will. What we don't have, Stewart suggests, is a sense of the technological magic of color. For most of human history, it was widely understood that colors were "made, not conjured." A vivid painting, or a colorful piece of clothing or furniture, was a high-tech feat bordering on the miraculous (maybe, I'm guessing, a little like an iPad is these days). The magic was in the way that the earthy ingredients could be "so magically sublimated," producing something pure and relatively immaterial. It seemed both improbable and incredible that rocks, berries, and snails could be combined to make something which was not only beautiful, but totally unlike its ingredients. Color-making, Stewart writes, was like alchemy: It held out the promise of "proximity to actual creation."

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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