Let’s talk colours

Delineating pigments: Roses are red, violets are blue,but this is a story of all life aspects in hue
Last Updated 17 November 2018, 20:55 IST

Life is like a box of crayons,” says John Mayer, a singer-songwriter. The truth is, to live in a world of unrelieved black and white would be a punishment most severe. Colours reveal identities, layers and nuances in all we see. They beckon and warn, attract and repel, gladden and sadden. They indicate hot, cold, safety, danger, happiness, sadness, depression, high spirits, health, sickness, rawness, ripeness… The list goes on. Pink strawberries are ready to eat as opposed to green ones. Day is white, night is black. Don’t touch metal that is glowing red — it is hot. Grey or yellow skin indicates sickness, pink glowing skin, health. Bright-coloured reptiles are dangerous, bright flowers attract butterflies and human glances. The blue dress is mine, the green box is yours.

That’s not all. Lily-white, black heart, yellow belly, green-eyed monster, purple with rage, feeling blue, tickled pink, rose-coloured spectacles, seeing red, going grey, brown study… what is common about these idioms? Well, these are all colours that are linked to our emotions. Or, as Wassily Kandinsky put it, “Colour is a power which directly influences the soul.”

The importance of colour in our lives is made all the more remarkable by the fact that it doesn’t really exist. Yes, the colour of an object is not ‘in’ the object. Every object absorbs certain wavelengths of light and reflects or emits certain wavelengths. When these strike the light-sensitive retina in the backs of our eyes, cells called cones that are sensitive to either red, green or blue colours get activated and send a signal along the optic nerve to the visual cortex of the brain. Depending on the number of cones of each type that have been activated and the strength of the signal, we see a particular colour. Breathtakingly, the human eye can see 1,00,00,000 colours!

As he evolved, Man became interested not only in observing the world, but also depicting the world he saw in the form of pictures and sculptures, and visual art was born. Cave paintings from 30,000 years ago in Europe and India attest to his interest and ability to create paintings and use pigments to create colour. However, pigments were used way before then. In fact, the first use of pigments is dated to about 164,000 BP (Before Present) from a South African coastal site, possibly used in body colouring.

If creating art is part of man’s make-up, appreciation of art is, too. Every work of art has a story behind it, and we love to hear them. But, what of the colours used? Where did they come from? Are there stories behind them too? It turns out that there are stories galore, all the way down the evolution of colours and pigments.


In the beginning, prehistoric paints were all made from substances obtained from the earth. And of all colours used, red can claim to be the oldest. The pigment used in the South African site was red ochre which is made from iron oxide or hematite. The ancient petroglyphs of Bhimbetka in Orissa from as early as 12,000 to 15,000 years ago used red ochre of different shades. In ancient Rome, the highly toxic cinnabar or mercuric sulfide was the pigment used. Later on, in the 16th century, red was made by crushing cochineal beetles imported from the New World.

The colour red dominates human life in so many ways that it is impossible to find a unifying narrative. Red is the colour of heat, passion and love, yet it is also the colour of blood and war. It is the sign of prosperity and joy, still, it is a sign of danger, death and destruction. It depicts both fertility and martyrdom, both divinity and lust, and in these days, also communism. Interestingly, the first colour babies see in their lives is red.


However, yellow is the most visible of all colours, so it is the first colour that the human eye notices. That is why school buses are painted in that colour, and caution signs are painted yellow with black text. Though pure bright lemon yellow is the most fatiguing colour, since it causes excessive stimulation of the eyes, in general, yellow is a warm and cheerful colour, and being associated with the sun, a holy colour also. But it is also the colour of cowardice, hence the insult ‘yellow-belly’.

In usage, yellow is the second oldest colour. the pigment yellow ochre is derived from a hydrated form of iron oxide and is used extensively in the richly-coloured cave paintings of Ajanta and Ellora that date from 2nd century BC to 650 AD. However, it is the story of another pigment called ‘Indian yellow’ which is more interesting.

Indian yellow or piuri became highly popular in the 19th century. Though it had a nasty smell, it brought an intense luminance and was used extensively in Rajput-Mughal miniature paintings. It was also a favourite of western artists like Rembrandt, JMW Turner and John Singer Sargeant. But it had a lurid history which was revealed after an intense investigation. It turned out that it was produced exclusively from one place, Monghyr in North-east Bihar, from cow urine. A sect of milkmen in this place fed their cows solely with mango leaves. This intensified the bile pigment, which caused the urine to develop a bright yellow colour. This was processed, dried down, and used as a pigment. The cows were very sickly and emaciated since they were badly malnourished. When this news came out, there was an outcry and the process was outlawed. Finis Indian yellow.


Green is the most common colour on earth, therefore the least noticed in art. However, to artists, it is extremely hard to produce and work with. Green plant dye turns brown quickly. Ancient Egyptians tried to use the mineral malachite, but it turned black. The solution came from ancient Romans who found that copper plates soaked in wine became weathered, and produced a green pigment called verdigris that was stable.

In character, green is a restful colour and is associated with safety. It represents fertility and the environment. It means money to some, but it also represents that most loathsome of human emotions — jealousy.


Do you love purple? If you do, you should know that purple was the colour of wealth and royalty. In early days, the dye was made from the Phoenician city of Tyre, now in modern Lebanon. It was obtained by crushing a small mollusk which was found only in that region of the Mediterranean Sea. It was a labour-and resource-intensive process as it took more than 9,000 mollusks to create just one gram of Tyrian purple.

So it’s no wonder that Queen Elizabeth I’s Sumptuary Laws to restrain luxury and extravagance among her people decreed that only close members of the royal family could wear this colour, giving rise to the idiom ‘born to the purple’. Even some members of royalty could not afford it.

But a serendipitous quirk of fate ended this restriction. In 1865, an English chemist named William Henry Perkins was looking to synthesise the anti-malarial drug, quinine. In the process, he accidentally created a synthetic purple dye he named Aniline Purple. It turned out that this dye could be used to dye silk.

Later named mauve, this colour was much cheaper than Tyrian Purple. So, now you can indulge in your passion for purple.


Paintings with shining objects in them are eye-catching. However, the flash of gold, silver, copper or brass that catches our eye is often effected by careful juxtaposition of colours, shadows and highlights. That being said, there is one kind of metal that has been used in paintings for a very long time. The colour gold blends both yellow and brown in an amalgam that can be warm, bright and cheerful, yet somber and traditional. It signifies wealth, prosperity, glitz and glamour, as well as accomplishment, excellence, quality, reverence, and spirituality.

However, gods and saints deserve more than just paint: they deserve the real thing. Through gold beating, solid gold is pounded into a thin sheet called gold leaf and used to adorn paintings in a process called gilding.

Ancient Egyptians used gold leaf to gild precious and sacred objects left in the tombs of pharaohs. Romans used it in pendants and medallions they wore, while Byzantine art used it when painting portraits, mostly with Christian religious themes. They made gold-ground paintings, where the gold leaf formed the background, giving the impression that the figures floated against a heavenly sky. Gilding was also used in religious handwritten and illustrated manuscripts during the Middle Ages. Japanese paintings also began using this technique in the 16th and 17th century.

Our own handmade Thanjavur paintings are a prime example of gilding. Popular from the 16th century, they are distinguished by the use of gold, pearls, glass, semi-precious and precious stones used to accentuate the design and give it a three-dimensional effect. The colours used were specific: backgrounds were either green or blue, Lord Vishnu was coloured blue and Lord Nataraja was white, all goddesses were yellow, the sky was either blue or black, and the clothing and ornaments of gods and goddesses were made with pure gold. Thus, these paintings are not just treasures of art, they are treasures… literally.


However interesting though other colours may be, nothing compares to the story of blue. You see, if you can perceive blue colour, it is because of a truly weird phenomenon in which language has influenced your brain function.

The fact is that, while early man knew the colours red, black and white, and later, yellow and green, he did not know the existence of the colour blue. After all, it was just the colour of the sky and the sea, not some fruit or pigment he could touch. There is no mention of blue in Homer’s work or the Bible. Actually, Homer described the sea as wine-red in colour. There are aborigine islanders who describe the sky as black or dark as dirty water. The Himba tribe of Namibia has no distinct word for blue and can’t distinguish blue from green. Is this defect biological or anthropological or neurological?

Answer: There is no defect at all. Firstly, all people see all colours and hues. Turns out, to the islanders, blue is just one of the hues of their ‘black’ colour. But this isn’t all. Once we start seeing two hues as different colours, language trains us to see them as different entities. And our brain exaggerates the differences between the two, especially at the borders. This is why we know of Blue.

So, funnily enough, though blue didn’t have a name, it existed in the ancient world. Ancient Egyptians loved lapis lazuli and turquoise so much that they invented the first synthetic blue pigment, Egyptian Blue. An interesting fact is that this colour is fluorescent, so ancient artefacts made with it glow under UV light.

When a blue pigment was finally made from lapis lazuli, it was called 'ultramarine', meaning 'beyond the sea’, as it was imported into Europe from Afghanistan. Being very expensive, it had to be used sparingly by artists, and only on important commissions. It is said that Michelangelo left a painting unfinished because he couldn’t afford to buy more ultramarine blue. Also, Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer loved the colour and used it lavishly, pushing his family into debt.

Since ultramarine was expensive and rare, it became the colour of royalty, hence the colour royal blue. Another blue of poor quality called ‘pastel’ was made from a plant called woad – this was for commoners. However, in the 15th century, there was a revolution in blue.

Enter Indigo. Indigo is a dye made from a shrub Indigofera tinctoria grown widely in India. Romans called it indicum, and it became indigo in English. Vasco da Gama’s sea route to the West opened up the market, and indigo easily beat out pastel trade because of better quality. The British East India Company forced Indian farmers to grow indigo along with opium poppy. African slaves learnt and then took the methods of cultivation and dyeing to the American continent, and soon American indigo flooded Europe. Trade wars ensued as European governments tried to block indigo but failed.

Though indigo originated in India, it became a very valuable part of the African slave trade. It was more powerful than the gun and was used as currency. One length of indigo-dyed blue cloth could be exchanged for one human body. At the time of American Revolution, when the dollar had no strength, indigo cakes were used as currency. Today, indigo is still used to dye jeans.

There have been fortuitous ‘accidents’ in blue pigments, too. German dye-maker Johann Jacob Diesbach accidentally mixed potash, a chemical in a red pigment, with animal blood. Instead of making the pigment redder, the result was a vibrant blue pigment, Prussian blue. This became the favourite pigment of Pablo Picasso and the Japanese woodblock artist Katsushika Hokusai. That was not all. Sir John Herschel, the English astronomer, realised that Prussian blue was the perfect hue to copy drawings with. Now, it is invaluable to architects who create copies of their designs with it, called blueprints.

YlnMn. This is not a quavering of the tongue, but the newest shade of blue accidentally discovered by Professor Mas Subramanian and his graduate student Andrew E Smith at Oregon State University. Smith was looking for new materials to make electronics, when he discovered that one of his samples turned bright blue on heating. It was made up of yttrium, indium and manganese, hence the name YlnMn.

Now think: When presented with a box of crayons, a child will instantly and fearlessly use every one of the colours in it. It is we adults who hesitate to use all of them. However, this tendency can be overcome if we choose to give our spirits a free rein. Since life is indeed a box of crayons, it behooves us to use every bit of what it offers, and create a colourful world around us.

After all, when life has so many hues, why live in black and white?

Fun facts

Animals without eyes can still have colour vision. They use different photoreceptors to identify different wavelengths of light which are colours.

Plants have an amazing 11 photoreceptors; we have only four.

In colour-blindness, cones are either absent, nonfunctioning or detecting a different colour.

In a condition called Tetrachromancy people, mostly women, may have four types of cones. This enables them to see 100 times more colours than average people.

Yesteryear actress Elizabeth Taylor had violet-coloured eyes.

Barns in America are always painted red.

When Christian saints were classified according to colour, Mary was given the colour blue.

Jaipur is called the Pink City of India, while Jodhpur is the Blue City of India.

(Published 17 November 2018, 19:30 IST)

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