An Essay in the Weird Origin Of Colours

Seldom has anything fascinated so many branches of human knowledge as colour does. The broad spectrum of colours demands the attention of a vast range of scientific as well as artistic fields including optics, anatomy, biology, chemistry, mathematics, psychology, fine arts, painting, photography, and theatre. I never knew that something as basic as colours could wield so much influence on our ways of thinking, science, and art conflated.

Because for me, colours were always a subconscious existence in the background of all reality. I bought a red dress. Okay. It’s red, it’s no big deal. Even as I stood in front of my mirror internally gloating about how beautiful the dress is, my mind never ventured out to wonder how this colour came to be. For my brain, the red of the dress had only a passive role, as if the very corporeality of the colour red came out of an unknown void that we have all been taking for granted. So how did the colour red come about to be tangible? Who came up with the brilliant idea of replicating the tint of their blood onto the several material somethings in this world? 

Red, or in particular, red ochre, remains one of the oldest pigments that humans still use. Early evidence of the use of red can be seen in the prehistoric era, where it was extensively employed in cave paintings. Research says that prehistoric humans had procured the pigment from soil highly rich in iron content. Cut to centuries later, during the Renaissance period in Europe. This would be around the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, where the pigment red was obtained from the dye produced by cochineal insects. These insects could only be found on a certain kind of cacti that grew in Mexico, and instantly became the most sought-after import out of the Americas, behind only gold and silver. The said cochineal dye is still in use to colour textiles, drugs, and cosmetics. Pay close attention to your red lipstick the next time you paint your lips. 

Purple is another colour that has attracted my eye in this sense. In most cultures, purple stands for elegance, independence, authority, poise even. For a colour that exudes such a strong personality in itself, the origin of the colour purple is rather gruesome. The extraction of purple dates back to 2500 BCE when the Phoenician emperors were obsessed with how a certain dye the colour of wine did not fade. Phoenicia means “the Purple Land”, so you can guess how much in vogue the colour must have been. However, in order to procure this dye, thousands of Murex sea snails were killed and the mucus from behind their rectum was distilled. The snails used this mucus to sedate their prey as well as protect their eggs, while humans literally went up their arses to make a fade-resistant dye. 

Speaking of arses, a particular shade of yellow, commonly known as ‘Indian Yellow’ has a very interesting origin story. It was primarily used in the paintings of the British painter J.M.W Turner during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The yellow in his paintings were so famed that critics even called his works “afflicted with jaundice”. The only corresponding idea to this attack would be how Indian Yellow was obtained. Take a breather for yourself, because this fluorescent paint was taken from the urine of cows that were fed mangoes. Fortunately for cows and for art, the procurement of this colour was banned after a century due to the inherent animal cruelty behind the practice. 

Perhaps the most alarming of them all would be a shade called ‘Mummy Brown’, which became popular in sixteenth-century Europe. This was one of the favourite shades of the Pre-Raphaelite artists of the nineteenth century, whose works were based on natural subjects with realistic traits. They probably took it a notch too literally because Mummy Brown comprises oil, amber resin, and (wait for it) ground Egyptian mummies. To obtain this shade, human as well as feline mummies were transported all the way from Egypt, ground to powder, and then sold in Europe. Eugene Delacroix’s famous 1830 painting titled “Liberty Leading the People” was famed for its use of Mummy Brown. When artists came to know of how their beloved colour was created, they abandoned its use. Mummy Brown became less and less popular as time passed, mostly due to a deficiency of mummies in the market. Fun fact, the ground mummy powder was also recommended as an excellent cure for several illnesses. 

Several other shades like lead white, Scheele’s green, Perkin’s mauve, and bone black have some disgusting backstories. Many of these have been banned due to the same reason, but still remain missed by true art stans. Nonetheless, one can now remain indebted to technology for bringing to us the ability to paint using pixels. 

Hello, everyone! If you liked this Article, do check out the related posts. Comment and like if you would like to read more similar works from the author. And don’t forget to share this on your social media channels.

I’m Geetanjali. I binge-watch stuff when I’m free and think about what to binge-watch when I’m not. Occasionally I write, else you can find me wandering around, looking for my lost brain cells

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