The History of Colour

Color has always been a source of fascination for civilization, and throughout history, people in every era and every place have manufactured dyes and pigments using whatever materials were at their disposal. More than 20,000 years ago, humans first began to see colour. Evidence of its existence may be found in prehistoric cave drawings, and it is widely believed that ancient Chinese people were the ones who perfected both its production and its use tens of thousands of years ago.

Around the same period, 1500 BC, paint manufacturing as an art became very firmly established in Crete and Greece, with the Egyptians passing their abilities on to the Romans. Color was widely employed by the ancient Egyptians and was believed to have magical and healing effects. The Greeks and Romans were the first people to use varnishes, and their invention dates back to about 600 BC and 400 AD. The Aztec people placed a higher value on red dye than they did gold, and both they and the Chinese believed in the therapeutic benefits of colour therapy. The Nei Ching, a Chinese history that is almost two thousand years old, includes colour diagnosis.

However, despite all of this, it was found that none of the world’s civilisations had names for a large number of colours. In the 1960s, two anthropologists embarked on a project to investigate the naming of colours all around the globe. In many languages, there are just two words for colour, which are translated as “white” (light) and “black” (dark). The study looked at 98 other languages and discovered that English has the most amount of fundamental colour words out of all of them. In English, we have eleven basic colour names: black, white, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, and grey. The names of the other millions of colours are “stolen” from specific instances of those colours, such as “avocado,” “grape,” “peach,” “tan,” and “gold,” among many others.

Plato is credited with making one of the oldest known discoveries on colour. He found that combining two colours results in the production of a third colour, which altered the “manufacturing” of colour in a way that cannot be reversed.

Prior to that, the very first cave paintings were created by employing iron oxides. It was the ancient Egyptians who produced additional paints by extracting pigments from the earth (yellow, orange, and red). The Romans are credited with the discovery of the colour purple. In order to produce one pound of royal purple dye, four million mollusks had to be crushed. The Aztecs were the first people to learn how to extract the cochineal red pigment from the female cochineal insect. It took around one million insects to produce one pound of water-soluble extract, and the Spaniards were the ones who brought the blood-red colour to Europe in the 1500s. Later on, true Indian Yellow was made from concentrated cow urine, which was then combined with mud and sent to London to be purified. Sap Green was made from the Blackthorn berry, while Sepia Brown was made from the dried ink sac of squid. Other colours were made from other plants and animals.

A pigment, a binder to keep it all together, and the required thinners to make it easier to apply are the three components that make up paint. Around 5 000 years ago, the Egyptians were the first people to manufacture a synthetic colour by grinding blue glass into a powder. This pigment was called blue frit. Before the nineteenth century, the term “paint” referred only to oil-bound varieties, whilst the term “distemper” was used to refer to those that were bonded with glue.

By the year 1000 B.C., paints and varnishes that were formulated using the gum of the acacia tree, which is more often referred to as gum arabic today, had been invented. During this time period, umbers, ochers, and blacks were easily accessible. During this time period, new colours were also found; the earliest was known as “Egyptian Blue.” “Naples Yellow” dates back to around 500 BC, while “red lead” was discovered by accident in approximately 2500. White lead was a naturally occurring element, but increased demand prompted the manufacture of synthetic analogues. In the second century AD, when Vitruvius was writing, white lead was being produced.

Before the 16th century, the colour of pigments was mostly determined by dyestuffs that could be cultivated in Europe and other similarly temperate countries, or that were native to those areas. Between the years 1550 and 1850, only so-called natural dyestuffs were accessible; however, after that time period, the variety was significantly expanded with tropical dyestuffs from places like India and Central America, among other places.

The Dutch developed the Stack Process in the 17th century, which resulted in a significant increase in the availability of white lead and a reduction in its price. The undercoats of all white lead paints were made of chalk, while the final coats were made of a purer form of white lead. Henry Perkins made the discovery of the first true synthetic dye known as “Mauveine” in the year 1856. After then, people had the epiphany that a huge number of dyes may be manufactured in a lab in a cost-effective manner.

At around the same time, commercial production of linseed oil was underway.

They also possessed pigment grade zinc oxide, which is what we refer to as white paint today.

In the 1870s, businessmen manufactured the first washable paint by using cast-iron paint mills and zinc-based pigments. They sold this paint under the brand name “Charlton White” ( the first ready mixed paint was patented by one D.R. Averill of Ohio in 1867, but it never caught on).

Ten years were invested by the Sherwin-Williams firm in an effort to develop the recipe for creating a paint in which tiny paint particles would remain suspended in linseed oil. In the year 1880, they were successful in producing a recipe that far surpassed the quality of all paints that were on the market at the time.

During this time period, emulsions that were based on similar formulations were manufactured and sold under the name “oil bound distempers.” By the year 1880, the newly developed paints were freely accessible in tins, came in a broad variety of colours, and were eventually sent to other parts of the world.

The “rest,” as the expression goes, “is history.”

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