A Timeline of Colour
Let’s journey through the history of colour; from its simple beginnings to its complex role in the world today.
The birth of colour – 40,000 years ago
Right from the start, humans used colour as a signal, a marker, and more prominently— for art. Palaeolithic cave paintings are some of the first examples of primitive experimental art. Dirt, earth, crushed stone, ground bone and charcoal were combined with animal fat, saliva or water to create a paste. If these mixtures contained earth rich in iron oxide, the high clay content meant the substance had a paint-like consistency. Like SFXC’s oxide pigments, these materials were highly resistant to weathering. Even so, it is amazing to think that drawings from our prehistory have stood the test of time of thousands of years. However, as you would expect, the texture would have been sub-par compared to the finely milled, impurity-free pigments available nowadays.
Ancient Egypt – 3000 BC
Ancient Egyptians used ground pigments in black, browns, reds, blues and greens colours. The natural world strongly influenced their decorative accomplishments, so green and blue were especially prevalent in their designs. Egyptian blue, or calcium copper silicate, originated from this era. It adorns the inside of pyramids and Tutankhamun’s famous tomb. Early binders included egg, gums, resins and wax. SFXC has high-quality binders available for a range of uses. Click here to view our Chemicals and Binders section.
Fruit and vegetable dyes were the original stains for textile materials. A yellowy orange dye can be made from onions. Avocado skins and beetroot create a purply-pink colour. Ingeniously, by fixing vegetable dyes with powders such as chalk or clay, ancient Egyptians were the first to manufacture Lake pigments. View our synthetic Lake pigments here.
Ancient Greece – 700 to 480 BC
Greek painters used lead white (made from metallic lead and vinegar) as the background colour for their frescoes. Lead is poisonous to humans, but the Greeks couldn't get enough of it, because it gave their paintings a fast drying time. A less toxic alternative was founded in the 1800s. Once heated, zinc oxide has a better opacity than lead. This new substance was named as ‘Chinese white’.
Roman Empire– 27 BC to 476 AD
Rich greens and deep reds reflected wealth and a high status in Roman society. Tyrian purple (derived from sea snails) was vastly popular in textiles and art, but its prized symbolism meant the colour was limited to the upper classes.
During this period, Vermilion red was utilized in its natural form, ‘cinnabar’. The Romans cut the cost of this expensive material by blending it with red ochre. They combied this with a wax emulsion made from salt water, potassium carbonate and boiled beeswax. After drying and bleaching it in the sun, the resulting paste was used in paintings and art. This vibrant colour can be found on murals in the historic ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii. For a modern option, try our Venetian Red Oxide pigment. Sienna earth or ‘umber’ is an earthy brown colour and is made mostly of iron and manganese oxides. If you're looking for deep red-browns, we love our trusty Rust Red Oxide pigment.
Pigments like red ochre and yellow ochre were prized by Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo. Carmine lake, a vibrant red, and made from cochineal beetle, originated from the Aztecs. Rembrandt, another Classical painter, used lead white to depict flesh tones.
Ultramarine, a beautiful blue, is made from lazurite (lapus lazuli) and obtained from Afghanistan. It coloured the clothing for the Virgin Mary and other religious figures in numerous Renaissance paintings. During this time, it was more costly than gold! SFXC’s Electric Blue Oxide pigment is a far more affordable replica . . .
In the 15th century, egg—a common binder at the time—traded places with linseed oil. Naturally, the oil added a depth and richness to paintings, and fortunately, removed the need for artists to grind their pigments.
Victorian era – 19th century
Paint in the Victorian era contained a high concentration of lead, which as already mentioned, is highly toxic. Rooms with ornamental objects and furnishings were painted with a red such as cadmium red. Green hues were preferred in rooms designed for relaxation, such as drawing rooms. Not only are these strong colours attractive, at the time, they were ideal too for covering the black ash that tainted walls that housed a fireplace or stove.
Oak galls can be processed to formulate a natural dye, due to the presence of tannins. It was used once for black pen ink.
Although the 20th century saw the invention of acrylic paint, today, colour is not just restricted to art.
As certain colours draw the eye, they have the power to influence and direct our emotions and behaviour. Warm colours such as reds and yellows demand attention and action, ideal for education and advertising. Cooler colours like blues and purples can be soothing and used for colour therapy. In cultures throughout the world, black is used for mourning, white is used as a symbol of purity for weddings and religious ceremonies.
In the South East Asia, red money-filled laisee envelopes are given out to friends and family to wish them luck for special events like weddings and even during Chinese New Year.
The early 1900s saw the commencement of colour in film and television. Much later, 1993 marked the emergence of mass-produced colour printed newspapers.
Scientific advancements have meant that even the visually impaired don’t have to miss out on the delights of colour. Glitter gives these individuals an opportunity to experience its reflective properties and fascinating relationship with light. SFXC offers glitter in a huge array of colours, effects, shapes and particle sizes, from holographic to fluorescent and shards to circles.
For those who are colour-blind, specialist glasses such as the brand EnChroma, help them see the world like never before. You can read this blog post to learn about photochromatic, or ‘transition’ glasses, which darken when exposed to UV light.
Blue light blocking glasses are another recent invention. Melatonin, which is important for healthy sleep, is influenced by blue light. So, these glasses are perfect for night-shift workers and those who spend time on screens after dark.
In a quest to determine the limits of colour, modern scientists have experimented with the far reaching extremes of the colour spectrum. Pure black is a shade greatly advantageous in astronomy and space exploration. Vanta Black, made by Surrey Nano Systems, achieved the world record by developing the worlds ‘blackest black’. As a fully matte coating, it absorbs ultraviolet light so well, it has no reflective properties at all. Others have developed further iterations of this shade of black. Be on the lookout for many more. For now, you can check out our soot-black Carbon Black Oxide pigment.
On the other end of the scale, researchers at Purdue University in the US have developed a white paint that reflects 95.5 percent of ultraviolet light. It is so effective the surface it is applied to feels cool when touched. Calcium carbonate, found abundantly in chalk, eggs, limestone and the shells of marine life such as pearls and molluscs, is the main ingredient in this brilliant material.
The advantages of this paint are not primarily for aesthetic, though it is projected to be as usable as commercial varieties. It has the potential to replace air conditioning in our homes and to help cool network communication towers. As this paint is still being developed for mass-production, it does currently hold significant disadvantages. In colder weather, the exterior surfaces of buildings it would be would cause heating costs to rise, due to its remarkable ability to keep surfaces cool.
SFXC's Titanium Dioxide is a superb oxide pigment that can be used as a whitening agent in application.
As you can see, the strength and hues of colour can be extremely influential. Our Liquid Crystal is best applied to black backing. This will enhance its visibility and optical brightness. One of SFXC’s most colourful achievements happened in 2018. We were proud to take on the challenge of creating the world’s largest colour changing floor, at the Tate Modern. You can read about our adventure here.
Due to continual breakthroughs with technologies such as nanomaterials, we are likely to see continual improvement in the quality and the intensity of colours. The ever-increasing importance in combating climate change and prevent shortages of resources such as oil and gas will mean the future of colour is set to focus on solutions for these environmental issues.
Get started on your own colour journey
Most of our products at SFXC are water-based, except for our oil-based plastisol. Our Glow in the Dark Plastisol and Photochromic Plastisol are made for textiles and fabrics. All SFXC products are available in sample sizes. Why not try some of our tester and trial packs?