The Beginning of Colour.

Does anyone else ever find themselves looking at black and white photos or watching a black and white movie and end up imagining an entire black and white world?
As though colours just… didn’t exist yet?
As though colours were a thing of the future“?

I’ve found myself intrigued with that thought before… But I can confirm that the world has always been full of colour. Now I want to explore the “beginnings” of colour and some of the theories surrounding it. 

Our First Colours (according to the Greeks).

Coloured pigments like red ochre have been used since prehistoric times, evident from the cave paintings found all across the world, some older than 40,000 years. 

However, some of the very first documented ideas us humans had about colour itself were back in the BC days beginning with Greek philosopher Empedocles of Akragas.



Empedocles, and many Greeks for that matter, believed in 4 elements which make up everything that you see, each with their respective colour. 

These being:

Asset 1-100

Alchemy symbols for air, water, fire, earth.

  • air = white
  • water = black
  • fire = red
  • earth = yellowish green

This confused people of the future. Could the Greeks only see 4 colours? Was something wrong with their eyesight? Were they colourblind?

No. They were not colourblind (at least not every single one of them).
They quite simply, only had words in their language for those 4 colours alone.

After a few other guys tried their hand at figuring out colours and applying an array of scientific, religious and artistic methodologies to them, it was Aristotle who really started the party when it came to colour theory.



To the Greeks, black (darkness) and white (lightness) were primal colours.  All other colours were different mixtures of black and white. 

Aristotle decided there were in fact 7 colours on a spectrum of brightness after watching the light change across the day from lightness to darkness.

Asset 2-100

As an inductivist, he saw knowledge as being learnt from observation or sensory experiences e.g. what you can see, hear, feel, smell and touch.
You can see colours, therefore they are.

Colours in the Renaissance 

Fast forward a few centuries to the Renaissance period where we meet a man by the name of Leon Battista Alberti. A triple-A threat, he was an author, an artist and an architect. 



Alberti figured that there were 4 “true” colours and like Empedocles, he associated these with the four elements, however slightly differently.


Alchemy symbols for air, water, fire, earth.

  • air = blue
  • water = green
  • fire = red
  • earth = grey/ash 

He noted that mixing these colours could produce an infinite amount of other colours. Black and white could be used to either darken or lighten the other colours but were not colours themselves. 

Creating Rainbows with Newton 

This finally leads us into the research of one of the most vital figures in this quick evolutionary history of colour – Sir Isaac Newton. 

isaac newton-100


Newton had much more science-as-we-know-it-today basis to his colour work in 1666 leading to his discovery of the colour spectrum.

He created an experiment trying to disprove other theories and prove his own – that light consisted of particles instead of waves. 

After darkening his room, Newton left one small ray of sunlight to pour in. He then held up a glass prism in the path of the light and watched.

A rainbocoloured strip of light appeared on his wall.

He then held another prism up and the colours converged to create white light again. 

This refracting (bending) of light that Newton had performed was a big leap for theories of light. However, in terms of colour theories this experiment was also extremely important.



What was learnt from this experiment?

  1. Newton coined the term “colour spectrum” and divided it into 7 colours; red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo & violet (or ROYGBIV as we now commonly refer to it).
  2.  Each colour had it’s own angle of refraction (the amount at which the light ray bends).
  3. No matter how many times you bend that ray of coloured light, it will still be the same colour. 

But most importantly, Newton’s experiment concluded that colour makes up light.  When light falls onto an object, the way in which that light is reflected back, determines what colour our eyes will see. 

And that my friends, is the beginning of colour. 

You can find out more here:


11 thoughts on “The Beginning of Colour.

  1. I remember reading that the colour blue was non exsistant, a lot of primitive languages has words for other colours, but not for blue. When asked by European traveller’s what colour the sky was they had no words to describe it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Woah this is awesome info thanks Bruno! I didn’t come across anything specifically about blue just yet but hold tight, one of my next blogs might look into this! 🙂


  2. It is known in the paint world that Black and white are no longer classed as a colour but tints and tones…. And that Earth colours like Red Green white and black were the main colours as they could be derived from natural sources only until synthetic Primary colours were developed Red Blue and yellow which all colours are made from these days.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment Matt! Love getting some useful insight from the paint world. Maybe you can be my special guest interview for an up and coming blog and expand on some ideas that I have glossed over.


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