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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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 rainbow coloured 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?
- 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).
- Each colour had it’s own angle of refraction (the amount at which the light ray bends).
- 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:
Benson, J. L. (2000). Greek color theory and the four elements: A cosmological interpretation. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries. http://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=art_jbgc
Crone, R. A., & Crone, R. A. (2000). A history of color: The evolution of theories of lights and color. Dordrecht [Netherlands: Kluwer Academic. https://books.google.co.nz/books?hl=en&lr=&id=B-KtBAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT7&dq=beginning+of+color+empedocles&ots=xBI5-cVb-Y&sig=hOx9Lb8gHWAqMXoOmJjT3t2OvK4#v=onepage&q&f=false
Gottesman, S. (2016, May 20). A Brief History of Color in Art. Retrieved from https://www.artsy.net/article/the-art-genome-project-a-brief-history-of-color-in-art
Newton and the Color Spectrum. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.webexhibits.org/colorart/bh.html
- Newton’s Theory of Light