The University Of Harvard presents 

The Secret of Colors

from Johann Grolle 


Lapis lazuli                                                                                                                          Shutterstock/Bjoern Wylezich

Where do colours come from, how does the human being deal with it and what role did they play in former times? The Harvard University of Cambridge near Boston has collected more than 2500 pigments in his archives.

The art museums of this university have released an “atlas of rare and common colours”. It points out how the world became colourful; following is a brief array of popular shades and tones:

The first colour


Red ochre                                                                                                                        Shutterstock/Mona Makela

Red and yellow ochre are sacred for Australian’s aborigines, because these are the colours of the earth. Iron containing minerals which produce a wide range of earthy yellow, orange and red shades and tones were the first pigments of mankind. They were used for wall painting in caves in Europe’s ice age, they served as body paint for America’s Indians and in Australia they are up to this day the basic for a vivid painting tradition.

Over millenniums the local men set off for pilgrimages to the south in order to collect the precious ochre. These sacred chunks not only served as paint for the artists but more important as a trading good. In the “ochre wars” in the middle of the 19th century the white farmers tried to put an end to the whole hustle and bustle. They caused a massacre among the aborigines but did not succeed to stop the cult for ochre.

Gleaming Pipi


Indian yellow                                                                                                                       Shutterstock/Deenida 

What is so wonderfully gleaming on the paintings of the English landscape painter called William Turner? Is it correct that it is about the urine of starving cows? This is one of the unsolved mysteries of pigment research. “Indian yellow” used to come from the east in form of pellets, mustard coloured. Nobody knew where it exactly came from. This distinguished smell of ammonia, however, caused some suspicion. According to a letter of an Indian colonial clerk in 1883 a so called production plant for pigments existed in the north east in a village called Mirzapur. He, himself, witnessed how people made miserably looking cows urinate in buckets. In order to optimize the intensity of yellow they exclusively were fed mango leaves.

Laboratory tests have proven in the meanwhile that up to the end of the 19th century “Indian yellow” contained urine. The rest of the story is not confirm

Lice blood on the Talares


Cochineal red                                                                                               Shutterstock/D. Kucharski K. Kucharska

Spain is famous for its golden age, the “Siglio de Oro”. You might as well call it “the red age”, because it not only brought gold and silver, but also a lot of red. Venetian velvet, Roman cardinals’ stalars, French prostitutes’ cheeks and British soldier frocks were all dyed with Cochenille – red from South America. The Spanish colonial power was taught by the Aztecs and Incas the manufacturing of this colour pigment. By means of breeding Cochenille lice on cactus leaves they were able to receive this scarlet pigment which should grant the Spaniards so much weal

Deadly bleach


White lead                                                                                                                               Shutterstock/New Africa

The colour white causes more emotional pain than the colour red, Herman Melville writes in his book “Moby Dick”. This statement might be a point of view, however white can indeed be harmful. Lead white the most common pigment for a long time is absolutely poisonous. Although already well known in the antique the artists would not miss their splendid white. Pinius the older described the procedure lead sheets have to be stored next to bowls full of vinegar. Surrounding animal excrements keep the temperature constant. The whole thing was sealed until the vapours of vinegar and excrements had changed into shining white. The resulting lead white turned out to be a curse especially for women. They tried to bleach their skins with it, but suffered from insidious diseases instead. The most famous victim was Lady Maria, Countess of Coventry who kept putting on make-up until she died at the age of 28 in 17

Noble, beautiful, perfect


Lapis lazuli                                                                                                                         Shutterstock/Bjoern Wylezich

The word “ultramarine” already indicates its origin: beyond the sea.”Lapislazuli” sounds oriental. The deep blue powder milled out of lapis was said to be the most precious among all colours in the Renaissance. The late medieval book of arts, which used to criticize any pigment around, glorified “ultramarine”: It is “noble, beautiful, perfect and beyond any colour. Almost any ultramarine you will find on paintings of the old masters is from the sari-sang mines in the Hindukush, Afghanistan.

For emperors and virgins


Mauve                                                                                                                                   Shutterstock/Nik Merkulov

Out of a gland of a scarlet snail the Phoenicians obtained a violet pigment, which was as precious as gold. The effort was tremendous. Roughly 10 million gastropods had to die for each kilogram of purple. The ancient Rome had a certain dress code for the colour purple. Temporarily only the emperor himself had the right to wear purple. In the year 1856 18-year old chemist William Perk discovered a purple substance by chance, called “mauve”. The reputation of the colour purple soon started to suffer and it was considered as the old virgin’s colour. “Never trust a woman that wears mauve”, the writer Oscar Wilde warn

Transformation into nothing – Vantablack


Vanta black                                                                                                                        Shutterstock/Suto Norbert Zsolt

This blackest black of the world is a perfect example for discolouration. The British company Surrey NanoSystems developed this high-tech pigment. It exists out of a bunch of tiny carbon tubes in which incoming light gets lost. By means of that light Vantablack swallows any visible trace of the surface. In a room which has layers of this pigment there is absolute darkness. The amazing part: a light source is clearly visible, the room itself, however, stays black.

Source: „Das Geheimnis der Farben“ aus SPIEGEL ONLINE, von Johann Grolle, vom 05.04.2018.
The article has been translated from German by Hannah Böckler.
The article has been published in the German language original: