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Where is modern color from?

Color is a critical part of our daily lives. The colors we see influence our emotions, perceptions, and behaviors. But where do these colors come from? How did we end up with the rainbow of hues that fill our world today?

In this article, we’ll explore the origins of modern color. We’ll look at how pigments and dyes were first created and standardized. And we’ll see how color theory, physics, and technology have shaped color as we know it. By the end, you’ll have a deeper appreciation for the complex history behind even the simplest shades.

Early Natural Pigments

For thousands of years, humans relied on nature to add color to their lives. Early civilizations extracted pigments from minerals, insects, plants, and animals to dye textiles, decorate artifacts, and create cosmetics.

Some of the earliest pigments came from minerals and earth. Ochre, a clay containing iron oxide that produces yellow, orange, and red tones, was used in prehistoric cave paintings. Charcoal created the first blacks. Malachite, a green copper carbonate, and Azurite, a deep blue copper carbonate, provided key shades.

Other pigments derived from living creatures. Purples came from Murex sea snails in the ancient Mediterranean. Cochineal insects produced striking reds across Mexico and South America. And India was the source for Lac, a scarlet resin from insects.

Pigment Source Color
Ochre Clay Yellow, orange, red
Charcoal Wood Black
Malachite Mineral Green
Azurite Mineral Blue
Murex Sea snail Purple
Cochineal Insects Red
Lac Insects Red

These natural pigments provided the foundation for color in early societies across the globe. But they were limited in scope, difficult to produce, and unstable over time. New methods would be needed to unlock color’s full potential.

The Rise of Synthetic Pigments

In the early modern era, chemists and paint-makers started artificially creating pigments for the first time. New metals, minerals, and processes allowed colors never-before-seen in nature.

The first big breakthrough was the synthesis of Prussian blue in 1704 by the paint-maker Diesbach. This deep blue became widely popular with painters and dyers. In the late 1700s, chemists learned to synthesize pigments like chrome yellow and zinc white. And in 1834, Perkin accidentally invented the color mauve while attempting to produce quinine. His discovery kicked off the creation of the first aniline dyes from coal-tar.

Pigment Source Date Created
Prussian blue Chemical reaction 1704
Chrome yellow Chemical reaction Late 1700s
Zinc white Chemical reaction Late 1700s
Mauve Chemical reaction 1856
Aniline dyes Coal-tar 1856 onward

Synthetic pigments offered consistency and intensities of color unattainable with natural ingredients. Alizarin crimson, viridian green, cadmium yellow, and mars violet became staple pigments for artists and printers. By the late 1800s, thousands of synthetic organic dyes had been discovered, sparking revolutions in both painting and fashion.

Standardizing Color Names

The explosion in synthetic pigments was accompanied by a drive to categorize and standardize colors themselves. In the 18th century, early color theorists created some of the first circular diagrams showing relationships between hues. But colors lacked formal names, with descriptors relying on creative phrases like “the color of ripe lemons.”

A major step came in 1779, when the French chemist Lavoisier published a list of seven primary colors—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Based on the visible spectrum of light. This became the basis for the color wheel and much of modern color theory.

In the early 1900s, Albert Munsell constructed a three-dimensional color space. His system numerically rated colors based on hue, value, and chroma. This allowed colors to be precisely specified for the first time. Other color theorists like Wilhelm Ostwald and Arthur Pope built on his foundations over the following decades.

Standardized names and specifications for colors were also driven by new technologies like photography and printing. The Pantone Matching System, developed in 1963, remains an industry standard today. The company regularly updates its swatches to keep pace with color trends and new synthesized pigments.

Physics and the Science of Color

Advancements in the physics and science of light, vision, and optics also transformed our understanding of color. In 1672, Isaac Newton demonstrated that sunlight split into all the colors of the rainbow when passed through a prism. His experiments revealed that color was intrinsic to light itself.

In 1802, Thomas Young proposed the trichromatic theory, arguing human vision relies on three types of color receptors in the eye. This laid the foundations for how monitors and cameras reproduce color by mixing red, blue, and green (RGB). Later work by James Clerk Maxwell established that all perceivable colors derived from mixtures of red, green, and blue light.

Discovery Scientist Year
Sunlight splits into a color spectrum Isaac Newton 1672
Trichromatic theory of color vision Thomas Young 1802
RGB model of color vision James Clerk Maxwell 1855

Modern color science also incorporates research on how the human eye and brain process signals from cone cells, neuroscience findings on color perception, and psychological insights into how we interpret and respond to different hues.

Color in Design and Pop Culture

Pigments, dyes, and optical theories formed the foundations of color technology. But designers, artists, marketers, and popular culture determine how color trends spread through society.

In the consumer world, new dyes and pigments drove fashion fads starting in the mid-1800s. In 1879, naughty Parisians wore bright mauve clothing, which sparked outrage and tabloid frenzies. The liqueur Absinthe also became associated with risqué green apparel. These colorful clashes between tradition and edgy trends repeated themselves as new pigments allowed ever more lurid shades of clothing.

The Arts and Crafts movement championed rich artisanal color palettes in opposition to mass production. Iconic artist-designers like William Morris and Charles Voysey created sophisticated spaces filled with custom sponged finishes, dyed textiles, and intricately hand-painted tiles.

Pop art and psychedelia embraced color’s emotional power in the 1950s and 60s. Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych and Beatles’ Yellow Submarine used color as expression, symbolism, and cultural commentary. These vibrant works forever linked color to mood, personality, and non-conformity.

Design Era Characteristics
Consumer Fashion Vibrant new dyes used in risque clothing
Arts & Crafts Custom rich color palettes in textiles and finishes
Pop Art Color as symbolism and cultural expression

Of course, color trends continue to evolve today. Social media amplifies color fads and memes. New pigments allow shifting gradients, duo-chromes, and ultra-saturated tones. And increased cultural awareness is bringing more inclusivity and representation into color choices.


The rich modern color world we inhabit is the product of millennia of ingenious tinkering by chemists, philosophers, and painters. From ochre to aniline dyes, color technology progressed in tandem with color theory and design. This history continues today, as color’s emotional and visual power makes it a constant focal point of culture and self-expression. So take a moment to appreciate all the thought and innovation behind even the simplest colors around you.