A Brief History of Color

A Brief History of the evolution of the study of color:

While Sir Isaac Newton is rightly credited with the discovery of the color spectrum, it would be unfair to say that he actually “discovered” color. We know that as far back as our cave-man ancestors, different colors in this spectrum were known of and used.  Newton simply re-described color, allowing us to consider it from a scientific point of view. His new portrayal of color stated that all shades of color are actually created from deflected white light, and that each color has its own wavelength, hue, and other spectral properties.

A century later, the German writer and politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was the first to explain color from what today would be described as a psychological point of view – how colors affect human emotions so powerfully. Goethe was a brilliant Renaissance man – a sage of knowledge in many varied fields. Amongst his interests were drawing and painting. He explored the interactions of colors, emotions, and images, and attributed distinct qualities to each color. So while Newton discovered color, Goethe discovered what it means to us, and how it affects us. It was his description of human reactions to color that marked the early days of the study of modern Color-Psychology.

The study of the ‘birth’ of each color is a discipline within itself. Each and every color has its own narrative of how it developed throughout history, and the path it took. Blue, Yellow, Red, Green; all colors have their own timeline as to when they were discovered, from which earth-based element they hailed and who were the first peoples known to favor this color.

One example of the history of a specific color can be expressed through a brief look at the color red. Red has been found in the earliest symbols left behind by our ancestors. These early humans drew what are commonly called “cave paintings” or “parietal art” in caves as far apart as France and South Africa. These images date back at least 15,000 years and were both symbolic and practical. There is evidence that some Stone Age graves contained red ochre – it is theorized – in an effort to mark the graves and so prevent them from being mistakenly dug up.

As time went by the ancient Egyptians began leaving behind their hieroglyphics for us to decipher, and color began to be interpreted in a new way. Color was used not only to create representations of daily life, but also to illustrate the heavenly realms of the Egyptian Gods and their afterlife. In these works of art, each color had its own symbolic meaning. The same path that color and its associations followed, also holds true in Ancient Greece. Here Aristotle is said to have considered blue and yellow to have been the only primary colors, as they reflected the two fundamental sources of life: the sun and the sky. These are just a couple of examples of early civilizations who have been affected by color. But in reality the list of ancient cultures that made use of color is endless.

Color has been with us from the beginning. Color has marked us. There are no humans whose lives have been untouched by it. But color psychology is quite new. The study of color, and formal theories surrounding color have emerged over just the last several hundred years, and we are still learning where these theories are likely to lead us.

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