Colour coded

Recently, the country witnessed a debate on specifically coloured uniforms for food delivery partners. Though the discussion has ended, there is no denying that colours have been used to denote human lives and emotions. TNIE takes a look at the four major colours and their myriad associations from artists’ perspectives.
Colour coded

KOCHI: We live in a colourful nation. Everything about our existence is brightly hued — from our weather and fashion to our music and festivals. And the grandest one of them all — Holi, is a spectacular riot of colours indeed.

Colours have their own significance and are deeply connected to our varied emotions. Ever since prehistoric humans combined burnt charcoal, animal fat and soil to make pigments, thus creating the earliest palette of basic colours, art has used them to not just tell stories or decorate but to evoke our senses. Here’s a look at the fascinating world of shades.


Red, the colour of danger, passion, anger, and all extremes of human experiences, was one of the oldest pigments used in art. The cave of Altamira in Spain, renowned for its cave art, has a painting of a bison coloured in red ochre dating back to between 15,000 and 16,500 BC. Ancient Egyptian women used red, to add a dash of colour to their lips and cheeks while Ancient Romans decorated their villas with red frescoes. Yet, acquiring the shade was incredibly dangerous for those who mined it as it was highly toxic, which obviously made it very expensive. Strangely, its usage was not limited to portraying only royalty or religious rituals despite its cost. The colour showed no class difference and was used on any subject, as seen in the painting ‘The Wedding Dance’ from 1566.

With revolutions overthrowing monarchy, red started becoming the colour of resistance and is today politically connected with communism. Artworks in red fetch the highest price at auctions today perhaps because the hue evokes the strongest of our emotions. As artist Anish Kapoor stated,” It’s the colour of the interior of our bodies. Red is the centre.”


Green, the symbol of rebirth and life was used by ancient Egyptians on the walls of their tombs by finely grinding malachite. A paintbox with this pigment was found inside the tomb of King Tutankhamun. It was however in 1775, that a Swedish chemist introduced the colour Scheele’s Green to the artworld. Most artists used the tint to colour their beautiful landscapes with lush greenery. But behind the guise of placidity, history tells fatal facts. Made by mixing copper and oxygen with arsenic, the pigment was considered more poisonous than any other. Unaware of these truths, artists widely used them in their paintings and to decorate walls. Many historians even believe that it was the use of this colour on the bedroom walls of Napoleon Bonaparte that caused his death in 1821. An alternative to this shade was also toxic and is thought of as being responsible for the blindness and diabetes of many Impressionist artists. Thankfully, it was banned in the 1960’s and green has truly found its peace in today’s world!

Colours can speak to the soul in a million ways. Let us open our eyes to its beauty and meaning and allow ourselves to feel the emotions it gifts us so generously!


The jaundiced yellow has always been primarily ill. None of red’s passion or the serenity of blue for this colour, which artists have used predominantly to denote maladies. The most absurd fact is that the painters who used it back in the day, ultimately endangered their own lives as the pigment was obtained from arsenic, a toxic element. The paint eventually was ingested when the artists touched their brushes with their tongue while painting finer details, thus poisoning themselves over time. When arsenic was replaced with Uranium Yellow, it still remained deadly as the latter was made from uranium dioxide, which was radioactive. A watercolour named Indian Yellow, even derived its paint from the urine of mango-fed cows, a practice banned now. Organic dye-based paints have been introduced hence.

It wasn’t always disease and death that lent its meaning to yellow. The colour has represented nature in all its vibrancy, in the hands of artists like Van Gogh, for whom yellow was the field to be harvested, the house, the sunflowers, and the stars! Sadly, it was his favourite hue that also fed his vulnerability; the artist who often suffered severe mental disturbances, once admitted to his brother that he tried to end his life by eating the same preferred paint.

Contemporary artists have breathed new vigour into yellow by using it as a metaphor for a life force. Icelandic-Danish artist Olaffur Eliasson’s installation titled ‘The Weather Project’, attempted to give the audience an illusion of being under the sun, by recreating the sun using a massive semi-circular screen in a hall, lit by 200 lights. The visitors looked up to a ceiling that reflected the space below, while being bathed in the warm yellow glow of the artificially created sun.


Blue, unlike earthy colours, did not come in plenty from the soil. Early artists could not access this initially elusive colour until humans learnt how to mine stones from the depths below. When Lapis Lazuli was extracted in Afghanistan 6,000 years ago, blue finally made its debut appearance in art. Given its rare nature, it soon came to be associated with wealth, power, and divinity. Artists reserved the colour for the most significant subject of the time — religion.

It was only when scientists invented an identical synthetic pigment that blue became affordable. Gradually, blue was liberated from its divine associations and started thriving in domestic settings, thanks to artists like Vermeer. When a French chemist discovered the ultramarine pigment in 1814, the colour became so popular that the nation bestowed the name ‘French Ultramarine’, to proclaim it as a national treasure. What better honour could a hue ever aspire for?

And here’s news for all those who believe that masculinity reeks of blue — it was regarded a feminine colour, considered dainty and assigned to girls while boys were dressed in pink until 1823!

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