Using color brightly

Sep 7th, 2010 | Posted by Stone

On a recent trip, we stopped at Ft. Vancouver in Vancouver, WA, which is a reconstruction of a fort and trading center from the mid-1800′s. In the Counting House was this display of colors indicative of those used in well-to-do homes and important public buildings. Childishly simple and bright by modern standards,¬† the exhibit text speculates that these strong colors were used because the lights were dim and the weather was gray. Or, they were used simply because of the novelty. Most likely, the vivid colors spoke of wealth and privilege because they were rare and expensive. Readily available, affordable color is a relatively modern phenomenon.

Similarly, there is now strong evidence that the pure white statues of Greece and Rome were originally painted bright colors. While modern taste admires the elegant simplicity of white marble, embellishments of richly colored pigments, some more valuable than gold, would have been much more admired in their time.

In 1856, William Perkin synthesized a rich purple dye he called “mauve” while trying to create synthetic quinine from coal tar. While not the first synthetic dye, Perkin had the vision and the drive to mass-produce his color, thereby revolutionizing the colorant industry. More synthetic colors followed, making readily available colors that had been previously rare. Over time, bright colors ceased to be the exclusive province of the wealthy and were used by everyone. Instead of being signs of wealth and devotion, bright colors became the province of children and peasants.

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