History of colour with focus on Blue

Updated: Mar 10

Historically, the first colours occur in primitive artistic expression of people in prehistoric times and it is closely connected with hunting. Colours of the land, such as ochre, yellow and red clay, lime, soot and charcoal were mostly used for paintings. However the ability to create and use the colour ochre was not limited to our direct ancestors. This mineral pigment was used by Neanderthals, as early as two hundred and fifty thousands years ago! Scientists have not yet discovered what the colour was used for, although there is no evidence that they used it for painting or decorating their bodies. Some of the possibilities are they used it as a medicine, mosquito repellent or in the processing of leather.

If we look at the clothes of our artistic ancestors, it looks rather drab. The fabric or wool, from which it was made was presented in a stereotypical colourless way. Why so drab, when dyes of different shades existed since prehistoric times? The water insoluble pigments used for painting on the walls would simply not work on fabric.

Egyptians were absolute masters in creating and using colours and pigments. They usually needed colours for their murals or to decorate their bodies. In the past, colours were mixed from strong pigment of natural resources, which Egyptians mined, treated chemically and crumbled to fine powder. The interesting fact is that it did not only improved their visage, it also repelled flies and protected eyes from sun exposure.

Another significant phenomenon in our Mother Nature colours is the lack of blue and purple shades. In ancient Rome, people discovered the extract of some sea snail species, that turns dress material to purple. It became instantly popular, but was not generally affordable.


Our ancestors did not even have a word for the colour blue until very late. William Gladstone counted all colours mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey in 1858 and realised, that there is no blue. Black and blue were mentioned over 100 times, meanwhile red, yellow and green fewer than 15 times. Later on, German philologist found, that blue was not mentioned in the Koran, the Bible, nor ancient Chinese stories. It seems that the word was invented by Egyptians, who were the first civilisation making blue dyes.

In the middle ages, indigo blue started becoming popular in India and Europe, but was very expensive and difficult to access. Later, in the late seventeenth century, Horace Benedict de Saussure invented an instrument for measuring the blueness of the sky. The instrument was called cyanometer and it was a circle with different shades and hues of blue colour painted. It was subsequently found, that the cyanometer also showed water vapour in the atmosphere. Saussure was also a mountain climber and this instrument helped him to measure different shades of blue in different heights.

Our modern understanding of light and colour begins with sir Isaac Newton in mid 1600s. While studying light, Newton broke down the beam of white light into its spectral colours using a prism. All components of light, which were separated through the prism, he then managed to reassemble to white light again. He found that the light that comes into our eyes is the composition of light waves with different wavelengths and colours. According to that, he made a drawing of the spectre colours in a circle, which was his first original colour wheel. Since then, colour wheel was used in design, fashion, interiors or graphics.