By Upasana Bhattacharjee
Human beings evolved to see the full spectrum of colour about 30 million years ago. With researchers tracing human colour vision, it is important to review the ways in which colour has interacted with human society. Be it in influencing nature or its role in scientific discovery — colours have been woven into the chain of human events such that they have stood as representatives of political conflict and classism, been a medium for scientific discoveries, and proven to be forces of employment generation.
Of perceptions and emotions—The science behind colours
Evolution does not merely impact colour vision. ‘Colour Evolution’ is an area of study wherein scientists conduct experiments and aim to understand why different species and populations change colours over the years. One of the most famous examples is that of the peppered moths. In 1950, as coal smoke darkened trees in England, light peppered moths became rare and their darker counterparts, once rare, became common. As countries began taking active measures to clean air in the late 1900s and trees became light again, dark moths went back to becoming rare. Human activity, evolution and colours interact in intriguing ways.
Since the discovery of the spectrum of colours, human beings’ emotional response to them has garnered significant attention over the decades. Different colours have been known to elicit different responses from people along with being associated with symbolism, often highly dependent on the cultural context. For instance, the colour yellow symbolises both prosperity and truth. With respect to emotional responses, the colour yellow is considered a representative of happiness, optimism and warmth. Further, the perception of colours and their use has evolved with time and customs: In the 18th century France, black represented etiquette rather than grief or mourning.
Discovering new colours—The case of lilac
The discovery of new shades of colours has always been fascinating, as discussed extensively by the cultural historian, Regina Lee Blaszczyk, in her book The Color Revolution. The book discusses how colours and their discovery impacted different classes and genders simultaneously; along with the role played by the interactions between scientific experiments, entrepreneurship and creativity in the discovery of new colours.
For instance, a stain left on a cotton rag during experiments for a new anti-malarial drug led to the discovery of the colour lilac. This was pursued as a commercial venture by Perkin, the student who discovered the colour, along with his family. Queen Victoria added to the massive popularity attained by this colour by wearing it to her eldest daughter’s wedding in 1858. Interestingly, one of Queen Victoria’s ancestors, King Hendy VIII, was the only person in the country who was permitted to wear purple during his reign.
Of snobbish protests, sumptuary laws, and associated professions
While the Middle Ages had witnessed regulations about what colours different classes were permitted to wear, often featuring in the “Sumptuary Laws”, the industrial age saw clear divisions between which colours were socially acceptable and affordable for different classes. Bright colours fell within the ambit of the wealthy, for they were the only ones who could afford them. But with the creation of chemical dies, it became easier to develop shades in brighter hues. This prompted people to pick bright shades that had been denied to them until then and the upper classes resorted to paler shades as a form of “snobbish protest”.
Chemical dies and the fascination new colours brought on led to the creation of a new profession, that of ‘colour stylists’ or ‘colour engineers’. Coming from diverse fields, they were self-taught. In their new professions, they mostly advised companies on their choices of colours, often in response to their European counterparts producing new colours. A remarkable thing about the colour trade was how it stood out as one of the few fields where women could make their mark through their insight into consumer preferences, fashion and aesthetics.
Colours tell the story of human history
An interesting trade emerged as photographers struggled with colour in the 19th century — some picture makers took to colouring photographs by hand with photographic oil colours. While this practice never quite faded away, even with the advent of coloured photography, it is capturing renewed attention today. International artists inspired by Andy Warhol have revived this craft. Publications like Forbes often carry hand-coloured photographs. Further, it is becoming a special category in photography contests.
The tradition had begun in the 19th century as professionals decoded the need for colour — its ability to explain, captivate and charm. Nevertheless, controversy surrounds the craft. Critics have often argued that additions to pictures undermine the truth of the image. And while the vigour inherent in colours cannot be questioned, black and white images, sepia images, have stories themselves — they remain representatives of different ages in the history of photography. But, colours go beyond that.
Colours have driven change and have emerged as residues to others. From being scientific discoveries to initiating the likes themselves, colours have gone on to reveal the spirit of invention and entrepreneurship that humans hold so dear. Having strong associations with emotions, literature, art and evolution, colours stand as essential components representing various aspects of human history.
Featured Image Source: Flickr
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