Somewhere Over ROYGBIV: An Exploration of the Meaning Behind Color, Yesterday and Today9 min read

Do you ever think about the colors you choose each day? From clothing, to food, to packaging. To the crayon color your child chose for today’s masterpiece or the store you walk into; color is everywhere. We sometimes make choices directly because of color, and sometimes indirectly, without even realizing it. We are saturated in color. Some people are wildly attune to it and utilize a wide range of colors. Take film director Wes Anderson. Each movie he directs has a distinct color palette. Each scene, when stopped and analyzed has clothing, props, and landscapes all matching that specific scheme.

Wes Anderson Palettes

Other times, a lack of diverse color is a specific, intentional choice. Picasso was known for his monochrome masterpieces, like Guernica. Picasso believed it was the structure and smart design that should be the focus of a work of art, rather than the immediate, cheap thrill of color. (Jonathon Jones, Picasso’s Love Affair with Monochrome)

Wikipedia Commons

No matter the palette, the choice is always there. To use red, or not to use red? Ok, yes let’s use some red. Now like a deep orange-red or more like a pink fuchsia red? Let’s go fuchsia, that’s more of the feel I’m looking for. Maybe add some more purple?  Hmm, that’s too dark, lighten that up a bit. There we go. You can meander your way into exactly the right shade and vibe.  



Not only do we have a choice, but we have an insane amount of choice. Just stop in a Sherwin Williams and browse the paint chip wall. If you’ve ever tried to repaint your home you know the unique hell that is that process. Or open Adobe Illustrator and adjust your controls to get THE perfect yellow. Technology has allowed us to capture every wavelength of light and bend it to our specific will or purpose or design. But it hasn’t always been this way. We haven’t always had every-known-color-to-man available at our fingertips.






Recently we had an interesting branding project come through our doors. The product we branded is known as Ancient Brew, a crazy healthy coffee made up of superfoods championed by ancient cultures like the Egyptians and Incas. We dove into the iconic colors of those civilizations to find a palette that helped tell the beverage’s heritage. I was enchanted by the deep, rich colors employed by each group.






Then, we got another coffee client, Promise Coffee Roasters (the java joes, they like us). This one had beans harvested mostly from South America, and mainly Peru. Again, we focused on the Peruvian palette and went with some of the brighter colors that matched the personality of the small roasting business.






This got me thinking about the colors of some of the other ancient civilizations. Greece, Rome, China. Each with a widely recognizable palette, attached to their history and culture. I started to research the colors they used, how they procured them and what they meant to each geographical location.




In so doing, I was re-introduced to a world before the color wheel. Before synthetic colorants or the combination of red, green and blue on a computer screen could make virtually any color. In these ancient cultures, if you wanted a color, you had to find it in nature and literally crush it into powder, or extract it from plants or insects. You had to find unique pigments that wouldn’t change colors if used on certain stones. Then you had to mix it with a binder, usually animal glue or a wax, then you had to bleach it in the sun or sometimes the color was washed to look brighter. I don’t even know how you wash a color, for crying out loud. I’ve washed a pen in my laundry before, but somehow that feels unrelated…

Cochineal Beetle’s blood was used for painting by the Incas

Did you ever want a color that badly? I don’t think I have. I think I would’ve pulled some Picasso BS (not saying his was BS, but mine would’ve been) and pretended like my ancient wall paintings needed to be solely in black to allow the meaning in my forms to be fully expressed. The things these artists had to do before they could even START a painting or textile astounds me.


But color was much more than just aesthetically pleasing to the ancients. Each culture had specific meaning attached to each color they used. Color choice was significant and told a greater story.




Their cultures, isolated and extremely malleable, had such distinct borders. They developed who they were from the ground up. Creating philosophy, religion, education, arts and government that was all their own. The lands and resources available to them colored this created identity. Mountains and oceans and deserts dictated their way of life. They were so intricately connected to the earth and everything it had to give. Resources were discovered, revered and used to the fullest degree. Ancient folklore often centers around large geographical fixtures. These landmarks, and the resources that accompanied them, provided the basis for the civilization’s respective palettes. This alone gave significant meaning to the colors, many of which could only be found in that specific area.




But it was when they were attached to the way of life that accompanied each society that these colors really gained their perch in antiquity. In Egypt, color was seen as being intricately connected with life and death. The word “iwn” (colour) also translates as “disposition”, “character”, “complexion” and “nature”  (J. Hill, Colour in Ancient Egypt). Colors were often associated with various gods as well.  In Greco-Roman times, color implied value and status. In ancient Chinese culture, colors were associated with feng shui and the cycle of life, as well as to dynasties. In Incan culture (ancient Peru), the colors were used mostly in textiles and held the same worth as currency. Colors in clothing conveyed what you needed to know about a person.


Art pieces from Egypt, Greece, China and Incan Empire

All this history, all this meaning, adds indescribable life and vibrance to these ancient hues.

Deep and textural.
Primitive, yet timeless.
Clearly of the earth, where the color itself originated.
Imbued with a people and their place.




These thoughts of the past slowly led me to thoughts of today.


What does color mean to us, now?

-lots of things-


How do we choose color?

-lots of ways-


Do certain colors represent my home, my country of origin, my collective story here in America?

-red white and blue doesn’t even begin to cover it-


Color seems to have lost some of its inherent meaning in the world of today. It’s direct, descriptive quality has been muddied. Things seem much less, well, black and white. I know we’re not in ancient times anymore and a whole helluva lot has changed.


△ Our culture isn’t hemmed in by mountains or oceans. Means of transportation and the hint of freedom brought religion, race, and experiences of all shapes and sizes from all over the world to mix and meld here. And that continues to this day.


△ Our technological advances created universal access to all color.


△ Our understanding of color, light, and even the emotional connection to color that triggers activity in our brains has been studied and publicized.


But could the story-telling, very nature of color in our lives be silenced?




I would argue no. I would be so bold as to suggest that it’s actually louder than ever. Perhaps, just in another locus and harder to quantify.


I argue now an entire culture, a heritage, a set of beliefs, and ancestry can be found in each of us. A nation, or many nations rather, understood in each person, not the other way around. On top of that, add our personalities, collection of life events and the many ways we’ve seen color depicted through centuries of art and culture. We have limitless mines from which to pull color meaning from. There is just far too much, in every single one of us, for our collective home to be color-classified.


And each color, now with so many meanings that can be felt, utilized and expressed depending on our mood, the situation, or relevance. Color has as much ancestry as we. There is just far too much for color choice and meaning to be so easily defined.


Photo by Luc van Loon on Unsplash



It could also be argued that color isn’t as valued today as it was in eras gone by. We don’t have to work for it, we don’t have as intimate a connection to its origin and origin story. This is true. We don’t have to work for our color. It is readily available. But we do have to work for it’s meaning. We have to take all that we know and feel and filter out the noise to make a choice that’s impactful to us and those around us. I think the connection, in this way, is actually more intimate, permeating from within ourselves. Again, some do this knowingly, and others subconsciously. Perhaps a greater understanding, a greater awareness would move those color choices from below the surface to the tippy top. Would remind us why color is so important and why it’s such a valuable tool in our lives.




Well, lucky you, a greater awareness is what we’re here to find. Follow along this blog series as we take each ancient powerhouse, one at a time, and explore their color history. We created the palette we think embodies each civilization and we’ll walk through their color symbolism. We’ll look at their art and see how that played into their daily lives. We’ll end comparing the way they chose color to the way we do today, investigating color theory, psychology, American decade palettes and today’s market.


Once you have the facts, maybe you can answer the questions for yourself. Maybe you can look at your life and see certain periods, certain clothing pieces, certain furniture choices; and see your own story from another light. Maybe the way you choose color, whether a Wes vintage or a Picasso B&W, will feel even more expressive. Will define you perfectly for the moment, then float onto the next.


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