Chromaphilia: The Story of Colour in Art (Paul Stella)


  • Colour is art’s greatest resource: pervasive and elusive, evanescent and full of surprises. (7)
  • Luscious colour lures emotion and intellect, passion and reason in equal measure. (7)
  • The physical material of colour informs the configuration and content of an artwork. (7)
  • Even the most pervasive colour dug straight from the ground need to be discovered and then transformed from rock or dirt into materials fit for art. (7)
  • Different ranges of colours were available, or desirable, to artists in different regions and at different times. What are those colour pallets? How does sourcing affect what art looks like? (7)
  • Once colour has become a substance for use in art, it is manipulated according to methods that speak to its time and place to reflect its maker. (7)
  • How do colours directly interact with each other? Are they physically separate or mixed? Gradual or bold?
  • Why are colours chosen to interact? What would happen if they mix?
  • How are colours layered? Do they create a particular tonality?
  • Colour is much more than a HUE, hue signifies colour family (such as red/blue). (8)
  • Intensity/ saturation signifies the amount of pure, undiluted hue that is present. (8)
  • Tone refers to the degree of darkness and lightness. (8)
  • While all of these elements are interlocked, that can be discussed separately. (8)
  • Words that describe colour words are often blunt rudiments, lacking the appropriate vocabulary to describe what can be seen. (8)
  • Language both reflects and limits conceptualization. (8)
  • Colour is inconsistent, apt to change according to sensory and cultural contexts. (8)
  •  Artists and theorists have long explored the phenomenology of perception, nothing shifts that occur when colours interact, celebrating colour’s confounding instabilities and exploring its chameleon-like properties. (9)
  • No unified symbolic code links specific colour to meanings; there are innumerable cultural and personal conventions (e.g. red=lust, provocation, violence, spirituality, virtue and status). (9)
  • Alternatively, red might be used as a symbol for its ambiguity in order to demarcate shape, without any reference to symbolism. (9)
  • Colour decorum is elusive and relative, just as colour perception. is (9)
  • To what degree do questions about colour origin’s or structures of classification align with how artists actually use colour? (9)
    • Some theorists probe mechanisms of colour vision, the causes of colour or divine or mystical bases for colour orginisation.
    • Others seek formulae for how colours are perceived, or to explain subjective effects of colour.

Earth Colours

  • Such colours are foundational and fundamental. To the earth, to life. (13)
  • When art is derived from the earth, its physical material and its visual colour suggest literal and metaphorical connections to its source. (13)
  • Although the colours of the earth are prevalent and relative easy to process, no colour is ready made for use in art. (13)
  • The choice of a reductive palette concentrated in the browns of the earth at the expense of more vivid hues seems to have manifested for other artists certain emotional, political and historical associations, as well as a deliberate choice of mood endangered though colour. (13)
    • Ochre: clay, and iron oxide is unadulterated colour, used for decorative, symbolic and ritual applications. (14)
      • Ochre is plentiful, but ancient artists had to locate its deposits, extract of mine the rock and grind it into powder. (14)
      • The powder had to be treated so that it would adhere to cave walls which had to be prepared beforehand, perhaps scraping. (14)
      • Perhaps porous, damp surfaces were predisposed to bond with loose flecks of fine pigment powder; water in caves is rich in calcium carbonate, which might have effectively aided adhesion and preservation of the colour. (15)
      • Extenders such as clay, calcite crushed bone and potassium feldspar would have altered the pigments coverage, and modifying hues. (15)
      • Tools to apply the paint had to be made. Liquid or paste colour could have been applied in swaths with spongy mats of moss or animal hair. (15)
  • Earth pigments can do much more than simply produce colour: that can embody the land itself, concepts about its genesis and a people’s mythologies and spiritual symbols. (15)
  • Ochre has been used to make art on rock, bark and textile and in sand. (15)
  • It is also applied to human bodies as ornaments of an element of ritual, and it colour the material and spiritual aspects of community life as a central element in religious, political, social and didactic contexts. (15)
  • Early religious paintings depicted figures wearing plain robes, non-colour. Nondescript colours were chosen over brighter shades to signify piety and simplicity.  (18)
  • It was also deliberate to avoid black and white, both of which were freighted with their own physical attitudes. (18)
  • Black and white became proxies for conflicting views about the value of colour in the material world. (19)
  • Ochre varies slightly with location, with warm, reddish shades of brown derived from peat deposits that have been long weathered and carbonized through slow formation. (21)
  • With oil paint, pigment particles are suspended in oils that do not merely evaporate to dry, but link together on a molecular level so that the pigments become embedded in a solid organic matrix. (22)
  • Umber is similar to ochre but contains manganese dioxide as well as iron oxide. (23)


  • With red comes perceptions of taste, status, excess and control, all of which are wrapped in colour. (43)
  • Red pigments were exotic and required dangerous sourcing, the creation of which required a mixture of vermillion and alchemy. (43)
  • The red dyes were used to colour garments worn by the wealthy and powerful, which reveals the habits of behavior and associated colour regulations that controlled both industries and individuals. (43)
  • Whether representing personal or political histories, emotional or social commentary, red has a powerful metaphorical pull. (43)
  • When red is lightened by the addition of white, it becomes a completely different colour that carries its own coding: Pink evokes, sex and play to threat and violence, associated with red- but no longer. (43)
  • A luxurious red (Roman era) made with cinnabar was highly valuable due to the high mortality rate in its mining- it is the principle ore of mercury, a toxic and deadly substance. (44)
  • The medium used to bind coloured power into workable paste or liquid will affect its refractive or optical properties, the manner in which it dries and the way it can be handled with brushes or implements. (51)
  • Opacity or transparency, viscosity, thickness and glossiness are altered according to a paint’s binder. (51)
  • Few colours have been as loaded with metaphysical references as red, invoking connotations that range from blood, aggression and power to the most cherished virtue of charity.
  • Red makes a vivid statement, but its meaning depends on context. (52)
  • Colour helps to express light, not the physical phenomenon but the only light that really exists, that in the artist’s brain. (58)
  • Coloured auras emitted by individuals could supposedly be seen and interpreted by clairvoyants, and colour chats and ‘though forms’ outlines theosophical approaches to colour as an expression of energies or feelings that involved theosophy’s capacity to express inner truths. (61)

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