ART / Colour me complex: Every pigment tells a story. Dalya Alberge looks at the development of the artist's palette from prehistoric times to the modern day

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The Independent Culture
Prehistoric man first reproduced it. Colour, that is. By pounding natural ochres into powdery pigments and mixing them with blood, water and fat, he could paint those bison and mammoths on his cave walls. He even had an artist's palette (a stone slab with daubs of pigment was found in the Dordogne, France) and paint-brushes of fur, feathers and chewed wood.

The history of Western art begins here, though the caveman's choice of colours - red, yellow, white and black - is obviously primitive against the panoply of hues that artists have at their fingertips today. However, a civilisation as advanced as that of the Ancient Romans would have poured scorn on our multi-coloured tastes: for them, the simpler the palette, the better (it was synonymous with being virtuous). Pliny, in the first century AD, applauded Apelles - the artist hailed as the Michelangelo of the fourth century BC - for his masterly use of only four colours.

Pliny's writings are among countless contemporary sources plundered by John Gage, a lecturer in art history at Cambridge University, who has spent some 30 years researching Colour and Culture - his recently published academic history of colour. It is a study as complex as the colours of the rainbow - complex because there is no precise moment in time when you could say that any one person invented a red pigment or a blue one.

Using literary sources, however, has its own pitfalls, he acknowledges; after all, our vocabulary for colour-terms is primitive against the range of hues that our eyes can differentiate. 'If we believe physiologists,' Gage says, 'we're capable of distinguishing up to 10 million nuances of colour. Yet most languages have only 20 layman terms, and not that many more specialist ones.'

The subject is further complicated by the fact that not only do we each 'read' colours differently from one another, but there are even bigger differences across the centuries. 'We assume that people in the distant past saw things in the same way we do,' Gage says. 'However, whereas we think of purple as dark, in Ancient Greece it was seen as a light colour. There is even one Roman text that suggests Romans saw yellow as a shade of red.'

With such contrasts and difficulties in mind, Gage has picked out some of the most dramatic developments in colour's history. He starts with the Romans: however much some of the more vociferous among them complained about the invasion of colour in their time, it was in their era that a myriad of new colours came into Western art. Sensuous pigments and materials came to them from the Orient. The greatest change in Roman art came with the development of 'tesserae', highly- coloured shimmering glass mosaic- cubes into which these new, bright colours were fused.

It was not until the Middle Ages, when manuscript illumination reached its zenith, that colour was seen in a new light. The palette became increasingly complex with the discovery of precious pigments such as the jewel-like blue lapis lazuli; although known as a stone in the 8th century, its potential was not explored until about the 12th century.

Also around this time (and until the 17th century), technological advances in colour began to follow experiments in medicine. As Gage explains, 'A great deal depended on colour - in diagnosis, the colours of skin, tongue, urine were all important.' Pigments often had medicinal uses: lapis lazuli, for example, was used as a drying medicine for body fluids before it was used as a paint; and if you lost blood, you were prescribed a red medicine provided by a red pigment. You can see the logic. It was a doctor in 12th-century Italy who came up with one of the earliest colour charts.

Probably the most famous colour explorations by an artist are those by Leonardo. His notebooks show studies of colour chemistry - experiments, for example, with distilled thinners for oil painting, a major requirement in the Renaissance in making the oil more malleable. After Leonardo, there were few dramatic technological developments in colour until the 18th and 19th centuries - which saw what Gage describes as 'an absolute explosion' of new manufactured pigments: there was Prussian blue, which became important to early 18th-century artists; and new yellows, like chrome yellow, in the 19th century, without which Van Gogh might not have achieved the brilliant intensity in his Sunflowers.

Technology in this century has brought us acrylics, industrial paints and neon-lighting - opening up seemingly endless colour possibilities. And yet, strangely enough, there is a yearning among many 20th-century artists to return to a simpler palette.

Perhaps, in some ways, we have come full-circle. Cave-dwellers used blood in their work; so do some of our contemporary artists.

'Colour and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction' by John Gage is published by Thames and Hudson ( pounds 38)

(Photograph omitted)