Outrageous Orange – PART 1



Vibrant orange has never been a wallflower in the colour spectrum. Always demanding attention, it’s outrageous behaviour has got itself to the front of the line on many an occasion. As a colour it is an exceptional actor, a shape shifter that goes by many names and identities. Always dramatic it has played may roles including the power to poison and delivering promises of gold. In Part 1 of this series, you can discover where it first surfaced, how it happens in nature and what it represents in other cultures. Come, take a front row seat and discover why Orange consideres itself quite the outrageous show stopper.


Why Orange is called Orange

In the beginning the colour was only ever referred to as yellow-red throughout Europe. In Old English yellow-red was called “ġeolurēad .” It was the Portuguese merchants who took the first orange trees to Europe from Asia in the late 15th century. It is suspected that the original Sanskrit word nāranga, might come from a Dravidian word meaning “fragrant.” In translation this meant orange tree. Adapted to the Persian nārang, then Arabic nāranj to the Italian ‘arancia’, ‘. It is called ‘laranja’ in Portuguese it which became ‘naranja’ in Spanish. Onto the old French word ‘orenge’ derived from the fruit called ‘pomme d’orange’. In English, the word ‘orange’ stems from this Old French and Anglo-Saxon ‘orenge’.

An exotic import to Europe oranges were associated with luxury and opulence. In the play Spilpenning of 1692, mentions that fresh oranges were considered so valuable they were regarded as an elite dessert at any wedding banquet. Flemish master Jan van Eijck included them in his painting  “Arnolfini Portrait” to illustrate the status of the extremely wealthy Italian merchant Giovanni Arnolfini and his bride. Several oranges are depicted behind the groom. These oranges not only represent Arnolfini’s great wealth, but were also used as symbols of marriage and fertility.

In the Arnolfini Portrait painted in 1434 by Jan van Eijck, several oranges
lie in the background on top of the window sill and chest.


Orpiment and Realgar

First use of orange used as a colour, even before it got its name has been found in the tomb paintings in ancient Egypt. Female figures in ancient Egyptian wall paintings often were shown with orange or yellow-orange skin, painted with a pigment called realgar.

Conservators working in the tomb of Nefertari.



Realgar is a red orange natural pigment closely related to the yellow orpiment. The two minerals are often found in the same deposits. It was originally referred to as ‘dust of the cave’ in Arabic. It occurs naturally as a mineral.  It darkens on heating by regains its original colour on cooling. Realgar is the more fugitive than orpiment, and can turn yellow when exposed to light as it gradually changes to Orpiment. The mineral has to be broken, ground and purified. A highly toxic orange arsenic sulfide, it was the only pure orange pigment available until modern chrome orange came along. It was used as a common red pigment for paints and dyes. Realgar decomposes in air to a yellow-orange compound para-realgar. Old unrestored paintings will have a yellow-orange tinge over a red colour where the pigment has been used.



Orpiment is a orange-yellow coloured arsenic sulfide mineral. It is found in volcanic fumaroles, low-temperature hydrothermal veins, and hot springs. It is formed both by sublimation and forms as part of the decay of the mineral of realgar. The highly toxic substance is rich in lethal arsenic. It’s colour transforms from mellow yellow into a vibrant orange when subjected to the heat of a fire.

The orpiment mineral is a yellow colour in its raw state but changes to orange when heated. This happens naturally when it lies in areas of volcanic activity or where the earth’s temperature rises.

The name of Orpiment comes from the Latin auripigmentum (aurum, “gold” + pigmentum, “pigment”) because of its deep-yellow colour. Convinced that the luminous shimmer of orpiment must be a key ingredient in concocting the Philosopher’s Stone, alchemists for centuries in both China and the West risked exposure to the noxious substance. 

Author Richard Ball, from Bright Earth suggests. “Orpiment was often a suggestive stand-in for gold, particularly in its sparkling mineral form. Ancient author Pliny says that the Roman emperor, Caligula extracted gold from the natural mineral form of orpiment.  Due to its toxic nature, it is not surprising the Romans used slave labor to mine it from the earth”. 

Orpiment became an important item of trade in the Roman Empire. It was used as a pigment and dye. It was also used as a fly poison and to poison arrows because of its toxicity. In China it was even used as a medicine.

Both Realgar and orpiment were later used by medieval artists for the colouring of manuscripts.

Very rare, early 13th century, Byzantine Syriac Gospel lectionary, 1216–1220 AD, British Library Oriental and India Office Collection.

The image above is one from a Gospel lectionary consisting of 264 folios with text and sixty illuminations. Orpiment and realgar was used in the light areas. Many have suffered serious deterioration of the lead white pigment, which has turned black in parts, seen here on the faces of the figures.

Going green

Orpiment was often combined with Indigo to make a dark, rich green. Seen here in an early European paintingmade in egg tempera, the green cloak at the left was painted using Orpiment in The Wilton Diptych (c 1395-9), another very early European painting, this time in egg tempera. The green cloak at the left appears to have been painted using orpiment.

The Wilton Diptych (c 1395-9), painted in egg tempera by an unknown artist.

Giovanni Bellini used both Orpiment and Realgar in The Feast of the Gods (1514-1529), which was his last painting and completed after his death by Titian. Orpiment was probably used in creating some of the green and yellow garments too.

The Feast of the Gods (1514-1529) painted by Giovanni Bellini (c 1430–1516) and Titian (–1576).
Holy Family with a Shepherd by Titian in 1510.

 Joseph’s orange cloak by Titian the khaki brown underpaint layer contains black, lead white and yellow ochre. The next layer consists of orange ochre and is then overpainted by realgar and probably also orpiment.

The Feast in the House of Levi (1573). Oil on canvas painting by Paolo Veronese measures over 5 metres long: 555 × 1280 cm.

Paolo Veronese also used both orange pigments, in Feast in the House of Levi (1573) for many of the robes and outfits on the figures.


Ancient page turners

Minium and massicot are bright yellow and orange pigments made since ancient times by heating lead oxide and its variants. Both substances are toxic, and slowly transform to a blackened state over time when exposed to oxygen. Both pigments were replaced in the beginning of the 20th century by chrome orange and cadmium orange.


Minium, also known as red lead, is a bright orange red pigment that was widely used in the Middle Ages for the decoration of manuscripts and for painting. It was made by roasting white lead pigment in the air; the white lead would gradually turn yellow, then into an orange lead tetroxide. The colour varied depending on roasting time

During the Roman Empire, the term minium could refer either to the pigment made from ground cinnabar or to the less expensive red lead. The name came from the river Minius in Iberia (now forming part of the Spanish-Portuguese border and known as Miño or Minho), located near the main Roman cinnabar mines. 

Pliny the Elder referred to it as flammeus, or flame colour. The minium of red lead was easy to make and less expensive than the pigment made from the mineral cinnabar, and it was bright and cheerful, so it became the most commonly used bright red (orange) in Medieval painting despite its toxicity or that it had a tendency to turn black in impure air. The use of red lead phased out with the introduction of vermilion from the 11th century.

The colour was used for the paragraph signs, versals, capitals, and headings which were coloured red in medieval manuscripts. The Latin verb for this kind of work was miniare, to apply minium, and a person who did this was known as a miniator. These medieval artists also made small illustrations and decorative drawings in the manuscripts, which became known as miniatures, the source of the English word for small works of art.

Miniature of the Trojan Horse, from the Vergilius Romanus, a manuscript of Virgil’s Aeneid, early 5th century.


Lovers in the Garden,from the Manesse manuscript (1300).

There is still much confusion among the naming of ancient and medieval pigments. The term minium was used to describe cinnabar, vermilion, and red lead. Minium of red lead was sometimes even called stupium in classical Latin.

Minium may have been manufactured in China as early as 300 B.C. It was known in the Han Dynasty (200 BC-200 AD) under the name “cinnabar of lead”. The process of manufacturing it was described in a Chinese manuscript of the 5th century. Minium was also widely used for Persian miniature painting and Indian miniature painting.

Pala Indian miniature, Bengal Folio Painting, early 12th century.



Massicot was used by ancient Egyptian scribes and in the Middle Ages. By roasting white lead the pigment known as litharge or lead monoxide (PbO) is produced. The addition of tin produces two types of lead-tin yellow. Forms of lead-tin yellow are mentioned in the Italian manuscripts of the late Middle Ages mostly used before the 18th century, which refer to is as “massicot”. 

Massicot is sometimes used by painters, and also as a drier in the composition of ointments and plasters.

It was not used as a pigment in oil painting, but was used in manuscript illumination (egg tempera and watercolor), encaustic and fresco.

Detail from the “Saffron-Gatherers”, wall painting from Thera, Greece.


Detail from folios 17v from the Choir Books of San Giorgio Maggiore.

The choir books of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice is a set of 15th century manuscripts. Massicot was identified through scientific investigations to have been used on the pages. 

Saint Martin and the Beggar by Jume Serra and Pere Serra, Barcelona (Catalonia, Spain)  around 1375-85. Egg-based tempera over pinewood panel.

Traces of massicot have been found in the area of the hair in the wood panels of ‘Saint Martin and the Beggar’ by the Spanish brothers, Jume and Pere Serra.

Massicot has been used as a drier in oil and as a low-fire flux in making ceramics and glass. In paints the pigment was used for glazing. Thin layers of lead monoxide produce iridescent colours on brass and bronze. It has also been used as a filler for rubber and to produce artificial tortoiseshell and horn.



Orange performs internationally

When you grow up in a certain culture you may have a tendency to think everyone has the same connection to a colour as you do. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Where we grow up and how that culture uses a certain colour has a huge impact on how we use colour in our own environments. Orange is filled with a vibrant energy, but this energy can mean a myriad of things in different cultures.

China and India

Orange is the symbolic colour of transformation in Confucianism, the religion and philosophy of ancient China. In China and India, the colour took its name not from the orange fruit, but from saffron, the finest and most expensive dye in Asia. According to Confucianism, existence was governed by the interaction of the male active principle, the yang, and the female passive principle, the yin. Yellow was the colour of perfection and nobility; red was the colour of happiness and power. Yellow and red were compared to light and fire, spirituality and sensuality, seemingly opposite but really complementary. Out of the interaction between the two came orange, the colour of transformation.

Saffron comes from crocus flower from which the crimson stigma and styles are collected and dried.

In Asia – Hinduism and Buddhism

Orange is a sacred and auspicious color in Hinduism. A wide variety of colours, ranging from a slightly orange yellow to a deep orange red, all simply called saffron, are closely associated with Hinduism and Buddhism, and are commonly worn by monks and holy men across Asia.

In Hinduism, the divinity Krishna is commonly portrayed dressed in yellow or yellow orange. Yellow and saffron are also the colours worn by sadhu, or wandering holy men in India.

Holi, is the Hindu spring festival of colours, is observed in India at the end of the winter season on the last full moon of the lunar month. Full of celebration, the sacred colour, orange gets a big feature.

In Buddhism, orange is the colour of illumination, the highest state of perfection.The saffron colours of robes to be worn by monks were defined by the Buddha himself and his followers in the 5th century BC. The robe and its colour is a sign of renunciation of the outside world and commitment to the order. Considered the colour of the sun that shines infinitely, it is also believed to be the light shining from within the depth of darkness. The colour represents a sphere of light that sets the darkness ablaze searing away all ignorance, illuminating day and night.

The colour is considered a symbol of cleanliness, diminishing defilements, clearing it away from our mind. The symbol of purity likened to pure gold found in nature. The wearer must be pure in body, speech, and mind to eliminate defilements from the world and life.

The colour orange is the symbol of Light, Cleanliness, Purity, Peace, and Divinity. Signifying an inner peace, untouched by evil. According to Buddhist scriptures and commentaries, the robe dye is allowed to be obtained from six kinds of substances: roots and tubers, plants, bark, leaves, flowers and fruits. The robes should also be boiled in water a long time to get the correctly sober colour. Saffron and ochre, usually made with dye from the curcuma longa plant or the heartwood of the jackfruit tree, are the most common colours. 

Not all monks wear orange

The colour of robes varies among the different “vehicles,” or schools of Buddhism, and by country, depending on their doctrines and the dyes available. The monks of the strict Vajrayana, or Tantric Buddhism, practised in Tibet, wear the most colourful robes of saffron and red. The monks of Mahayana Buddhism, practised mainly in Japan, China and Korea, wear lighter yellow or saffron, often with white or black. Monks of Hinayana Buddhism, practised in Southeast Asia, usually wear ochre or saffron colour. Monks of the forest tradition in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia wear robes of a brownish ochre, dyed from the wood of the jackfruit tree. Tibetan monks wear maroon.

The Netherlands

Orange is the national colour. It is both the name and emblematic colour of the Dutch Royal family in the Netherlands. While the flag is red, white and blue there has been a lot of Oranjegekte (Orange craze) or Oranjekoorts (Orange fever) happening in Dutch sporting events in the later 20th century. Dutch fans have worn orange to support their teams since 1934 in the World Cup soccer tournaments. Patriotic Dutch fans paint their cars, houses, shops, and streets orange. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines even painted one of its Boeing 777 airplanes orange in 2015 as a sign of Dutch national pride.

Orange has become the colour of national pride in the Netherlands, from sporting events to airplanes.

United Kingdom and Ireland

In the U.K., orange stands for the Northern Irish Protestants and has very strong religious and political significance. A flow over thanks to William III’s great victories and the long standing of one of the most influential royal houses, known as the House of Orange in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. He became became King of England in 1689 and so orange made its way as a great political colour in Britain and Europe. William was a Protestant, and as such he defended the Protestant minority of Ireland against the majority Roman Catholic population. As a result, the Protestants of Ireland were known as Orangemen.

The Republic of Ireland’s flag is a tricolour flag of orange, white, and green First used in 1848. The green colour on the flag represents the native people of Ireland (most of whom are Roman Catholic). The orange color represents the British supporters of William of Orange who settled in Northern Ireland in the 17th century most of whom are Protestant (back to the Dutch again). The white in the center of the flag represents peace between these two groups of people.

Left: William III of Orange, ruler of both England and the Netherlands doning his orange cape magnificently in this portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller in the 1680s. Right: The Irish Flag.

Eastern countries

In Middle Eastern countries, such as Egypt, orange is associated with mourning. 

Eastern Europe

A symbol of strength and bravery in Ukraine, orange represents a time when the country came together in 2004 and stood up to the government during one of the biggest fraudulent presidential elections in history in 2004, known as the Orange Revolution. Following this revolution the word “orange” denotes members of the liberal, pro-Western, opposition.

Orange-clad demonstrators gather in the Independence Square in Kiev on 22 November 2004.

In Western countries

In countries such as America and Australia orange is associated with energy, optimism and amusement. The colour of sunshine and positivity, it is used in many advertising campaigns to encourage impulse buying for a happiness fix. This all makes sense as studies have shown that the colour can create physical effects such as increased hunger, heightened sense of activity, increased socialisation, boost in aspiration, stimulated mental activity, increased oxygen supply to the brain, increased contentment, and enhanced assurance. 

Orange is perceived as a emotional enhancer promoted to aid decision making, enhance happiness, confidence, and understanding. It has become one of the modern ‘friendly’ colours, promising to be cheerful and charming when attached to any product or service.

Bright, light and full of freedom. Orange is used in the west to reflect positivity and fun times in many marketing campaigns.



Why carrots, pumpkins, oranges and autumn leaves are orange

The orange colour of carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, oranges, and many other fruits and vegetables comes from carotenes, a type of photosynthetic pigment. These pigments convert the light energy that the plants absorb from the sun into chemical energy for the plants’ growth. The carotenes themselves take their name from the carrot. 

Autumn leaves also get their orange colour from carotenes. When the weather turns cold and production of green chlorophyll stops, the orange colour remains.

Did you know…. Fruit and veggie insights

Carrots originated in the Himalayas and Hindu Kush centre. The first evidence of carrot used as a food crop is in the Iranian Plateau and the Persian Empire in the 10th century AD. These original carrot roots were purple and yellow in colour. From Persia, cultivated carrot spread to surrounding areas. 

Orange carrots appear to have become popular in the 16th century when Dutch and Spanish paintings began depicting orange carrots in market scenes. 

Dutch probably cultivated the orange carrot in the 16 century already – Holland was the leading agricultural nation at the time and it would take decades for a new variety to stabilize. After the Dutch adopted orange as its the national color, the orange carrots was added to the list of items “dedicated” to the royal family. The orange carrot came first – the Royal family dedication second.

The myth that Dutch farmers are believed to have cultivated orange carrots as a tribute to William of Orange – who led the the struggle for Dutch independence. The Long Orange Dutch carrot, first described in writing in 1721, is the forebear of the orange Horn carrot varieties. The Horn Carrot derives from the Netherlands town of Hoorn in the neighborhood of which it was bred. All our modern, western carrots ultimately descend from these varieties.

A Market Scene by Pieter Aertsen (1569) shows the range of carrots available in Holland in the mid 1500’s – orange, white and purple.

Green oranges

Have you ever noticed that the skin of an orange is more often green?  The bright orange colour we associate with the fruit occurs only if temperatures drop while the orange is on the tree. Commercially grown oranges are often exposed to ethylene gas to destroy the green chlorophyll in the peel. That’s why the fruit in warmer countries always looks green!

Top row: Oranges only turn orange, just like the autumn leaves when temperatures drop. Bottom: Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Pomegranate by Flemish Jacob van Hulsdonck (1582 – 1647).



Off to a fiery start, Outrageous Orange dives into the drama in Part 2. Orange takes a poisonous side step in which many an artist and artwork will suffer the consequences. Be sure to check out the dark side of Orange in Part 2 of the Adventures of Orange.


Love sunny colours? Check out the Adventures of Yellow.

BLAZING YELLOW – PART 1 > Click here

BLAZING YELLOW – PART 2 > Click here

BLAZING YELLOW – PART 3 > Click here


This blog focuses on one of my great passions … colour. I will bring you tall tales and tidbits about the origins and uses of  colour and how it impacts our world. Colour has held many great powers throughout the ages. It plays many a leading role throughout history. It has been a killer, a saviour and a revolution maker. I thank the pioneers of colour who continue to pursue inventive ways for how colour can improve our lives. It is because of them that we can all be Colour Warriors and stay bright beyond beige. Thanks for joining me on the amazing adventures of colour!

Colour Warriors is a monthly blog, written and produced by Visual Artist and Arts Educator, Kristine Ballard on www.kristineballard.com
© Kristine Ballard 2020