The Power of Purple
COLOUR WARRIORS & HOW COLOUR IMPACTS OUR WORLD
This blog focuses on one of my great passions …colour. I will bring you tall tales and tid bits 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. Come join the amazing adventures of colour with me!
How we see purple
Violet Vs Purple
On the colour wheel used by painters, violet and purple are both placed between red and blue. Purple leans towards red, and Violet is closer to blue.
While the two colours look similar, from the point of view of optics there are important differences. Violet is a spectral colour – it occupies its own place at the end of the spectrum of light first identified by Isaac Newton in 1672, and it has its own wavelength. Purple is a combination of two spectral colours, red and blue and has no wavelength.
When we refer to the ‘purple’ colour in a rainbow it is actually violet. Purple is the colour our brain makes up when it wants to make a colour wheel out of a linear spectrum. It’s the colour you get when the red and blue receptors in your eye are activated but the green receptors aren’t. Violet is not a shade of purple, our eyes/brain just see it that way. Purple is a shade of magenta (magenta mixed with blue). Violet is the wave length where UV (ultra-violet) becomes visible to the human eye.
The history of purple and violet
Dog drool and the purple powers of a snail
Violet has been traced back to be one of the oldest colours used by man. Latest discoveries of hand paintings on rock walls in Australia date back as far as 50, 000 years ago and prehistoric cave art in Pech Merle, in France are tracked back about 25 000 years. The remnants of dark violet found in these ancient rock paintings were made by grinding the mineral manganese, mixed with water or animal fat and then brushed on the cave wall or applied with the fingers. Used as an alternative to black charcoal, sticks of manganese, used for drawing, have been found at sites occupied by Neanderthal man in France and Israel. Grinding tools found at various sites indicate that it may also have been used to colour the body and to decorate animal skins.
Berries were often used as a common source of dyes in antiquity. The ancient Egyptians made a kind of violet dye by combining the juice of the mulberry with crushed green grapes. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder reported that the Gauls used a violet dye made from bilberry (looks like a blueberry) to colour the clothing of slaves. These dyes made a satisfactory purple, but it faded quickly in sunlight and when washed.
During the 15th century BC the citizens of Sidon and Tyre, two cities on the coast of Lebanon, were producing purple dye from a sea snail called the spiny dye-murex. The process of making the violet-purple was laborious and expensive. Thousands of the tiny snails had to be found, their shells cracked, the snail removed. The snails were left to soak, then a tiny gland was removed and the juice extracted and put in a basin, which was placed in the sunlight. In the sunlight the juice turned white, then yellow-green, then green, then violet, then a red which turned darker and darker. The process had to be stopped at exactly the right time to obtain the desired colour, which could range from a bright crimson to a dark purple, the colour of dried blood. Once the colour was made it was then used to dye wool, linen or silk. The exact hue varied between crimson and violet, but it was always rich, bright and lasting. Mythology states that it was Hercules himself who discovered it – or rather, his dog did, after picking up a murex off the beach and developing purple drool.
This deep, rich purple dye made from snails became known as Tyrian purple. With more than 9,000 snail mollusks needed to create just one gram of Tyrian purple, the colour became one only afforded by kings, nobles and priests, associated with the imperial classes of Rome, Egypt, and Persia. It was also associated with spirituality and holiness as the ancient emperors, kings and queens wearing the colour were often considered gods or descendants of the gods. There were times that the colour was too expensive even for royalty. Third-century Roman emperor, Aurelian famously forbid his wife to buy a shawl made from Tyrian purple silk because it literally cost its weight in gold.
German chemist, Paul Friedander, tried to recreate Tyrian purple in 2008. Using 12,000 mollusks to create just 1.4 ounces of dye, enough to colour a handkerchief. In the year 2000, one gram of Tyrian purple using 10,000 mollusks according to the original formula, cost 2000 euros.
Intelligence and the angels
Violet and purple retained their status as the colour of emperors and princes of the church throughout the long rule of the Byzantine Empire. Worn less frequently by Medieval and Renaissance kings and princes, it was worn by the professors of many of Europe’s new universities. Their robes were modelled after those of the clergy, and they often wore square violet caps and violet robes, or black robes with violet trim.
During the Renaissance Violet featured throughout many religious paintings. Angels and the Virgin Mary were often portrayed wearing violet robes. Many painters of the 19th century experimented with the uses of the colour violet to capture the subtle effects of light.
In search for the cure for Malaria, young chemist William Henry Perkin, was attempting to make quinine. One day in 1856, while cleaning up the by-product from a failed experiment, he found that the solution stained cloth purple. At the age of 18, the young chemist had accidentally created the very first synthetic dye.
Perkin’s mauve or mauveine, was sometimes called aniline purple. The new dye was originally called Tyrian Purple as per the natural pigment made from the snails, and was only called Mauve after it was marketed in 1859. At the time, Empress Eugenie, the wife of Emperor Napoleon III of France, decided the new purple matched the colour of her eyes, so had dresses made in purple silk. A fashion icon she created a ‘Mauve Mania’. Purple became the most fashionable colour in Victorian Britain. The discovery revolutionised the dyeing industry forever. With the advent of the first synthetic dye, William Perkins became the super hero of industrial colouring.
The exclusivity of violet and purple reigned into the Elizabethan era (1558 to 1603). At this time everyone the English folk had to abide by Sumptuary Laws. These laws regulated what colours, fabrics and clothes could and worn by different classes within English society. Queen Elizabeth I’s Sumptuary Laws forbid anyone but close relatives of the royal family to wear purple.
The original discovery faded easily, the success of mauve dye was short-lived and it was replaced by other synthetic dyes by 1873. As the memory of the original dye soon receded, the contemporary understanding of mauve is as a lighter, less-saturated colour than it was originally known.
A great read…
Learn more about how mauve changed the world in
Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour That Changed the World
by Simon Garfield
The first cobalt violet, the intensely red-violet cobalt arsenate, was highly toxic. Eventually it was replaced by the less toxic cobalt compounds such as cobalt phosphate. Cobalt violet appeared in the second half of the 19th century, broadening the palette of artists. Artists such as by Paul Signac (1863–1935), Claude Monet (1840–1926), and Georges Seurat (1859–1891). Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) was an avid student of colour theory. He often used violet in many of his paintings pairing it with its complementary colour, yellow. This would accentuate the vibrancy and energy of the artworks.
The original violet acrylic paint
Dioxazine Purple is the original violet colour that came out in the earliest acrylic paint ranges. It is a deep clean, and very dark violet colour. It is also known as carbazole violet, both names refer to the same pigment. With a strong base dye and staining capabilities it can looks black and is often sold labeled as black indian ink. This is especially true of the cheaper inks purchased in newsagency’s and discount stores.
As a good lightfast pigment Dioxazine Purple has become the industry standard and is used in plastics, printing inks, floor coverings, textiles, rubbers, house paints, industrial and automotive coatings. A large portion of its use is for warming blue pigments and toning whites.
The French Impressionist’s quest to replace blacks in shadows with pure colour makes Dioxazine Purple a that Dioxazine Purple is the perfect starting point for creating French Impressionistic colours following their quest to replace blacks in shadows with pure colour.
An Australian Master of Violet
I admit I have a soft spot for violet. I can’t be sure if it is because Australia casts such purple shadows everywhere or I am just a victim of my own environment? But it is not until you see a colour master use violet so masterfully that you really appreciate the hue. South Australian painter Horace Trenerry is one of my favourite colourists. Never recognised in his own lifetime, he integrates violet into his moody palettes of the Australian landscape.
Still playing the power game
Today we are still seeing purple play it’s power game. The violet or purple necktie has featured among many political and business leaders. As the Pantone colour of the year dictates wearing the colour was intended to reflect the assertiveness and confidence of a red necktie with the sense of peace and cooperation of a blue necktie and so became the new corporate colour. In the late 90’s purple became the ‘new black’. It featured on everything from bus signs to stationery. For printing it is a nightmare because it is often made up using reflex blue which has one of the longest drying times due to the pigment. Depending on the surface of the paper, and the amount of coverage, some printers claim that Reflex Blue never really fully dries.
For the Aussies … Do you remember Perkins Paste?
Perkins Paste was an Australian brand of adhesive. Although not designed specifically for children, its quick drying, non-toxic formula made it safe for school use. The glue was sold commonly in small, 60-gram, fuchsia-coloured, cylindrical plastic tubs with white plastic lids that incorporated the flat, spatula-like applicator. The paste was a thick white solid paste, made from boiled potato dextrin.
Perkins Paste was owned and started by Maurice Bertram Jeffery, a commercial artist who found himself unemployed during the Great Depression. Production began in 1934 at Albion Street, Surry Hills, New South Wales and ceased during the 1980s. It became a cultural icon, akin to Vegemite or the Tim Tam biscuit. Many users of the product recall eating Perkins Paste during their primary school years. Difficult to authenticate that Jeffrey may have used the link of the famous Perkins Mauve and the purplish coloured bottle but it is not that much of a stretch of the imagination to believe he did.
The case of Cadbury purple
Chocolate brand ‘Cadbury’ has famously battled over its right to monopolise a particular shade of purple for chocolate products. Fiercely protective of its brand, the company has been using the distinct colour to package a range of products for over 100 years and argue the colour alone distinguishes its milk chocolate.
But the battles continue. Cadbury ended a 6 year battle over Australian confectioner Darrell Lea’s use of purple packaging in 2009 with an out of court settlement. In 2012 Cadbury, won a legal case to stop other chocolate firms using the colour – known as Pantone 2865c. But Swiss firm Nestle, the world’s biggest food company, won an appeal against that earlier ruling.
Cadbury’s parent Kraft (now Mondeléz) also hold the trademark for the lilac colour on its Milk products and has fought case in Poland and Argentina against other companies using the colour for their chocolate products.
Delicate dilemmas for decorators
While violet is said to radiate a sense of self confidence, power and forward thinking. It is definitely one of those trickier colours to decorate with. Already we are seeing the good, bad and ugly of violet entering our homes, walls and furniture. It’s a powerful colour. The trick is to go easy, or use it as a signature note.
Here’s just a few ideas out there from the gurus>
Not your average violet
One pigment I do love using is Mars Violet. It’s a bit of a purple brown in the tube, but it’s what happens when you add other colours or white to it that makes it magic. Often a ‘go to colour’ for figurative artists it turns a beutiful shade of mauve when you add white. Great for cooler areas of a figure, great for lip colours and is fabulous for creating rich shadows.
Mars Violet is a modern term given to the dark violet synthetic reds made during the early 20th century and up to today; but a natural version of this colour has been used since antiquity.
The clays that make this violet colour were always very rare compared to other natural iron oxides and it is not until Greco-Roman times that it is commonly seen in art. The Latin name for the colour was Caput Mortuum, which literally translates as ‘the head of the dead’ and probably refers to a belief that it is similar to the colour of blood in corpses. Despite this macabre name it has been a well-liked pigment whenever it has been available because it extends the range of earth colors into the violet range.
During the Renaissance and until the 20th century it was often included within all the dark reddish iron oxide colours that were darker than Venetian Red and was also called Indian red. The rarity of the deepest violet versions of the pigment were relegated to a very minor role in art until the 20th century, when their usage expanded as the synthetic versions came on the market. While it is still not used in as great a quantity as other red oxides it has a unique colour that proves very useful for artists.
A great colour for painting landscapes too. Ideal making dusky hues found flowers or evening moody landscapes Mixed with White and Ultramarine, it makes the perfect muted mauves to create naturalistic atmospheric colours. As violets are so common in nature. Mixing Mars Violet with Cobalt Blue gives creates deep royal purples. Warmer reddish violets can be made from mixing it with a soft pastel yellow such as Naples Yellow Light or with Permanent Light Violet. It lends itself very well to the warm shadows of the Australian landscapes and was expertly used by Hans Heysen in his landscapes and Albert Namatjira 1902–1959 in his watercolours.
Artwork with violet accents
As a contemporary painter, I also find violet one of the more challenging colours. The colours you partner it with can make our break the palette. Here’s some of my artworks integrating violet into the colour scheme.
Violet can be used in a playful way when combined with light, bright hues.
Violet is great for creating soft gentle cool tones in a landscape…
Violet complements warm tones beautifully, especially the glow of the Australian bush.
It’s works beautifully with still life shadows too.
And blends well with the new neutral palettes.
Violet the seducer
Based on it’s colourful history, it is evident that purple still has the power to seduce us. It will remain a colour symbolic of its culture. What it represents in our modern ages we will only understand upon reflection. With any luck it will be a colour reflective of an age that expands its horizons, an age that looks outward for what it can learn. May it be a colour that will represent a bright and positive future, driven by pioneers of hope, humility and innovation… fingers crossed.
Visual artist and art educator
Colour Warriors is a monthly blog, written and produced by Visual Artist and Arts Educator, Kristine Ballard on www.kristineballard.com
© Kristine Ballard 2022