The Color Purple

I’m sorry to disappoint, but my inaugural column article is not going to be about Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, nor will it be about the star-studded film directed by Stephen Spielberg. Instead, it’ll be, quite literally, about the color purple.

My first series of columns will be about color and color theory. Colors are responsible for everything cool. Yeah, I said it, colors are siiiiiick. Imagine a world without color. I mean, it wasn’t until around the early 20th century that we had photographs and motion picture that didn’t need filters or hand painting—and even then, they were experimental. But the 40’s ushered in a new era, with The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind releasing in full color motion picture and with it, brought a whole new wave of emotion and meaning film didn’t have before. It was like when Jonas first sees a red apple in The Giver, and realized nothing was ever going to be the same. Because, well, nothing ever was the same.

Photo via Science Learning Hub’s “Colours of Light”

The understanding of colors as we know it today can be attributed to none other than the father of physics himself, Sir Isaac Newton. He discovered colors in light through a tool we may be familiar with as one of the most iconic album covers of all time. White light consists of the whole spectrum of colors. The prism that sits on the cover of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon shows light refracted into the spectrum we know to be the colors of the rainbow. Light is a spectrum made up of electromagnetic rays, with visible light occupying a sliver of that spectrum. Color in light consists of different wavelengths that the light is packaged in. Objects with color contain different pigments, which light bounces off and reflect the color that we see.

Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon (1973) album art

Primary colors—red, yellow, and blue—are the prime numbers of the art world, where every other color is made up of some combination of the three primary colors, but no colors can be mixed to produce them. The human eye perceives light with rods and cones. Cones are responsible for the perception of color in humans. Humans are a trichromatic species, which means the cones in our eyes are classified into three types, which are receptive to red, green, and blue. But this doesn’t limit us to seeing only those three colors. Colors have a plethora of shades that we recognize and the amount of colors that exists, is infinite. Let me explain. Our eyes can see about 1000 shades on the light-dark spectrum, about 100 shades on the red-green spectrum, and about 100 shades on the yellow-blue spectrum; that comes out to about 10 million colors. However, color is subjective because it is perceived differently by everyone’s cones, in different conditions. If you multiply that by the number of people on Earth, that comes up to just short of infinity.

Colors are the building blocks to art. Whether visual, fine, or even performance art, colors, or even the absence of, play a role in eliciting feeling or emotion. Different colors elicit different emotions or moods, and great artists utilize colors to evoke emotions through a canvas. I’m going to start with purple, one of my favorite colors.

Galicia to Morocco, Mediterranean. Original taxon: Murex brandaris
25-30m deep, in nets, Cassis, Provence, S. France. 92mm.


Purple is a color in between the primary colors blue and red. The first purple, however, was not a mixture of the two. Don’t tell PETA, but the first purple, Tyrian purple, was derived from a species of shellfish formerly known as Bolinus brandaris. It was first developed by the Phoenician city of Tyre in the Bronze Age. If you look at the shells, you would not see any purple in them; the pigment, instead, was a product of their stress or agitation. In fact, the liquid released as a defense mechanism was yellow until it reacted with the oxygen in the air, which in turn made it appear purple.

The process that enabled the extraction of this color almost drove the snail extinct. It took nearly 10,000 snails to produce one gram of dye. Naturally, the arduous process meant that purple clothing was reserved for the wealthy and because of this, purple is usually associated with royalty, power, luxury, and nobility. It was a purple robe that the Romans put on Jesus before he was crucified, to mock him as the King.

The color purple itself in art has many applications: dark purple evokes frustration and sadness; in Thailand, a widow wears purple when mourning her husband’s death; light purple evokes a serene, nostalgic feeling; amethyst is considered sacred in Tibetan culture and is used to adorn the Buddha, and rosaries are often fashioned from it.

It is also associated with courage, creativity, and wisdom. In the military, the Purple Heart is a distinguished medal awarded to members that have been killed or wounded in battle. Purple robes are worn by Catholic priests before performing Reconciliation. Perhaps the most famous of the purple donning royalty was Prince, whose moniker was centered around the color, with one of his most songs being “Purple Rain.”

Too often, we take colors for granted. Colors make us feel, and we should all take a moment to savor the next sunset we see, or painting, or even ad on a billboard. Effective designers use colors as an extension of themselves, conjuring moods through their use. What’s amazing is when you start to understand that these colors aren’t random, but are intentional. Next time purple shows up in an ad or art piece, take a second and try to read between the lines.


JORDAN CHAN | Amateur Art Historian | KXSU Arts Reporter

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