Color me indigo

Brick red, cerulean, fuzzy wuzzy brown—these Crayola crayon names are only infants in a long history of color production. Color names originally described the material from which the color was made and its region, but in the early 1900s "the development of fanciful, descriptive names" led to a system of standardization, said Elizabeth Long, curator of Crerar’s Origin of Color exhibit. Wednesday's exhibit talk in the library's atrium drew more people than expected; as late guests walked in and curious onlookers stopped to listen, Crerar staff members grabbed chairs from nearby carrels to accommodate them all.

The earliest uses of color for artistic purposes dates to Paleolithic times, Long explained, "most just made from straight pigment." Digging up clay or minerals, grinding them to "a relatively fine state," and then adding a medium—gum arabic, for example, was used to create watercolors—produced the pigments. Because natural materials decayed quickly and tubed paints did not develop until 1841, early painters needed to process their own paints in the studio.

As opposed to pigment, which "sits on top of whatever surface you use," Long said, dye is soluable and "completely penetrates the thing you put it on." Indigo dye, named for the plant from which it was produced, originally went through a long and smelly process before it would permeate cloth. Dye makers dried out the plants, molded them into "things that looked like little rocks," Long explained, and then stirred them in a vat to oxidize—the color is insoluable unless it touches air. After the cloth was dipped multiple times and exposed to the air, the rich blue color emerged. Today nearly all indigo dye is produced synthetically; the most famous use of the color, Long said, is the "ubiquitous blue jean." Contrary to popular belief, she revealed, denim doesn't fade; rather, "the dye is only applied to the outside threads," which eventually wear away to the white core.

Synthetic colors developed in the 19th century, when chemist William Perkin, attempting to cure malaria, discovered that chemicals derived from coal tar created a light-purple color, which he called "mauve." Mauve's earlier counterpart, Tyrian purple, was rare and expensive to produce, Long said. Made from the shellfish secretions, the dye required 12,000 mollusks to produce one gram. Purple was considered the color of royalty—a conception echoed in 1858 when Queen Victoria wore a mauve dress to her daughter's wedding. Because of its easy production and availability to the masses, Long said, the color then became "all the rage."

Origins of Color runs through October.

Ruthie Kott

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Photos (left to right): Two guests explore collections of natural and synthetic colors; Curator Elisabeth Long shares the secrets of medieval dye works; processed plants and minerals on display.

May 25, 2007