Browse by color

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Browse pigments by color family to learn the history of how some color families (like the browns) have been used for millenia, while other color families were more rare because they were either impossible to paint before modern chemistry (like purples) or were very expensive.

Choose a color family:

What is color?

Color is recognized as such through our sense of sight, much like a scent is identified through our sense of smell. For example, when our noses detect a chocolate scent or a strawberry scent, many different molecules form the combination that the nerve cells in our noses identify as either “chocolate” or “strawberry." Similarly, many combinations of wavelengths form colors. (Read more about how our minds see color.) The nerve cells in our eyes interpret all combinations of light as being red-or-green, and yellow-or-blue. These are the four primary colors for the mind. Among the combinations of these 4 primaries, we perceive a lot of variation between yellow and red (the oranges) and between blue and red (the purples). If the intensity of the wavelengths is more similar, then we percieve neutrals. Lots of light yields whites, and very little light the blacks. In the natural world, there are a lot of neutral tones based on browns because of the abundant iron in the earth, and so we also include a family of browns above.

Painters didn’t always have pigments for each color. In fact, the historical choice of primary colors was limited by the availability of suitable pigments, which until the late 19th century was lacking in vivid greens or purples. In lieu of bright greens and purples, pigment mixtures (for example, mixing blue and yellow) have been used since ancient Greece in order to get closer to a specific hue.