One of the more recent trips I took was to St. Petersburg, Florida for the Historical Novel Society‘s yearly conference. The fact that it was held in June kept me inside the hotel 95% of the time, due to the humidity and heat. When I did step out of the hotel to take a few pictures, my camera immediately fogged up and it was almost a week before it worked correctly. (note to self: keep camera in a plastic bag when traveling to such destinations in the future!).
The most interesting session I attended at the conference was Colour in Historical Novels by British member Jay Dixon. Below, I’ve jotted down some notes from the session, and at the end I included some interesting links if you wish to explore further. Dixon opened the session by saying that she entered an Italian restaurant on a rainy English day and the site of the ochre-colored paintings transported her back to Rome, where she lived for some time. Color, she asserted, can be very evocative of a place. Some examples:
- Rome – ochre or gray stone
- London – gray skies; green grass
- Greece – blue skies; white clouds
Authors should keep in mind the following facts about color:
- Mauve – first named 1856 – before that it did not exist
- Purple – a royal color, called such because in antiquity the purple dye was so expensive that only royalty could afford it.
- Scarlet – connected to the Catholic Church (or a disgraced woman – The Scarlet Letter)
- White – never used for weddings until the reign of Queen Victoria; women simply wore their best dresses.
- Black – Puritans (although they only wore this color when they went to have their pictures taken; ie when they were in their “good” clothes. Most times they dressed like everyone else at that time. Little black dress – came about in the 1920s; before that black was worn for mourning.
- Green – color for wallpaper; it was dangerous because the process that created it involved arsenic, which poisoned people.
- Indigo – it was produced in India; it also grew wild in America. In addition to its beautiful color, it repelled mosquitoes, which was important in preventing disease.
- Red (synthetic) – did not become available until the mid-1870s. Before that, red would have consisted of russets and orange-reds – natural colors. Why did armies use red in uniforms? To disguise blood.
- Blue – true blue came from lapis lazuli, and is a pale color. Rich blue became synonymous with wealth in the 1400s. Early blues had more gray and violet. Clear blue signified divinity.
In the past you would not be surrounded by today’s vibrant colors – colors would look drab to us because the majority of the people only had access to natural colors. The wealthy, however, wore purer colors. For example, the Greeks only had natural colors: black, white, ochre, brown, and red. Where did the “wine-dark sea” of Homer come from? The color of red wine at the time.
The symbolism of color has been different depending on the culture and time period.
- To the Aztecs’ blue turquoise signified fire; while green turquoise signified fertility.
- Pseudo Dionysus of the early Middle Ages equated darkness with God, not light.
- In Europe, turquoise and sapphire equaled good luck.
- In 14th century Europe colors had religious meanings: gold (God, the Father), scarlet (Jesus’s blood), green (the Holy Spirit). White represented faith, red clarity, and green hope.
- In the Middle Ages the four horsemen of the Apocalypse were equated with colors:
- White – illness or Pestilence
- Red – war
- Pale Green – death (the color of a corpse)
- Black – famine
- In the Red Badge of Courage, author Stephen Crane used color at the end of each chapter to symbolize different things: red – blood; yellow – vivacity and excitement; blue – how the soldiers saw one another. Therefore, the reader was left with the vivid afterimage of color.
- By 1918 the color red became associated with blood and death because of World War I.
- Today, we consider red and green a strong juxtaposition of colors. In the Middle Ages, yellow and green were considered strong colors playing off one another.
And, a couple of notes about fashion:
- In the 1780s, in Europe, it was fashionable to wear an indigo coat and yellow trousers, as evidenced by The Sorrows of Young Werther.
- In the 1880s the aristocracy considered yellow a vulgar color.
One of the more interesting things Dixon spoke about was the medical condition Synesthesia, in which one can actually taste different colors. I had never heard of it, but this article by NPR talks a bit about it, as does this editorial and the associated TED video. Most of us have heard of Color Blindness, a genetic condition that occurs more frequently in men than women, and usually affects perception of the colors red and green. However, it can also affect blue-yellow color vision. It can even result in an absence of color vision entirely. The NOAA’s National Weather Service website includes an interesting visual simulation of the different color blind conditions:
- Jay Dixon handed out a document on the color wheel, primary colors, and other color related information: Colour by Jay Dixon (right click and choose “save link as” to download).
- The Web Exhibit site called Pigments through the Ages provides a wealth of information on colors, including their history, how colors were made and used, and, especially for historical writers, an easy to read chart about color through the ages. In addition, Causes of Color and Color Vision and Art are but two of the informative exhibits at the same site: http://www.webexhibits.org/ (where you can also find out about the history of butter … bet you didn’t know you were curious about that, did you?)