The Landscape of Colour


“The difference between what we see and we know it is never settled”

Today, the colours of the clothes we wear, the shades of the objects we touch, the hues of the linen we sleep in at night are not casual but dictated by 27 women and one men sitting around a table. Behind our everyday choices of colour there is an invisible architecture.

Colours, as we know, are beautiful and ambiguous. Manipulated by nature’s vanity and egocentrism they reflect the eternal fight between celebration and destruction, between physics and symbols.
Hence, the study of colour is a vast and complicated realm that has influenced our life and territories since the beginning of time. We, as humans, are one of the less coloured species in the world, yet we are able to see the largest spectrum. Our lack in natural “extravaganza” has been counterpoised with an endless research in paint and dyestuff.

In the stone-age, like in the animal world, colour, extracted from soil and stones, would make one either more appealing or strong, it would attract attention or scare enemies. Yet it was the manifestation of the “mother land”, space of affiliation.

Even though pigments, the base for any shades, can be extracted from almost anything on earth, just a small amount of the natural pigments are able to resist and shine in our clothes. The techniques of dye making were often associated to magic and their secrets procedures were guarded jealously. The mystery of a dye lied in the blurred threshold between alchemy and witchcraft.


Surrounded by a mystery halo, expensive coloured fabrics defined social classes. In ancient Rome only the Emperor could wear the famous Tyran Red toga tinted from the secretion of the sea snail off the Phoenicia coast, that nevertheless means “land of purple”. New routes of commerce were opened to obtain the luxurious colours from the East. Consequentially new cities were built under the Byzantine control to allow for the commerce of the colour so precious to the emperor, roads were paved and colonies conquered.


If purple was the colour of power, Indigo blue, was that of sanctity, reserved to paint, for example, the veil of the Virgin Mary. Extracted from Indigofera Tinctoria the technique was originated in India, from where it takes its name. Since the discovery in the 15th century of the sea routes from Europe to India, the price of the dye rapidly lowered. This caused the crash of the European woad production, a composite similar to indigo but less intense but, because of the territorial proximity more cheap. France and Germany banned the import of Indigo, trying to save their cultivations, but unsuccessfully. In the following two centuries the production of woad was completely abandoned leaving behind hectares of unfertile lands, damaged by the blue plant itself. Otherwise by 1897 more than 19’000 tons of indigo were produced only in India, where the plantation were covering an area of 7’000 sqm, four times the size of Luxemburg, all owned by the East India Company.

Colour had and has, indeed, shaped the world we live in. Dyes are maps of a forgotten landscape, which is created between the fibres of cotton where different cultures and places are linked by an invisible tread.
Today, to produce naturally the amount of Indigo we consume, almost all the arable inches of land would be covered by indigo plantation.


Luckily, or not, in 1856 William Perkin created the first synthetic dye, Mauve. Since then more than 8 thousands compounds have been created with more than 40 thousands commercial names.
The Earth is becoming the colour of the fashion trends, which are decided by those 27 women and one man. These people are ‘colour forecasters’ and their job is to create colour stories, which will represent the trends in two years’ time. Again economic and social studies are counter balanced by a sort of magical premonition. Colour Marketing Group and Intercolour are the two most important associations. They meet up twice a year to choose from more than 600 hues the lucky 42 that will compose the palette to be sold to designers, fashion houses, factory and thousands more.

On top of achieving bright and long-lasting shades, the advance in technology has initiated the pollution of both the rivers of India and China where more than 60% of dyeing factories are located.

Coloured fabrics have become the silent maps of destruction. Dying has become the biggest polluting industry worldwide. All these hues have become a huge adversity on all forms of life. Yet, twenty-eight people dictate this massive worldwide production. Colours are powerful, behind them lays a planetary-scaled infrastructure that begins on a table of the colour forecaster and it ends in the vast polluted rivers of India. Colour must be understood as a landscape, it designs our land and colour forecasters are holding the pencil.




Further Readings:

David Bachelor, Chromophobia, (London: Reaktion Books), 2000
David Bachelor, edited by, Colour, (Cambridge: The MIT Press), 2008
Jenny Balfour-Paul, Indigo, (London: The British Museum), 1998
Philip Ball, Bright Earth: the Invention of Colour, (London:Vintage) 2008
Francois Delmare and Bernard Guineau, Colour: making and using dyes and pigments, (London: Thames and Hudsons) 2000
Joan Eckstut, Arielle Eckstut, The secret language of colour, (New York, Black Dog & Leventhal Publisher), 2013
Catherine Legrand, Indigo: The colour that changed the world, (London:Thames and Hudsons) 2012

River Blue Documentary, directed by David McIlvride,, 2015
Watermark, directed by Edward Burtinsky,, 2014
Whose Utopia, directed by Cao Fei, 2006,
Blue Alchemy Documentary: Stories Of Indigo, directed by Mary Lance, 2011


Article by Carolina Gismondi