Colouring derived from cochineal beetles had been used in Starbucks strawberry frappuccinos © Getty Images
Colouring derived from cochineal beetles had been used in Starbucks strawberry frappuccinos © Getty Images

Show your true colours

22 February 2019

Before you source your latest brand colours, spare a thought for their provenance.

Colours are so ubiquitous that we take them for granted. We shouldn’t. The supply chains behind the colours in our lives are complex, surprising and sometimes controversial. Throughout history, the process of keeping our world colourful has involved, among other things, crushed insects, ancient body parts and fatal amounts of arsenic…

Cochineal red
The easiest way to make a pound of really strong bright red dye is to dry 70,000 female bugs, crush them and fix the resulting juice with a mordant such as alum. The insects – from the dactylopius coccus species – are about as small as a seed and usually found on prickly pear cacti in Latin America. Their use in colouring food, drink and lipstick has been controversial: in 2012, after protests, Starbucks stopped using cochineal  as the colouring in strawberry frappuccinos. Campari had stopped using it six years earlier blaming “uncertainty of supply.” Yet many manufacturers still rely on cochineal – or carmine – because synthetic alternatives tend to come from petroleum by-products.

Han purple
In 1856, teenage scientist William H Perkin accidentally discovered how to make synthetic dyes. A failed lab experiment left him with beakers of sludge which, when cleaned with alcohol, turned a bright, fuchsia purple. This discovery revolutionised fashion by making dyed colours accessible to the masses. Bizarrely, Chinese glassmakers had made the same discovery more than 2,500 years before, probably creating a synthetic purple while trying to make artificial jade. (The glass and the purple pigment both contain barium and sand.) If you expose Han purple to extreme cold and a strong magnetic field, it ‘loses’ its vertical dimension and becomes two-dimensional, a trait that could aid the development of quantum computing.

Baker-Miller pink
Fifteen minutes. That’s all it took for violent drunks to calm down in a pink US Navy prison cell. The colour, known as Baker-Miller pink after the naval officers who authorised the experiment in 1979, eliminated violent behaviour in the critical early moments of confinement. The evidence pink is calming remains inconclusive but the suggestion it suppresses appetite inspired Kendall Jenner, Kim Kardashian’s half-sister, to paint her dining room that colour. If this works, the evidence will surely be shared on Instagram. And if social media causes a spike in demand for the colour, it won’t be too hard to source – the recipe simply specifies a gallon of pure white paint be mixed with a pint of red.


Black 3.0
Five years ago, British industrial equipment supplier Surrey NanoSystems developed Vantablack, the blackest black ever recorded, which absorbed 99.96% of visible light. Painters’ anticipation turned to anger when Anish Kapoor was granted exclusive rights to use the new black for artistic purposes. In response, British artist Stuart Semple crowdsourced Black 2.0, the world’s mattest, blackest acrylic paint, available to everyone but Kapoor. The latest version, Black 3.0, absorbs 98–99% of visible light. Getting hold of the colour is easy (provided you’re not Anish Kapoor) and artists have been invited to “back the black” by visiting Starting at £25 it will ship to “anywhere in the world” from May 2019.

Scheele’s green
Napoleon was 51 when he died in exile on St Helena. In a letter weeks before his death, he claimed: “I die before my time, murdered by the English oligarchy and its assassin.” One of three key suspects in his ‘murder’ was the arsenic in the wallpaper in his bedroom (the others being the man who ran the emperor’s household, and incompetent doctors). Hundreds of deaths were caused by the arsenic present in 80% of 19th-century wallpapers, with the vivid shade Scheele’s green particularly lethal. Swedish inventor Carl Scheele, who sniffed everything he created, was found dead, at 43, in a cloud of toxic chemicals. Green remains an unstable colour for printing, and some shades still contain chlorine and other noxious chemicals. 

Smiley yellow
In the early 1960s, American commercial artist Harvey Ross Ball designed a yellow smiley face, with one eye bigger than the other, to raise staff morale at an insurance firm. He never copyrighted his creation, but Bernard and Murray Spain, who owned Hallmark Cards in Philadelphia, did, after adding the phrase “Have a happy day”. They sold more than 50m buttons by the end of 1972. The simplicity of Ball’s design – a yellow field with three marks on it – makes it incredibly adaptable. In 1988, London acid house club Shoom incorporated the smiley into its logo. Keep an eye on prices, as demand is likely to soar now that Canadian chart topper Justin Bieber has launched his own smiley face fashion range.

Apple grey
In 1976, at Steve Jobs’ behest, Apple acquired a new rainbow logo shaped like an apple with a bite taken out of it. Jobs revered The Beatles and the distinctive logo recalled the vivid colours on the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover. Ensuring colour consistency in every application was challenging and when Jobs returned in 1997, he retained the shape but changed the colours to white, black and metallic grey so the logo could be displayed on Apple products. The minimalist monochrome scheme, reminiscent of the cover of The Beatles’ White Album, became so popular that white and grey became favourite car colours, a phenomenon many automotive insiders grudgingly call the “Apple effect”.

Ultramarine blue
The blue headscarf in the painting Girl With A Pearl Earring still zings out more than 350 years after it was painted. Yet the ultramarine blue pigment Vermeer used was more expensive than gold and mired his family in debt. Made from lapis lazuli, a semi-precious gem then found only in remote Afghanistan, ultramarine (Latin for “beyond the sea”) blue became the default colour of the Virgin Mary’s cloak. Many patrons’ contracts specified how much of it an artist would use. The supply chain from Afghanistan via the Ottoman Empire to Venice meant the pigment was most readily available in Italy, which in 1824 inspired the French to invent a synthetic alternative.

Mummy brown

“We might have a few odd limbs lying around somewhere,” Geoffrey Roberson-Park, the MD of London colour-maker C Roberson, noted in 1964, “but not enough to make any more paint.” This marked the demise of one of art’s most gruesome supply chains. The pigment was named ‘Mummy brown’ because it was made from ground-up remains of mummies, bought in Egypt for a pittance. The trade was so lucrative in the 1560s that merchants treated the fresh corpses of slaves and criminals with bitumen and left them in the sun to blacken. The colour was notoriously unreliable and this, as much as the supply difficulties, made its popularity wane. Today’s version is a natural mix of minerals.

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