Haystacks at Giverny, Claude Monet, 1884. Wikiart.org
In case you haven’t already heard, the Pantone Color of the Year for 2018 is Ultra Violet. The Pantone Color Institute says it “communicates originality, ingenuity, and visionary thinking that points us toward the future.” However true this may or may not be, the violet range of colors has a long and interesting history-one that may give us other reasons to worship the color for the next twelve months.
The insanity of violet
In 1874 when a band of outcast artists known as the Impressionists began their crusade against the norm, one commonly voiced criticism was their preoccupation with the color violet. In the recently published book by Kassia St. Clair, The Secret Lives of Color, she wrote “Many concluded that the artists were, to a man, completely mad, or at the very least suffering from a hitherto unknown disease, which they dubbed ‘violettomania’.” The Impressionists believed that because the complementary color to sunlight yellow was violet, it made sense that the shade and shadows in their paintings should be made up of violets.
Red and blue do not make violet
In kindergarten, we learned to mix colors. To make violet, we took the red and blue paint and mixed them in degrees to get the purple/violet we wanted. However, as described in The Secret Language of Color, by Joann and Arielle Eckstut, “Violet is a spectral color unto itself-a wavelength in the form of visible light-and the shortest wavelength visible to humans.” As we can see on the Spectral Power Distribution chart below, violet is on the opposite end from red, which is the color with the longest wavelength. Ergo, red and blue do not make violet.
Tyrian purple – a recipe for the wealthy
There’s a reason why purple was considered a color for royalty only. Tyrian or “royal” purple was first produced in approximately 1600 BC. “Nature did not provide an easy means of dying fabric purple. Historically, the production of the dye was one of the most noxious, laborious, time-consuming and expensive processes around.” (Eckstut) For this reason, only the very wealthy could afford it. In 60 AD, the recipe for Tyrian Purple (which used thousands of mollusks) became public knowledge. Emperor Nero decided only he could wear it, the crime for anyone else wearing violet was punishable by death. The recipe was lost in 1453 AD and discovered two decades later when royalty and the elite once again wore violet.
Pantone has conveniently supplied links to a plethora of violet things on Amazon. Emperor Nero’s head would spin if he knew anyone in the world could buy violet-and get it in two days with Amazon Prime!