Color Hisotry Moment: Tyrian Purple

Do you ever wonder why purple is the color of royalty?  Its a tradition that stems all the way back to 1570 BC when the ancient Phoneticians discovered that snails could be used to create a purple hued dye which became known as Tyrian purple.  The color has also been called tyrian red, royal purple, imperial purple or imperial dye. The dye was so important to the empire that their very name, Phonetician, meant "land of the blood-red" a reference to one of the many shades of tyrian.

An image of the powdered dye and cloth that has been dyed with it.


The dye itself was very difficult to manufacture due to the high quantity of rock snails needed to produce the dye--around 60,000 snails were required to manufacture one pound of dye.  Different species of rock snails would yield different shades of purple dye ranging from red to purple.  The most prized of these was what was known as a "deep blackish blood color" which modern color theorists have guessed was the deep purple hue that in modern times we've come to associate with the royal purple hue.

Murex (tyrian purple) dye leaking out of a rock snail on the beach.


The difficulty in producing the dye made it very expensive and as such was at its inception, limited to use by the very wealthy.  The 4th century historian Theopompus (c. 380 BC – c. 315 BC) once wrote that Tyrian purple would "fetch its weight in silver."  Because of its preciousness it became subject to something known as sumptuary laws, which were laws that restricted luxury or extravagance.  These laws were said to keep people from "over-spending" but in reality they were a way for the upper-class to keep certain items to themselves.  A poor person, even one who had saved up the money to buy a garment dyed with Tyrian purple, would not be allowed to do so.  As the color became more prized, it became more strongly controlled until in Byzantium it because the exclusive color of the monarchy.

The fascinating thing about this particular dye was that is was sun-reactive.  Rather than fading, it would deepen and intensify in color the more it was exposed to sun.  Because of this, items dyed tyrian purple are very well preserved and don't disintegrate from sun exposure the way other dyes do. 

A fragment of the burial shroud of the Emperor of Charlemagne; dyed using gold and purple.  The tyrian purple dye is still quite strong despite having been created in 800 BC. 

The use of the dye spread into the Roman empire as well and was considered a favorite color for ceremonial robes--which is where we first start seeing the deep reddish hue being used in religious rites.  A practice which began in the pagan religions but eventually carried over to Christianity; cardinals originally wore tyrian Red and not what we think of cardinal Red.

An image showing the Emperor Charlemagne's coronation by the Pope in 800: His robes were the deep tyrian purple, while the Cardinal's robes are tryian Red.

The color fell out of favor in 1204 when Constantinople was sacked and the empire lost the ability to manufacture and distribute the color. The discovery of a tablet containing the recipe led to repeated attempts to recreate the dye but it wasn't until the mid=1900's that archeologists put together accounts of the "smell of rotting fish" that was recorded as the hallmark of the those that made the dye, with the recipe that had been discovered and realized that for the process to work the snails first needed to be allowed to rot to intensify the color.  

This Cuneiform tablet is the only recorded recipe for tyrian dye.

Modern tyrian purple fermentation bath which allows the dye to intensify and seals the horrible smell in.

Once the formulation for the dye was figured out, it started being used again by textile artists for the dying of fibers. 

The color has seen something of a renaissance in the last few years--I believe in part to Game of Thrones, a book/tv series which has a primary character named Tyrian.  I've found the name fitting since he is both of the monarchy and a dwarf, so the purple/snail reference is spot on. 

Tyrian purple's hex code normally falls around #66023.

Image courtesy of

But as I said previously, it can fall within a large range of reds and purples and will intensify as it is exposed to sunlight.

Image courtesy of

People often are surprised when they see tyrian purple in real life, as its much redder than we've come to think of most purples.  What about you?  Is this the color you imagine it to be, or does your brain conjure something completely different?

Synesthesia: Part Two

When people find out that I have synesthesia the first question I get asked is: what is it like living with synesthesia?  I try to answer the best I can but the truth is I have no idea how to truly convey what its like for me any better than a person without synesthesia would be able to relate their "normal" experience of the world.  But I'm going to try my best to relate to you now a little more about what its like for me inside my sensory experiences.


The first type of synesthesia I remember actively having is the gender type, as I related in my story in last weeks post.  My experience with things having gender is really not that foreign for anyone who has ever spoken a romance language since objects have gender in those languages.  The big difference for me is that while everything has gender its not divided by category.  In other words, some chairs are boys and some are girls. 

A female chair

A male chair

A male chair

I've never been able to pinpoint what it is about objects that makes me see one gender or the other and I've never experienced something that is gender-neutral.  That's not to say that such a concept doesn't exist, its just not my experience of the world.  I can tell you that the gender I see has nothing to do with stereotypes of masculine and feminine.  In fact those are ideas I've struggled a great deal with--since some things that are "girly" read as masculine to me and some things that are "for boys" read as female to me.  It also has absolutely nothing to do with sex or sexual orientation.  In my mind gender is just another piece of information the brain processes to help me sort "this is not that" and because I've lived with it for so long its more like background noise than anything.  Imagine walking through a parking lot full of automobiles: you wouldn't think "4 door, 2 door, sport, truck..." for everything you walked past, unless you needed to differentiate for some reason.  The information is there, you just don't focus on it until its needed. That's what gender is like for me.  

Mirror Empathy

Your mind to my mind, your thoughts to my thoughts...

I probably should've started with this one, since as I mentioned in my previous post, this form of synesthesia seems to be the one common type that all syntesthetics share.  I can honestly say that I cannot remember a time in my life when I didn't know what other people were feeling simply by entering the room.  I can feel a mood like a tingling on my skin, neck or back and I find myself physically flinching when I know something doesn't feel good to another person or animal.  Like most synesthetics I didn't even know this was odd until I was in college and participated in a study. When asked about it I was at first confused; it never occurred to me that I couldn't deal with violent images because of synesthesia or that other people can't feel how others feel just by looking at them.  I'd never questioned why I found people so exhausting and needed a lot of alone time to recharge every day but once I figured out what was happening a great many things came into focus for me.

During the study I participated in they showed me a short film with violent images. I didn't even make it to 15 seconds before I had to shut my eyes and my muscles were twitching in sympathy with the areas being assaulted on the film. My brain was flooded with chemicals and lighting up like it was happening to me.  I've always had issues with feeling physically sick when confronted with violence but I just thought I was sensitive. It also explained to me the reason I struggle with things that are "awkward humor" in films or TV because instead of being funny to me, I feel horribly uncomfortable and embarrassed because its like its happening to me.  

I'm great with people because I always know where they're at emotionally, because I can feel it.  But I struggle with it at the same time because there is this constant emotional yo-yo happening in my brain between the reactions I experience that are mine and those that are others.  As I've aged I've become less emotionally expressive to compensate.  The more I became aware that not all of my feelings were my own (or that I could be swayed by the emotions of others) the more distance I've learned to put between myself and my feelings--especially at work.  While its helped me to survive with my sanity intact, people often tease me about being a vulcan, so detached and logical. I guess its fair assessment, since vulcans turned to logic as a way to control all the chaos that their strong emotions produced.  But no matter how much I meditate and am self-aware it doesn't change the fact that I need a good deal of alone time so that I can take a break from the roller coaster of other people's emotions.  

Sound & Color

From the first moment I began making art I had a very strong color sense and can remember knowing that colors sounded right together.  It wasn't until I was a little older and would occasionally slip-up in describing colors that worked together (ie, "these colors sound nice together") that a teacher became concerned I was learning disabledand sent me to the school psychometrist.  It was she who finally gave me a name for what had been happening to me my whole life.  While it was helpful to put a label on how I was different, I still worked very hard to mask it through much of my childhood.  I developed coping mechanisms; namely wearing headphones a lot.  If I can control the sound, or if its predicable in a way that I can anticipate I can push the stimuli to the back of my mind.  But its harder when I'm tired, or there's a lot of random noises around.  I work in an open concept office and there are days when the sounds become so overwhelming--imagine a constant changing flashing, strobe light going off in front of your eyes--and I get a lot of headaches.  On a well rested day I can make it so I don't even really see the colors.  My brain shuttles it to the background.  But if I'm stressed or tired, my ability to filter goes away. I listen to a lot of music that is minimalist in style because the tonal changes are subtle, which means I get a lot of the same color for longer stretches of time which is more restful and can help me combat the over stimulation. I also wear and surround myself with a lot of gray.  The gray mutes the sound for me--so that its softer and not as demanding which helps to ease the stress created by loud colors/sounds.

It's not all bad however.  There are times when it is unbelievably beautiful.  The first time I stood in front of a Kandinsky painting, I cried.  He was also synesthetic and the piece sounds like a beautifully sad chorus.  Interestingly enough, as I was standing in the MoMA looking at this piece and weeping a guard came over, looked at me, looked at it and then said "Synesthetic huh?"  I must of looked really started because he smiled and informed me "We get them in a lot, crying over this painting."  And then he just shook his head and smiled.  What fascinates me is that I've learned there's no 1-1 translation of colors and sounds.  No two synesthetics will hear the same types of sounds with colors.  But we all are in agreement with what sounds good and what sounds bad; but where I hear a chorus, others would hear brass or strings.  Where I hear a-sharp others would hear while the sounds are not universal the ability to please or displease appears to be.  The scientists in the study found it quite baffling and have as far as I know, not come up with a plausible explanation.  But regardless of what we hear, many of us stand before that painting in the MoMA and cry.

There are times that the world is such an amazing experience for me; in the fall when the world is quiet and the leaves change I hear Prokofiev sounds and in the winter when the snow falls its Mahler 4.  I think as I've aged I've taken the sounds I hear and associated them further with music that mimics the pitches I hear when I look at color.  I'm including the painting I saw at the MoMA and a link to music that is close to the sounds I hear when I listen to the painting.  If you can, I would encourage you not to look at the video and instead listen to it and look at the should be able to open the painting up in a lightbox for a closer look while you listen.

Panel for Edwin R. Campbell No. 4



Out of all of my forms of synesthesia this one is the simplest and probably the most fun.  All letters and numbers have personalities to me. 1-10 are the strongest out of the numbers for me when it comes to personalities.  5 is the number of perfection for me--it is actually a him and it has the best of all of the qualities in it; fair-minded, fun loving, diligent and a bit of comic-book nerd.  4 is a girl, the mean jealous type who resents both 3 and 5 and desperately wants to be in the cool kids clique of 7-8-9.  10 is lonely and a little sad, sort of the outsider of the group.  I won't bore you with all of them, this is just a sampling of what its like for me when I see numbers or letters, its like seeing a person for me.  Again, like the color/sound, I don't remember when it started, it was just sort of there for as long as I can remember but my guess would be that it started when I began learning about letters and numbers. 

Number Form

This one is the most interesting to me--I had been told by the researchers in the study I was in that it was possible I would develop other types of synesthesia as I aged.  They warned me that since my brain is predisposed to connecting information that was useful, it might do so again.  Its not that I didn't believe them, its just I couldn't really imagine it. 

Fast forward a few years and my best friend in graduate school is also a synesthetic.  She has number form--which is where ideas and time take on physical location qualities.  For her, theories would have specific spots they belonged in and these spots existed in three dimensional space, a fact I found fascinating.  For a while I would find myself thinking, "if this theory had a space where would I put it?" to see if I could visualize how she saw ideas.  It never really clicked with me, but I did realize that time however, was a natural fit to this idea.  Days, weeks, months, years, these I could easily visualize in a continuum.   I discovered that I could remember dates/events easier if I placed them in a visual continuum but it was all very conscious and in my imagination.  The more I did it, the more habitual it became to imagine time like this.

Then one night about a year later I was fixing a snack and my husband asked me a question about my availability on a day and there was this rushing whoosh as the blocks of time stretched out before me in three dimensional space and color coded.  I was so started I dropped the plate on the floor and jumped.  Looking back on it now, I can see how I imagined time was slowly leading me to this point and I saw the subtle shifts in how I was coding time--like blocks that had more events becoming taller, days taking on color codes, etc.  I just couldn't see what was happening to me until it was done.  As the doctors had warned me, my brain flipped another switch on when it was helpful.

Color Touch

After my shocking experience with number form suddenly appearing, I've been more cognizant of myself and how I'm pushing my senses.  Since I was moved into an open concept work space I spend more time with my headphones on than I previously did.  Its given me some problems because as I'm prepping color theory work, I cannot hear the colors over the music in my ears.  But the ambient noise is also disruptive if I take off the headphones to try and hear the colors.  I realized a few months back that I'd started reaching out to the color to see if I could feel its vibrations on my skin.  I must've done it 15 or so times before I realized consciously that I was attempting to forge a new connection.  Its spotty; sometimes I feel the color sometimes I don't.  But I do think that its coming and that at some point in the near future I'll have a secondary way to tell what colors work together based off of the feelings I get and not just the sounds.  I'm finding myself reaching out without conscious thought to feel and to hear both.  I'm curious to see how this evolves and how long it will take to fully form.  But knowing its coming now, means it won't be so jarring when the switch is fully flipped.


I hope this helps all of you understand, at least a little, what my sensory experience is like.  Please, feel free to ask any questions you have.  As I said in part one, I'm really hoping to spread awareness of synesthesia so that others with it will know what is happening and be aware that there are others that live in a very similar world. 

For more information please check out the American Synesthesia Association.

Color History Moment: Paynes Grey

Anyone who knows me, knows I have a deep obsession with the color grey. It took me years to figure out that gray mutes my Synesthesia  so that the sounds I hear are less intense.  So I find colors on the less saturated end to the spectrum more relaxing.  Its why the majority of my clothes are grey.  It might seem odd for an artist to wear what many see as a drab color, but there are so many shades of grey--each unique in their own way that I find them fascinating and underrated.  

So for my first in a series on the history of pigments, I thought it appropriate to start with one of the most revolutionary colors; Paynes Grey. 


A swatch of paynes gray watercolor paint showing the color variations available. 

Paynes Grey is named after the color's inventor: William Payne.  He was born in London in 1760 and was a watercolor artist.  While the exact date of the invention of the color is not known, the best guesstimate we have is the early 1800's, since there is evidence of his using the color in paintings exhibited after then.  

Untitled river scene by William Payne that utilizes Paynes Grey.

When discussing grey, most color theory students often assume that creating the color is a simple matter of mixing black and white.  But in reality most grey shades are a combination of multiple hues.  In the case of Paynes grey color was a mixture of lake, raw sienna and indigo (Artist's Pigments: c.1600-1835) and resulted in a dark blue-ish grey color.  

What made this color so revolutionary is that there was no black being used.  Up to this point when artists wanted to desaturate a color (reduce its intensity) they would often use black to create a tone or white to create a light tint.  Payne's use of this blue-grey to get a softer more subtle spectrum was so revolutionary and became so popular that eventually a commercial paint was created using his formula.  The first recorded instance of the name being used was in 1835 and by 1912 it had earned an official place in the Color Standards and Color Nomenclature book.

What's fascinating about this particular grey is that it looks quite blue on its own, but when placed with other colors the simultaneous contrast can force more towards the black or grey end of the spectrum.  While the use of Paynes grey in watercolors eventually went out of vogue, it had lasting impact upon how artists viewed and approached their color mixing.  Which in turn, led to a rebirth of exploration of monochromatic works.  The most famous of these is Picasso's "Blue Period" paintings where he utilized many blue leaning greys used to create contrast and depth.  Comparing the colors in Picasso's painting below to Payne's above we can see a great many similarities even though they are stylistically very different.

Portrait of Angel Fernández de Soto  (also known as The Absinthe Drinker) by Picasso from his blue period.  

Portrait of Angel Fernández de Soto (also known as The Absinthe Drinker) by Picasso from his blue period.  


Modern formulas normally use a combination of Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna to achieve the same hue; but there is a great amount of variation in both the starting hues and the proportions so its always best to test your color when jumping between brands and/or mediums as not all Paynes grey will look the same.  

From a hex code perspective Paynes Grey normally falls right around #536878 but can be in reality any of the wide range of greys shown here:

Paynes Gray hex range from Color Hex.

My challenge to you now is to look for the Paynes Grey in your world.  Its there, all around you in all manner of things that you've probably never even noticed. I hope that you will feel a small amount of marvel that so much of our colorful world owes a debt to this one man, who did something so simple and complex as invent a shade of grey.

Paynes Grey Chairs Stacked Up.




The Problem of Digital Vs. Analogue Color

Recently, I was a having a conversation with a fountain pen user about a new ink company called Tekker.  They are a custom ink company that creates fountain pen inks based off of hex codes.  The individual in question is not an artist and was trying to duplicate the color of the original Crayola orange crayon. It struck me how difficult a challenge this must present to someone outside of the art world.  So I thought for my first post I'd dive into the challenges of moving between digital and analogue color.

So first off: what is a hex code?  Hex codes are a digital encoding system that tells the computer the color information.  It was designed to translate between the different color languages used namely: RGB,HSL,HSV and CMYK..  I'm not going to go into the different types of color systems in this post because that's a whole other rabbit hole.  For our purposes today, let's just say we have these four languages and hex codes serve as something of a translator.  Hex codes create a simple css code that enables the color to show up on your screen.  

Because hex codes are digital, they use a theory of color known as additive color theory.  What this means is that color is added to your screen using light.  That's why when you work in photoshop, for example, and do color fill multiple times the image gets brighter.  That's because each time you do a fill more light is being poured in.  Technology has improved a great deal in recent years and most programs do a good job of attempting to auto-correct the light being added in, but nothing is perfect.

A representation of what happens on your computer's screen as more colors are added.


Analogue pigments use a process known as subtractive color theory, which is basically the opposite of additive.  The more color you add in, the darker it becomes.  

A representation of what happens in the physical world when colors are mixed together.

So you're probably asking yourself what does this have to do with getting a custom ink color mixed?  The answer is everything!

Let's take a look at a test case.  Since I'm not going to wait to have a color mixed and sent to me, I'm going to work with a color I already have for our purposes here.  But I'll go through the steps that you would use.  Most people are going to be looking for a color to match an object in the physical world--such as a fountain pen.  So the first step is to take a photograph of the object. I will be working with a photo of an ink swatch from Vanness Pens.

There are a lot of apps out there that you can use to find your hex codes or programs such as photoshop will also do it for you.  For our purposes I will be using an app called Color Viewfinder, since my guess is most of you will be doing it on a phone app of some sort.  You can find apps simply by searching for "hex finder" in your app store. 

So here is my starting photo:

Image courtesy of Vanness Pens.

Once I have my photo, I load it into my app and it spits out an image that looks like this:

Hex code generator image

Now you'll notice that there are several colors that have popped up here.  You might be thinking to yourself "well, that's because of the paper showing through the swab."  So lets look at something completely different--a piece of fabric--and see what we get.


A photo of an object on my desk and the corresponding codes.

Now that we can see that any photo will yield multiple results, lets get back to my ink.  My next step is to pick which hex code I think is the closest.  To get a better idea I'm going to head on over to a website called Color Hex Codes.  This is a site that enables you to enter your codes and see what they look like and get more info about them.  I picked the middle purple to start with.

Here we see what the color looks like and the translations into other color languages.

Here we see what the color looks like and the translations into other color languages.

If I was doing this to truly order an ink color, I'd check all three colors and match them against my object...but for the sake of brevity, let's stick with this color choice.

The fact that I have to make a choice based off of a comparison brings me to the brunt of the problem.  We've gone from physical object (subtractive color theory) to digital photo on my phone (additive) to uploaded photo on my computer screen which does not share the same calibration as my phone and are now comparing this example to a physical object (subtractive). 

The best analogy I can use here is that of language; it would be like translating English to Mandarin Chinese, and then Mandarin to Yu (still Chinese but a different dialect) and then re-translating it to English.  There would surely be something lost in translation there!

So now I've decided on a formula, that uses additive theory, and I send off my hex code and await my ink. The manufactures are going to be faced with the exact same quandary as we just were, they have to translate the digital to the analogue.  A lot of things can influence the translation process, including qualities of the ink and the color sense of the person mixing.  While most places calibrate to try to make allowances for the differences between additive and subtractive color theory at the end of the day we're still left with human observation to create the programs to calibrate the translation.  And as you have probably experienced, no two people see exactly the same.

But for the sake of my experiment, I'm going to now pretend I've gotten my ink back and are ready to take it for a test run. 

The Ink In Reality: TWSBI Eco Broad, Tomoe River Paper, no flash.

So my starting hex code options were: #85738D, #65506F, #4E3E55--none of which showed up in my photo of the ink in real life.  The closest I got is the darkest color on here.  Let's take a look at my starting and finishing hex codes together:

The upper code is the code I started with based off my best guess of what the color looks like.  The lower code is what actually read out from my writing sample.

In all honesty, neither really seems right to my eye comparing them to the handwriting example I have.  And therein lies the whole problem of translating analogue to digital in color.

Knowing all this, would I order a custom color?  The answer is of course!  But I would do so knowing that while it won't be an exact replica and as such I wouldn't be disappointed or frustrated with the manufacturer when my ink looked slightly different on the page than my object.  After all, surprises are part of what keeps life colorful, if you'll pardon my pun.