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Situated between yellow and red on the visible spectrum, orange has a long history in visual culture. Dubbed the “happiest color” by Frank Sinatra, we’ll take a look at the color orange and its significance from antiquity to contemporary art.
Named after the citrus fruit, the word orange is derived from the old French phrase orenge. The earliest use of the word orange in English dates back to the 1300s. However, orange’s use as the name of a color didn’t occur until the early 1500s. Before that, orange was simply called yellow-red.
The distinctive orange color of many fruits and vegetables comes from carotenes, a photosynthetic pigment. As a result, the orange pigmentation has fostered associations between orange and nourishment, refreshment and energy. Autumn leaves also get their orange color from carotenes, forging links between the color and Autumn, beauty, preparation, and change.
Orange cultivates optimism, enthusiasm, cheerfulness, and warm-heartedness. Orange’s boldness denotes confidence and creativity. Manifested in fire, orange can be associated with heat and destruction. Eye-catching and vibrant, orange is often used to direct attention. Furthermore, as the complementary color to azure, orange has the greatest contrast against sky blue tones. This means orange (or safety orange as it’s known) is often used in marine safety devices like life rafts, life jackets, and buoys.
In European and Western countries, orange is associated with harvest time, frivolity and extroversion. For Indian cultures, orange is considered to be lucky and sacred. In Japanese and Chinese cultures, orange denotes courage, happiness and good health. Buddhist monks’ of the Theravada tradition and Hindu swamis wear orange robes. Orange is the national color of the Netherlands, but in many Middle Eastern countries, orange can be associated with mourning.
The history of orange pigment begins with ocher. As a family of natural clay earth pigments, ocher ranges in color from yellow to red, sienna and umber. Orange ocher is composed predominantly of limonite. Thanks to the pigment’s excellent light fastness, some of the worlds best-preserved cave painting sites still feature orange ocher today. The pigment continues to see application within modern art, in both traditional and contemporary practice.
Made with ground cinnabar, the use of vermilion pigment dates back to 8000–7000 BC. Produced artificially from the 8th century, the orange-red pigment was used by painters up until the 1800s. However, the cost, poor light fastness, and toxicity of vermilion led to it being superseded by modern synthetic pigments like cadmium red.
An arsenic sulfide, realgar is an orange-red mineral that saw artistic use in ancient Egypt, China, India, and Central Asia. Prized for its richness in color, realgar most commonly occurs as a low-temperature hydrothermal vein mineral. Highly toxic, realgar was the only pure orange pigment available until modern chrome orange.
Orpiment, also a sulphide of arsenic, was found in the same locations as realgar. Producing a golden yellow-orange pigment, orpiment was just as toxic as realgar and was also used as a fly killer and to taint arrows with poison. An important item of trade in the Roman Empire, orpiment was ground down and used in paintings up until the 19th century.
In 1797, French scientist Louis Vauquelin discovered the mineral crocoite. This led to the invention of the synthetic pigment chrome orange. Ranging from a light to deep orange, chrome orange was the first pure orange pigment since realgar. And while it’s no longer in production, chrome orange can be viewed in Renoir’s Boating on the Siene.
As a by-product of zinc production, cadmium, was discovered by Friedrich Stromeyer in 1817. While heating zinc in his laboratory, Stromeyer observed a sample of zinc carbonate that formed a bright yellow oxide. Stromeyer realized the results of his experiment could prove useful to artists, but it wasn’t until the 1840s that cadmium pigments entered production industrially.
Quickly becoming popular among the Impressionists and post-Impressionists, the scarcity of cadmium meant that the availability of cadmium pigments was fairly limited up until the 1920s. Today, pigments like cadmium orange set the standard for coverage, tinting, and light-fastness.
From prehistoric periods to the present day, orange has had a continuing presence in visual arts. Figures sketched into rock by neolithic artists were often filled out in orange ocher. Orange was present in the elaborate art and hieroglyphics of the ancient Egyptians. In ancient Rome, the orange-red vermilion was used to paint frescoes, decorate statues and color the faces of victors in Roman triumphs. Vermilion was also used by North and South Americans to paint burial sites, ceramics, figurines and murals.
In medieval art, shades of orange were used in the coloring of illuminated manuscripts. During the renaissance, orange was featured in lustrous drapery. Creating dramatic contrasts between brightness and shadow, Baroque artists used orange to illuminate detail and light. For instance, in The Abduction of Ganymede, Rembrandt centered on the boy Ganymede’s orange tassel as a visual pendulum, indicating momentum and resistance. Depicting lush landscapes and well-to-do inhabitants, rococo art featured light, airy oranges. And the red-orange hair of Elizabeth Siddal, model and wife of the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, became a symbol of the pre-raphaelite movement.
In 1872, Claude Monet painted Impression, Sunrise. Featuring a luminous orange sun sprinkling light onto a hazy blue landscape, the painting lent its name to the impressionist movement. Post-impressionist Paul Gauguin used vivid oranges for backgrounds, clothing and skin color. And Vincent Van Gogh balanced rich blues and violets with bold oranges saying “there is no blue without yellow and without orange”.
Fauvists believed color should operate free from physical reality. Mountains at Collioure by André Derain expresses a landscape made up of patchwork oranges, an active contrast against the blues, greens and deep pinks that complete the image. Expressionist Edvard Munch used the visual activity of orange to suffuse his paintings with density and crowded movement. Later, abstract artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Robert Motherwell took advantage of orange’s internal buzz, generating movement and emotion within their canvasses.
As the possibilities of art have evolved, so has the application of color. As a color of great visual density, orange continues to have a significant role in contemporary art. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, painting in both traditional and contemporary styles, continue to use orange ocher in their artworks today.
Wilhelm Roseneder’s Orange Expansion uses orange to exaggerate a separation between art and setting. Roelof Louw’s Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges) invites viewers to take and eat one of the oranges that make up a pyramidic sculpture of citrus fruit. With each orange taken, the sculpture changes form and is eventually consumed in its entirety by the sculpture’s participants. Anish Kapoor’s Mirror (Pagan Gold to Orange to Pagan Gold) is a large concave dish that reflects the viewer within the orange haze of the artwork itself, re-expressing the self through materiality. And artist Alexander Knox chose orange as the prevailing color in his Moth Ascending the Capital, capturing the energy of a Bogong moth bursting into flight.
Orange’s associations conveys a rich photographic landscape. Photojournalist Ozier Muhammad’s photograph Marines Move through Sandstorm is an insight into the nature of war. The density of orange, though natural, significantly dampens visibility, creating a palpable tension. Depicting humans and objects as things to be studied, Martin Parr’s ultra-saturated oranges pair with his inquisitive photography. And Uta Barth’s …and of time series documents the quality of light and the passage of time, an orange hue feeling out the dimensions of a room with ephemeral softness.
On the bucket list of many a photographer, Antelope Canyon, located just outside of Page, Arizona, is a natural photographic wonder. The warm orange tones of the canyon are captured in countless images online. Nevertheless, photographers still flock to the spot to make their own photographs of the beautiful eroded Navajo Sandstone.
Occurring during the golden hour, orange-to-yellow light floods the atmosphere, creating ideal opportunities for landscape and portrait photography. Often manifested in steel wool photography, photographers can create effervescent trails of burning orange light with a few kitchen items. Orange filters are also a popular general-purpose tool for black and white photography. Balancing out the extremes of red filters and the subtlety of yellow filters, orange filters add a moderate degree of contrast to an image, darkening skies and emphasizing clouds. Furthermore, orange filters deliver a warm, smooth skin tone, reducing the appearance of freckles and blemishes.
Wassily Kandinsky once said, “orange is red brought nearer to humanity by yellow.” Energizing the viewer, orange conveys optimism, enthusiasm, and cheerfulness. Capturing attention, orange imparts vibrant emotion and illuminates detail. Found in food, orange also communicates nourishment and health. And reflected in nature, orange can be a signal of seasonal change, fire, and heat. A color of tenacity, endurance, and impact, orange reflects bold emotions, its historic presence and versatility inspiring and energizing audiences at the same time.
We’d love for you to share with us and the dPS community your photos that make use of the color orange in the comments below.
See other articles in the Mastering Color Series here.