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Secrets of the Ancient Greeks: Color and Meaning

Secrets of the Ancient Greeks: Color and Meaning

Igor Asselbergs

One of the fun things about colors is that it somehow always seems to reflect the leading view of a certain age or culture. Take the ancient Greek view on color…

Aristotle described color as a quality of material. The surface of any kind of material releases small particles (atoms). The shape of the particles is determined by the kind of material. The particles ‘stamp’ their shapes into the air. As air consists of tiny layers, the shape of the particles is transferred from one layer to the other until it reaches the eye of the observer. The eye ‘senses’ the shape of the particles and thus perceives the ‘color’ of the material. The role of light was described as making the air ‘transparant’ so as being able to transfer the shape of the particles.

Interesting view…. So color was a quality of material, not of light. This implies that the influence of the light could and maybe should be neglected when making pictures. Which was indeed the case. Aristotle insisted that artists should never picture shade. A picture should be build up from solid areas of color. Sort of ‘color by numbers’. Drawing shades was considered improper.

Interestingly another implication of the Greek view was that statues should have different surfaces for differing materials. On a statue of a man, the skin shouldn’t have the same surface, the same color, as the clothes. And this was also indeed the case. For ages it has been assumed that Greek statues and temples were meant to be white marble. But this is a misconception. Originally the white marble was covered with bright colored paints to represent the differing materials. Here’s a recent reconstruction of the colors of a Greek statue (above): In a way one might say that the ancient Greeks adhered to an idea of ‘local’ colors. Meaning: a certain color was always tied to a certain place and a certain material. This idea has influenced the European view on color for a long, long time…..


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