The Geography of Colorants

Curated by Exhibit Assistants Sarah Helm & Erin Platte & Grace Rother


“Today the list of colorants manufactured industrially covers nine thousand pages in nine volumes of the Colour Index International, the bible of dyers and colorists. Here these bright, synthetic earths have no fanciful names but are catalogued uncompromisingly by hue, use, and a number denoting the chemical composition: CI Vat Red 13 CI No. 70320, CI Food Yellow 4 CI no. 19140. The ambiguities of older terminology are banished, and undoubtedly some of the magic goes with them.” 

- Philip Ball, Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, 2002  

"Where does color come from? In today's society, color is taken for granted. Humankind has all the colors it will ever need and then some for industrial, decorative, or artistic purposes. Perhaps, this is why the geography of colorants (where color comes from) has been overlooked and generally forgotten in recent times. There may be no need for those who have all the colors readily available to them to know or even wonder where color comes from. Most likely, the people of history, especially antiquity, were more apt to ask and find out where color came from." - Melissa Zagorski, The Geography of Significant Colorants: Antiquity to the Twentieth Century, 2007. 

Color is much more than what meets the eye. Like any other important cultural artifact, color has a history, it has a timeline, and it is influenced by a strong sense of place. Exploring the geography of color exposes both its history and its future. While color has a history firmly rooted in the natural world, its present relies heavily on oil, which leaves its future uncertain. The rainbow of colorants we take for granted is facing possible extinction.

The geography of colorants spans the entire world and is rich with culture and stories.  You would be hard pressed to find any corner of the world where colors are not rich with meaning.  The availability of color has influenced many facets of life, including the use of color in cartography. Sometimes aesthetic, sometimes practical, color is an important tool in any visual medium. In maps, color has long played a complicated role. Colorant production and use have changed radically since the advent of mapmaking, but in many ways, the colors used in maps have not. In modern times more and more colorants are synthetically derived, making it seem as though all of the colors that we take for granted are endlessly available. But as we move away from the ties connecting color to the natural world, we lose the important understanding that our actions affect our environment, and ultimately it is our environment that brings us color.

This exhibit is based on and inspired by the thesis: The Geography of Significant Colorants: Antiquity to the Twentieth Century by Melissa Zagorski and Maps from the Stephen S. Clark Library Map Collection.