The Treasure Chest

Three Mini-reviews: The colors of signs

By Paul Bouissac

Seven Deadly Colours

By Andrew Parker. The Free Press, Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006.

Simon & Schuster page for the book

The signaling and signifying powers of colors have been studied in many semiotic articles and books. Argentinean architect-semiotician Jose Luis Caivano has compiled an impressive bibliography that lists books, doctoral dissertations, articles, and titles of journals dealing with color theory including works specifically relevant to semiotics ( An International Colour Association also exists, for which Caivano edits an electronic bulletin (to subscribe write to, and which has organized numerous congresses and seminars ( Other associations include the International Colour Vision Society (http://www.icvs.inf) and the International Color Consortium ( The pixel revolution has stimulated both technological advances and theoretical reflections on the centrality of color and design in human communication. Color is indeed a powerful and versatile sense-making resource. However, the origins of these powers have been much less investigated. They are obviously rooted in evolutionary biology and the diversity of colors presupposes the sense of chromatic vision which evolved in numerous variants.

Andrew Parker, the author of the landmark In the Blink of an Eye: How Vision Sparked the Big Bang of Evolution (2003), addresses in his new book, Seven Deadly Colours, the problem of the evolution of colors and their significance for the organisms that can perceive them. It is the second volume of a trilogy on the link between light and evolution. Even the most abstract theoretician will agree that any sign must be perceived through an efficient sensor before it can make any sense to an organism. Sight is a relatively late development in evolution. Until the Cambrian explosion, organisms relied for eons on information provided by early forms of hearing, touch, smell and taste. Even in its most primitive versions, the sense of sight provided a new evolutionary playground for interactions between organisms and their environment, and among organisms involved by necessity in the prey-predator and mating games. It is mainly the former that explain the “deadly” qualification in Parker’s title. Reproduction, though, also implies some sinister evolutionary tricks. Expectedly, the book focuses on the signaling capacities of chromatic variations, and their importance for biological evolution.

An interesting, more technical complement to Parker’s volume is Animal Eyes by M.F. Land & D.-E. Nilsson published in 2002 in the Oxford University Press Animal Biology Series.

Blue: The History of a Color

By Michel Pastoureau. Princeton University Press, 2001.

Princeton University Press page for the book

Natural color diversity in humans is restricted to a much narrower range than in most other species, notably in birds and insects. Moreover, chromatic contrastive patterns are absent and the skin and hair pigmentations are usually homogenous in individuals and in groups. However, it seems that most if not all human cultures make a consistent, often exuberant use of colorful artifacts in the form of body paints, decorative flowers, beads, and feathers, and dyes derived from minerals, plants and animals. In humans color has been entirely taken over by the semiotic function both as distinctive markers and artificial camouflage. It ensues that cultures (and group within cultures) differ from each other by the uses they make of colors and chromatic patterns. Since cultures change over time, the uses of particular colors are historical phenomena. It is therefore possible to investigate the history of a color.

Written by a French historian whose early research was on the origins and meaning of medieval heraldry, Blue retraces the cultural significance of colors in the western world since Classical antiquity with special reference to the color blue in its various hues and ways of production. This volume is a semiotician’s delight as it shows how the symbolic diversity of color emerges both from environmental and historical constraints, and semiotic systematicity. From the Roman aversion to blue (that was the body paint of northern warriors) to the selection of blue as the emblematic hue of the Virgin Mary in Catholic iconography, arbitrariness and motivation are shown to be at play in the rich saga of this color. Other colors play their parts in constant dialogues with white and black. As the demand varies from century to century, Pastoureau interestingly documents the professional organizations of dyers which produce these colors as well as the trade it generates.


By Simon Garfield. Faber & Faber,2000.

Faber & Faber page for the book

The interface between color, craft, market, ideology and culture that is the broad theme of Blue, in times when colors were derived from animals, minerals or plants, is scrutinized in the context of nineteenth-century industrialization in Simon Garfield’s essay on the color mauve that was synthesized by the British chemist William Perkin in 1856. Pastoureau’s book is mostly interested in pre-industrial Europe but Garfield unwittingly demonstrates the extent to which semiotics continued to drive the color industry in the age of chemistry. This was the time when a by-product of gas production, coal tar, was found to be a rich source of aniline from which dyes, including new hues, could be synthesized and industrially fabricated.

Garfield’s essay is in the form of a biography of William Perkin through which he retraces the epic commercial saga of a young chemist who hit upon a new color by serendipity, and whose fortune was launched by fashion-conscious French Empress Eugénie, soon followed by Queen Victoria’s adoption of the color mauve.

Today’s color industry does not depend so much on whimsical royalties. For instance, The Color Marketing Group ( systematically engages in what could be appropriately called semiotic engineering. Its mission is to provide professional designers with “color forecasts”, usually two years in advance. Its motto is “Color sells, and the right color sells better.”

For added enjoyment, those who have perused the three books briefly reviewed here should read Ellen Meloy’s The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky (2002).