Though different colors don’t exclusively belong to one culture or aesthetic, many cultural or geographical palettes can be identified by the colors they are built on. Having studied art for years, I have found it interesting to investigate which colors define a region. So, what colors are considered Mediterranean?
From the turquoise, seafoam, and deep purple of the sea to the rich tones of terra cotta, ochre, copper, and even sunshine yellow, the colors considered to be Mediterranean reflect nature and the colors of the region. Mediterranean colors can be found throughout the color wheel.
But there is more to the Mediterranean and its art scene than their color wheel. Not only has the Mediterranean been home to artistic movements, but it has been witness to how specific colors were able to change the course of history in art, culture, and religion. The mere ability we have to see color is accredited to a complex system of cells and genetics.
What Colors are Mediterranean?
The 22 Mediterranean countries are found around the Mediterranean Sea, encompassing portions of 3 continents: Africa, Asia, and Europe. The countries include Albania, Algeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, Libya, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro, Morocco, Slovenia, Spain, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey.
Mediterranean colors reflect those of the region. Pulling their inspiration from nature, classically considered Mediterranean colors range from the grounded, earthy tones of burnt umber, chestnut to the rich shades of the sea and sky like cerulean, azure, and the vibrance of lush green flora. But these colors are often accented with the metallics of copper and gold.
Landscapes of places like Venice are what come to mind when someone mentions Mediterranean art. However, due to the abundance of cultures in the Mediterranean and their unique artistic styles, which developed throughout history, Mediterranean art cannot easily be classified.
Ancient Egyptian art was static, formal, abstract, and often blocky, leading to unfavorable comparisons with more naturalistic Greek or Renaissance art. However, these images and statues were designed to manifest and receive the benefit of ritual action. Most statues had a formal frontality designed to face the ritual being performed before them.
Meanwhile, Ancient Greece embraced the more naturalistic and realistic forms of art through their idealized depictions of the human form. Although they are largely famous for their marble sculptures, pottery, and architecture, they also practiced painting, metalwork, mosaics, and literature.
Ancient Roman art was vastly similar to the art in Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire being largely decorated by naturalistic pieces. They created art for various functions and contexts, but their architectural genius is one thing they were famous for. Additionally, they dabbled in sculptures, mosaics, metalwork, gem engraving, ivory carvings, and stained glass.
The Mediterranean and Its Role in the Art World
The Mediterranean region has historically been the scene of intense human activity, the worlds of art and culture buzzing with life for centuries.
Art history can be traced back to when ancient civilizations depicted culturally significant subject matters. Since these early examples, a plethora of art movements have followed, each with its unique styles and characteristics — all of this leading to the variety of art that surrounds us today.
Artistic Significance of the Mediterranean
From prehistoric art to the ancient art of advanced civilizations, the shocking imagery of medieval art, and the revolutionary techniques of the Renaissance, the Mediterranean has borne witness to all art genres and movements, even being home to some of the world’s most revered artists.
From realism to abstract expressionism, all art is connected as new movements are built on the backs of their predecessors. With the worship-centered art of Ancient Egypt, to the Hellenistic Greek idealism and Roman realism. Islamic architecture, the Renaissance, and Romanticism. History shows how the human exploration of art unfolded in the culturally blessed region of the Mediterranean.
The History of Color
There is so much more to art history than all the famous artists and artistic movements and revolutions. In a sense, without color, our world wouldn’t be what it is today. Not only is it used in the visual arts of painting and sculpting, but colors have inspired novels, poetry, and music. Thus, the very history of color may be the most interesting of all.
While colors carry deep and significant meaning to us all, some colors have more interesting histories than others; and the Mediterranean witnessed a lot of these histories. Caught up in religion, culture, and emotions, the colors gold, blue and white are some of the most unique and scandalous.
Gold is used to illustrate what holds precedence in our beliefs and lives – and the way its symbolism has changed over the centuries is a testament to that fact.
Ancient peoples believed gold and the sun were the same and exclusively used gold when worshipping the sun. Yet, one civilization is identified with gold above all others: Ancient Egypt.
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb is arguably the most significant archaeological discovery of all time, but the golden treasures inside were never intended to be seen by human eyes. Though why was virtually everything in his tomb gold? Unlike gold’s modern connotation, it was not a show of wealth.
Tutankhamun believed that gold held magic powers. He hoped that gold’s seeming ‘immortality’ and infinite beauty would rub off on him and bring him back to life as an eternal sun God.
Fast forward to the rise of Christianity in Rome; this religion was unoriginal in many ways. Still, it managed to present a new idea through its distaste of wealth, extravagance, and ostentatious display.
Where all other cultures had used gold to worship and bring themselves closer to their God’s, Christ was depicted as the first ‘poor’ God or Savior in history in the earliest Christian art. But the religion that once shunned gold began to heavily use it in depictions of their God and Savior as early as in the 5th century.
However, come to the Renaissance, the meaning of gold took a turn from its cultural and religious ties, becoming a symbol of power, politics, and status. The great Kings and Queens of the Renaissance fought for the best goldsmiths to outshine their rivals. This obsession manifested in ways from pardoning murderers, kidnapping teenage alchemists, and even dedicating their lives to feigning power they could never achieve.
Gold is now a symbol of wealth, having strayed far from its ancient connotations.
The story of blue begins in the Venetian lagoon where merchants from the east sailed in want of gold, trading for it with a rare and precious stone – lapis lazuli. The blue of this stone was so enchanting that it changed the course of art.
Throughout history, all the blues used in art were feeble and pallid, unable to capture the color’s vibrant potential. It took centuries to perfect the method of extracting the deep blue color of lapis lazuli, dubbed ‘ultramarine.’ Though we may now be surrounded by bright blue things, in the Middle Ages, this color was a revelation. It was brighter, purer, and stronger than any color they had ever seen. Within a few decades of its discovery, this color began to seep into western art.
The artist Giotto indulged this blue like never before, elevating it to a divine status. Depicting the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ inside of a chapel with meticulous detail, these painting-covered walls were only outdone by the brilliant blue ceiling littered with hundreds of golden stars, illustrating Giotto’s depiction of heaven. Through this, a color of low standing became the most sacred of all.
Due to its drastic jump in status, the church saw blue as a holy and divine color. They restricted its supply and upped its price, making this revolutionary blue even more valuable than gold. Laws were passed, banning citizens from wearing the color – the only person allowed to be robed in blue being the Virgin Mary.
It was in Venice that the color was liberated from the suffocating grasp of the church. Venice was the unchallenged home to color, having the materials and know-how to produce virtually every pigment known at the time. The artist, Titian, was deeply frustrated by the church’s control of the color blue and made this known through his paintings, eventually freeing blue from its shackles.
In 18th century Germany, the meaning of blue was once again transformed. Blue became the color of deep emotions, painting people’s deepest fears, passions, and sadness.
Today we see white as a color of virtue, innocence, and cleanliness. But, in art history, white has been used to represent classism and elitism and was even favored by some of the most infamous fascist leaders.
Ancient Greek sculptures are considered to be a pillar of western art. Despite these sculptures, once painted with vibrant colors, Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s discovery and love of the washed down and whitened sculptures single-handedly made white the heart of European art for centuries. His influence still lives on as people prefer the clean white of ancient sculptures over their original paints of garish patterns and colors.
When James McNeill Whistler moved to England, he immediately distended the Victorian people and their artistic tastes. So, he took inspiration from a book popular amongst the people; “The Woman in White.” Whistler chose to use white to mock the poor taste of the Victorian people.
The public didn’t understand that the true subject of his paintings wasn’t the women dressed in white but the color itself. This is how Whistler divided the people, creating an elitist class segregated from the public and associated with white.
Whistler had managed to turn white into the unwelcoming, cold, and exclusive color of the artistic elite. A trend that modern artists continued in the 20th century.
Color theory is the science and art of using color. It explains how we perceive color, its visual effects and how the colors mix, match or contrast with each other. Colors are organized into three categories: primary, secondary and tertiary colors.
Mediterranean Color Theory
Mediterranean colors are a combination of natural, earthy tones, which are then paired with brighter accent colors. Thus, a portion of Mediterranean colors can be classified as ‘neutrals’ because they are not necessarily eye-catching on their own – but with the correct palette and combinations, they can create something breath-taking.
How Many Colors Exist?
The 11 main colors are: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, brown, gray, black, and white.
Scientists have determined that we can see approximately 1,000 levels of dark to light and around 100 levels of red to green and yellow to blue. This alone totals 10 million colors. Additionally, we see light in three ways: on surfaces, as light sources, and in volumes. So 10 million shades of light affect those 10 million colors and the 10 million surrounding colors. Moreover, every person sees color differently. Thus, creating the sense of infinity to how many colors are out there in the world.
However, it has been determined that there are 18 decillion colors. The majority of these colors are incomprehensible to the human eye, stacking the odds against our hopes to one day see these mysterious colors which exist in the world around us. Colors we can’t see are classed under the title ‘impossible colors.’ Our visual limitation results from the way we perceive color in the first place.
There are three main types of ‘impossible’ colors:
- Forbidden Colors – These colors are composed of hue combinations whose light frequencies cancel each other out in the human eye. To view a forbidden color, you would have to go against the antagonistic way our eyes work and simultaneously view opposing colors instead of combining them. Examples are red-green or yellow-blue. We can’t comprehend these colors, instead thinking of a dull brown or green respectively.
- Chimerical Colors – These cannot be seen directly through our sight like real colors, but they can be generated in the visual cortex by looking at two colors in succession. This process requires you to induce fatigue in your cones by looking at a saturated color, temporarily changing their color sensitivities, and then looking at a markedly different color.
- Imaginary Colors – Imaginary colors are outside the spectrum of ‘real’ colors (colors that a physical light source can produce), and no material object can have an imaginary color.
How Do We See Color?
The retina is the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye; it contains two types of photoreceptor cells, called rods and cones. Rods are responsible for vision in low light. Cones respond uniquely to each different light wavelength, thus making them responsible for color vision. Furthermore, the OPN1LW, OPN1MW, and OPN1SW genes located in the retina play essential roles in color vision – mutations of these genes resulting in color vision deficiencies (color blindness).
- OPN1LW – This gene makes an opsin pigment sensitive to long-wavelength light – the red and orange sector of the visual spectrum. Cones with this pigment are called ‘L’ cones.
- OPN1MW – This gene makes an opsin pigment sensitive to medium-wavelength light – the yellow and green sector. Cones with this pigment are called ‘M’ cones.
- OPN1SW – This gene makes an opsin pigment sensitive to short-wavelength light – the blue and violet sector. Cones with this pigment are called ‘S’ cones.
- The locus control region (LCR) regulates the activity of these genes.
- In response to light, the photopigment triggers a series of chemical reactions within the different cones. These reactions ultimately alter the cell’s electrical charge, generating a signal that is transmitted to the brain. The brain combines input from all three types of cones to produce normal color vision.
On average, humans have three kinds of cone cells, making us trichromatic. However, some people have an additional type of cone, making them tetrachromatic and giving them an extra dimension of color. While tetrachromats cannot see new colors, they can discern a greater variety of tones and shades. All animals have different numbers of cone cells, allowing some animals to see more or less color than others.
Dogs only seeing black and white is a myth; while they have a limited color perception, they possess two types of cone cells, allowing them to discern blue and yellow. Moreover, birds have four types of cones and can also see the ultraviolet spectrum. Finally, some animals see a spectrum of color insanely out of our reach, such as shrimp, possessing 16 cone cells and seeing what is dubbed as the ‘impossible colors’ in addition to ultraviolet, infrared, and even polarized light.
Nature-inspired colors ranging from warm earth tones to the blues and greens of the sky, sea, and flora make up the Mediterranean color palette. Not only do the colors beautifully complement each other, displaying the perfect balance of natural and vibrance.
Not only does the Mediterranean have an ingenious palette, but this region has also played a vital role in the history of art and culture.