The History of the Color Orange: From Prehistoric Cave Paintings to Pumpkins

Ancient mummy posing with orange pumpkin on black background

Think about some of your favorite moments from childhood. The vast majority of Americans will probably drift back to fond memories of Halloween. Obviously part of the holiday’s charm comes from costumes and candy. But we’re also drawn into Halloween thanks to the holiday’s striking colors.

Orange and black are particularly prominent as Halloween approaches. Not to mention that we often see the sun taking on a more orange hue as the Fall draws ever closer. Even the leaves join in on the season as they take on brilliant shades of red and orange. It’s little wonder that we’ve come to associate orange with that particular time of the year.

What might come as more of a surprise is the full and rich history associated with the color orange. We’re hardly the first culture to make this color the centerpiece of a holiday or season. However, to fully understand how orange hues have influenced humanity we’ll need to go back to the birth of civilization.

Going Back Into Prehistory

Prehistoric cave painting of orange colored bison on rock wall

Our very first historical encounter with the color orange actually coincides with our oldest foray into art. 40,000 years ago ancient artists braved the darkness of a limestone cave system in Borneo to create something truly amazing. The Lubang Jeriji Saleh caves feature humanity’s first known artistic endeavor.

These amazing caves feature imprints of those ancient artist’s hands. What’s more, the artists also painted animals that look somewhat like modern cows. The paintings are often extremely large as well. The tallest of these figures towers over most visitors thanks to its impressive seven foot stature.

These images would be amazing enough in any context. However, they have a special quality which anyone in love with the color orange should appreciate. These ancient cave paintings were made with a reddish-orange pigment. This gives orange an impressive pedigree as far as humanity’s appreciation of color goes.

Ancient Mesopotamia

Remains of ancient civilization of Mesopotamia with old carving from the Middle East history that depicts a royal lion hunt

Ancient Mesopotamia is often referred to as the cradle of civilization. We find some of humanities first written laws within their ancient tablets. Likewise, the Epic of Gilgamesh provides us with humanities’ first recorded mythological adventure. But the question of their color preferences remains something of a mystery. It’s important to keep in mind just how old this civilization is. Gilgamesh was written around 2100 B.C. The ancient Sumerian culture which wrote it developed writing around 3400 B.C.

As their cultural descendants, we obviously have a lot in common with the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia. But again, we need to keep in mind just how old their civilization is and how much our views have changed since those days. This is why when we look at their concept of color we need to adjust our cultural and artistic viewpoint.

In the 1960s academia concluded that this culture had a generally limited vocabulary to describe color. But newer research suggests that ancient Mesopotamia was only using those known words as a secondary descriptor for color. The theory holds that brightness and saturation played a larger role in their view of color than we’d assumed. If true this would mean that we underestimated their appreciation of color.

Realgar mineral on stone used to create orange pigment in ancient Mesopotamia

Of course, all of this leads to the central question. How did the people of ancient Mesopotamia relate to the color orange? Unfortunately, it’s still up for debate. The essential meaning of some terms is dependent on first understanding their color vocabulary. For example, the word “sāmu” can refer to both red and orange.

Thankfully though, we do know that they made use of a pigment called realgar. Realgar creates a distinctly orange color which provides us with an assurance that ancient Mesopotamians were at least aware of the color orange. Even if we can’t be entirely sure of how they would classify variations on that specific shade.

Some people might raise an eyebrow at the idea of a culture unable to recognize specific colors. After all, orange is quite distinct to the modern eye. But our next historical landmark of ancient Egypt will shed some additional light on the cultural confusion which can come with the history of color.

Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs on stone wall

Ancient Egypt is famous for a wealth of astonishing accomplishments. The culture thrived for almost 30 centuries. What’s more, even today we have the pyramids to mark this once mighty power. Ancient Egypt is also notable for its artistic flair. Egyptians loved color and used it to great effect. In fact, they’re one of the only ancient cultures to have a well-defined concept of the color blue. This is an important point to consider as we track the history of orange. Because the difficulty most other ancient cultures had with blue isn’t inherent to that specific color.

Our entire concept of color is in large part shaped by reference points. Being able to artificially reproduce a color on demand is an important part of recognizing specific colors as something unique. Is blue a unique color or is it another shade of green? To the modern eye, blue is obviously unique. But what if the only blue we had as a reference was the sky and its continually changing hues? What if we didn’t have a specific and unchanging representation of blue to point to? This was the case for most ancient cultures. And without solid reference points for color we often grow to maturity without being able to readily differentiate it from similar shades.

Ancient Egyptian painting with blue and orange colors from the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor in Egypt

Blue dyes were extremely rare in most of the world when Egypt was at its prime. However, Egypt did have blue dyes. Likewise, we have records of their use of blue colors in a wide range of different forms. We also know that they had a distinct concept of orange because they too used realgar. Realgar is, in fact, considered by many to be the only pure orange pigment to exist until the 19th century.

Ancient Egyptians weren’t just producing some of the few pure orange or blue pigments. The culture as a whole was deeply invested in color as a means of self-expression and worship. As such they developed some quite impressive methods to create colored pigments. However, while orange was represented thanks to realgar it tended to be classified as a subset of red rather than an entity unto itself.

Ancient Rome

Orpiment mineral stone isolated on a black background

Eventually, Egypt would meet Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. This marked a transition of one great power to another. Interestingly enough ancient Rome had their own slight variation on the color orange.

Romans would often use a mineral called orpiment to provide a reddish-orange color. However, this shade is closer to red than it is to the orange provided by realgar. Sadly orpiment was also quite toxic. Mining orpiment was considered to be a very dangerous task indeed.

Moving Forward to Europe

Orange trees in the sunlight with ripe fruits and fresh green leaves

Alexander the Great would do more for the color orange than simply bringing two variants of it together. The hero of Rome is also said to have been responsible for the spread of citrus trees into Greece, Turkey, and North Africa. By 300 A.D. we see tiles in Istanbul portraying oranges and lemons. Remember that having a distinct item with a consistent appearance is often very important to specifically defining a color. This is an important point to remember as traders brought sweet oranges to Europe in the 16th century.

The term orange did exist to describe color in the English language at that point. However, it was a seldom used term with a vague meaning. For example, Shakespeare uses the term orange as a modifier to tawny – a dark brown color. The bard might describe something as tawny or orange tawny. But the color orange won’t appear as a color descriptor unto itself.

The introduction of oranges changed everything. People suddenly had a firm example to point to when they wanted to describe something which they might otherwise have called reddish-yellow. By the 1670s Isaac Newton had officially codified orange in the color spectrum.

The Art of Science and the Science of Art

Oil painting called Flaming June by Frederic Leighton using the color Chrome Orange on a woman's dress

The next big turning point in orange’s history would occur in 1809. This marked the creation of the first fully synthetic orange pigment – chrome orange.

Some of the world’s greatest artists leveraged this new tool to create their most breathtaking works. Renoir and Monet are notable examples. However, Vincent van Gogh is particularly notable for his ability to use orange to create emotionally moving and almost dreamlike vistas.

The Modern Day

Halloween pumpkin on an orange colored background

Orange’s biggest mark on the 20th century can be found in our Halloween traditions. The 1950s solidified Halloween into the holiday as we know it today. And of course, bright orange pumpkins are now synonymous with the holiday. As these jack-o’-lanterns became well known, so did their orange color as a symbol of Halloween.

We also use orange in many other aspects of our life. Orange is often used in safety jackets and even prison uniforms because it catches the eye. And of course, the art world continues to use orange as a perfect way to capture some of the most beautiful sights in nature. The most colorful and beautiful sunsets will often incorporate orange to amazing effect. And what representation of Fall would be complete without orange leaves?