How we make colors isn’t something we think very much about in the digital age. They’re just shining diodes of light, beaming from our displays. But for the vast majority of human history, making colors was serious–and often deadly–business. If the poisons used in making them didn’t get you, the beetles would.
As it turns out, for most of the last 2,000 years, most of our pigments have come from grinding up toxic metals. Orpiment and Realgar, two yellow and orange colors used by the Egyptians? They’re full of arsenic. Greek vermillion? It’ll give you mercury poison. Napes yellow? It’s full of lead. Emerald green? So poisonous, it was sold as rat poison.
And if your early pigments didn’t contain poison, chances are they were full of creepy-crawlies. Tyrian purple is made from ground up snail shells. (And available for purchase, if you can afford it Carmine is produced by boiling thousands of beetles at once. Indian yellow? It’s cow urine. And mummy brown, not so surprisingly, takes its name from the ground-up corpses of pharaohs and their courts.
Things get less medieval for color once science shows up, thankfully. It really puts things in perspective, though. If not for the industrial revolution, Pantone might be in the beetle boiling business, and all our magazines might be printed in cow urine and arsenic.