Humans first experiments with color go back to the caves. The earliest known paintings in caves can be dated to the pre-Neolithic era of 40,000 years ago in Australia and 35,000 in Europe. (The examples below are from Painted Cave in Santa Barbara, CA on the left—earliest sections thought to be 335 years ago—and Lascaux on the right—about 17,300 years ago.)
Colors used were based on whatever could be locally found—charcoal from fire and burnt bones for black, grounded calcite for white, and red and yellow from earth pigments like limonite, hemotite, red ochre, yellow ochre, and umber. Those materials were meaningful: Early painters trekked as much as 25 miles to obtain them.
Interesting to note how committed to style the cave painters were, their vernacular style remained unchanged for 22,000 years.
Forward to the Bronze Age, 1,330 B.C.E. and thereabouts, in Egypt and Greece colors were brighter if still subdued, earth tones still abound. The palette was limited but heavy on the reds and blues.
Below, a rendering of the Megaron at Pylos, Greece: Destroyed in 1,200 BCE the use of primary colors is seen in the tile work. The palette of the frescoes is still limited but the color all around is much bolder.
The Ajanta caves show the early roots of the use of striking color in India. Work on the caves occurred in a period from 100 BCE to 480 CE.
The caves reveal a long relationship of Indian culture to unsubdued color and restrained use of earth tones.
A relationship also reflected in their food.
From 600 - 900 CE tomb painting in China, heavy on the black with red accents, and Bird Man from Mexico and the Toultec who saw bold color as representative of the gods' realm.
Following the long dreary spell of the dark ages, and possibly inspired by the plague, the Renaissance brought the color back in a big way. Left, the early period of Giotto, and right, the high Renaissance of Titian.
In 1613, Jesuit mathematician Françios d'Aguilon published a definitive exploration of color theory that would be of particular interest to painters of the time (Peter Paul Rubens would provide the illustrations). He endorsed the medieval view that yellow, red, and blue were the basic or "noble" hues from which all other colors derived. He also believed that the three "noble" hues were themselves created from a mysterious blending of white and black, or light and dark so that light and dark were the two "simple" or primary colors. The "composite" hues green, orange (gold) and purple (lower curved lines) were mixed from the "noble" triad colors. Many components of this theory were inherited from Greek philosophers.
Optics and color, as was much of the knowledge of the time, was an mysterious admixture of reason, esoteric thought, and magic.
And then later, with Modernism, the rules changed again. Mondrian, Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1943:
Joan Miró, The Nightengale's Song at Midnight and the Morning Rain, 1940:
It seems that many folk art traditions have long understood the power of bold primaries.
An Alebrije, first imagined by Pedro Linares in the 1930s:
In its fashion, primary color swings on a pendulum that often vacillates between the bold and the black and white. Below, a House & Garden pation for the 50s; psychedelic patterns from the 60s; Bowie bulging glam in the 70s; and George Sowden's Pierre Memphis table from the 80s:
The interaction of the primaries creates an energy of its own. Theoretically, color is nothing but the bouncing of light from of a surface and into our retina.
That explains the science but says nothing about the emotional impact or psychology. Why is yellow the irritating color and why does blue calm? And what do they all say when they collaborate together?
A chair pair from Allesandro Mendini, 1978:
Manarola, Italy (and 8 other colorful places here):
Altogether, they're a circus.