Purple has long been associated with royalty, rarity, and mystery. It's been worn by Roman magistrates, Byzantine & Japanese emperors, as well as Roman Catholic Bishops.
As an artist, it's important to understand this regal color, how it's used in the past until today, what it means and the different emotions it evokes, as well as its different shades, and how to produce them.
This article aims to help you do just that.
A Brief History of the Color Purple
Purple is one of the earliest colors that prehistoric humans used in art. Neolithic artists of Pech Merle cave, among others, used sticks of manganese and hematite powder to draw and paint outlines of their hands as well as animal shapes.
The citizens of Sidon and Tyre in ancient Phoenicia produced a purple dye from a sea snail called the spiny dye-murex. The long, difficult, and expensive process of using these snails produced a deep, rich purple dye which would be known as Tyrian purple. Being so expensive to afford, this color became associated with kings, nobles, priests, and magistrates – the only ones who could afford the dye at the time.
To put things into context:
Modern chemists used the same process to reproduce Tyrian purple dye. The formula required 10,000 mollusks to produce a gram of the dye – which cost 2,000 euros!
In ancient China, purple became a fashionable color for garments. There the color was derived from a plant known as purple gromwell. This dye didn't cling to fabric very well which made purple garments usually cost five times more expensive to make.
In ancient Europe, the rulers of the Byzantine Empire also used purple as the imperial color, for diplomatic gifts, and even for imperial documents and the pages of the Bible.
The Renaissance saw purple become less favored by the monarchy and more by the professors of many of Europe's new universities. It was at this time that the Virgin Mary was usually depicted wearing purple robes.
The 18th century saw lighter shades of purple being worn by rulers, like Catherine the Great, and members of the aristocracy, and rarely by ordinary people, because of its high cost. This changed in the 19th century when a British chemist accidentally created a purple-shaded aniline dye called mauveine or mauve. Before this discovery, mauve was a color only the rich could afford but now it could be produced by the ton in a factory.
In the 20th century, rulers continued using purple but the color also became part of the Women's Suffrage movement (along with white and green). It later became the color for the women's liberation movement.
The 1960s and early 70s saw purple become the color for nonconformists and psychedelics.
In the first decade of the 21st century, purple neckties became popular among business and political leaders. The purple necktie combined the strengths and characteristics of red and blue, and it went well with the blue business suit.
Purple Colors: Psychology and Meaning
Artists have used the color purple since prehistoric times so it's no surprise that the color has picked up several meanings through the centuries.
As previously mentioned, purple dye was difficult and expensive to produce which made it available only to the super-wealthy. This led to purple being associated with royalty, worn only by rulers and monarchs around the world.
Before the Muslim conquest of Constantinople, purple and violet were colors of piety and religious faith. Purple is also linked with penitence as Anglican and Catholic priests often wore purple stoles when hearing confessions. Purple is also associated with theology as senior pastors of Protestant churches and bishops of the Anglican Communion wear the color.
People in Europe and America often associate purple with vanity, extravagance, and individualism. It's the color that represents pride (in the 7 deadly sins) and is often worn to get attention.
Because purple rarely occurs naturally, it's also become symbolic of the artificial and unconventional.
Like most colors produced by combining two other colors, purple also represents uncertainty, ambiguity, and ambivalence.
Shades of Purple
Now that we've discussed the color purple's history and symbolism, let's move on to its various shades.
As of writing this article, purple has 30 different shades. These include the following:
1. Tyrian Purple
Tyrian purple has a very deep red color. It's the origin of the name "purple" which came from the Latin word purpura which is the color of a dye extracted from a mollusk found on the shores of the city of Tyre in ancient Phoenicia.
2. Royal Purple
Royal purple has a strong violet color.
It's bluer than Tyrian purple and was first given its name as a color in 1661.
3. Munsell Purple
Munsell purple is a vivid shade of purple. This is the purple defined in the Munsell color system.
Mauve is a brilliant pale purple.
It's named after the mallow flower which shares its color and, sometimes, its name.
5. Phlox (Psychedelic purple)
Phlox or psychedelic purple is a vivid purple color. This tone was produced by combining fluorescent magenta and fluorescent blue. This color was popular among hippies and the favorite color of the musician Jimi Hendrix.
Eminence is a deep purple color.
The color name eminence, used since the 1800s, has been used for this color since 2001 due to the Xona.com Color List.
Palatinate is a deep reddish-purple (or a pale shade of violet). It's associated with the University of Durham pointing back to the status of Durham being a County Palatine.
Modifying Purple Acrylic Paints
Now that you have a deeper understanding of the color purple and some of its shades, it's time to learn how to make some of your own. As artists, we usually look for the right shade of color to really make our painting pop.
If you don't happen to have the exact shade you need, here's how you can modify your purple acrylic paint to achieve your desired shade.
How to Create Warmer Shades of Purple
You can make a warmer purple by either mixing purple with a warmer red or making a warm purple out of a warm red as a base and then mixing it with some blue.
How to Create Cooler Purple Shades
Similar to the above, you can make a cooler purple either by mixing purple with a cooler blue or making a cooler purple by using a cooler blue as a base and mixing it with red.
How to Mute Purple Colors