Most of the records from days of yore come through in black and white. Colour photography didn’t become popular until the mid-20th century, which gives us the impression that everything that came before then was rather drab.
Pre-photography records only come in whatever physical artifacts have managed to weather the years. Most statues we see are stark white, and the ruins of past civilizations are by and large a dull grey.
But colour isn’t a modern phenomenon. Far from it.
Ancient Greek buildings and sculptures were painted with bright colours
All those bright white marble columns and statues can give you the impression that Ancient Greek society was minimalist and plain. But that’s not what they used to look like.
Yes: most ancient Grecian marble was painted with every colour under the sun.
Any art that’s made its way through all these years usually ends up quite battered along the way. And over the years, the paint job has worn off of almost all the buildings and sculptures we’ve found.
In our modernity, we think that Greek “antiquities” are simply supposed to look that way. But it’s not true; originally, they were bursting with colour.
The terracotta warriors in Xi’an China were painted, too
And it all came off when we dug them up.
There are over 8000 figures in the Terracotta Army. The iconic red of the clay they’re made from is unmistakable.
But they’re not supposed to look like that.
Originally, they were all painted. The figures were first coated with a lacquer, then decorated with several layers of paint. Egg was used as a binding agent.
When the figures were discovered, the excavation caused them to be exposed to oxygen for the first time in centuries. It dried up the lacquer, causing the paint to flake off in droves.
Bonus fact: the soldier figures originally held bronze weapons, too. But these were pillaged long before the site was rediscovered in modern times.
European castles were full of colour and warmth
When scholars first studied ruins of castles, they lacked artifacts that could have told them what the interiors actually looked like. So, for fear of getting it wrong, they just left the walls blank.
Which has given everyone the impression that medieval royalty really hated colour.
Not so. Most castles were artfully decorated, often using draperies composed of many bright colors. They kept the place warm, both in temperature and aesthetics.
Dover Castle is a great example of this. The modern restorers have done it up in vibrant shades of all the primary colours.
The outsides of castles were rarely grey, either. Many were whitewashed, so would have stood out as bright beacons on any horizon. Some were even done up in colours – the Stirling castle in Scotland is thought to have been a darling shade of yellow.