Visual Culture
A Brief History of Living Coral, Pantone’s Color of the Year
Courtesy of Pantone.

Courtesy of Pantone.

In 1911, Russian abstract painter wrote in his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art: “Orange is like a man, convinced of his own powers.” Indeed, a century later, orange tones have been associated with a certain man in power with an affinity for the tanning bed.
But looking back at the hues that have been anointed Pantone’s color of the year over the past decade or so, it became clear that we were overdue for a vivid warm tone (the last one was 2012’s Tangerine Tango). And in fact, Pantone did choose a member of the orange family this year, a rich shade that evokes sunsets and the marine invertebrate, which inspired its name, Living Coral.
Like 2016’s Greenery, Pantone chose a punchy, optimistic hue—officially, PANTONE 16-1546—that is linked to our natural world, drawing attention to the beauty of coral, a living organism that is dying fast due to our increasingly warming oceans.
Courtesy of Pantone.

Courtesy of Pantone.

Coral is the calcium-carbonate skeleton formed by undersea polyp (a tiny animal), which cluster together to form colonies, or reefs. It was first harvested for jewelry by the ancient Egyptians, and worn in Rome to ward off evil. (Pliny the Elder specifically noted its usefulness against temptresses.) That protective feature also made its way into the —baby Jesus was often shown with a coral amulet. Coral was also highly valued in the Victorian era, when it was carved for delicate cameo portraits; it was incorporated into sleek jewelry in the first half of the 20th century; and it was prized in its raw form by the hippies of the 1960s and ’70s.
When found in nature, coral is not always the same color; it can be a rosy pink, or a rare gold, or even ink black. Even Living Coral, a recognizable shade of pinkish red-orange, can shimmer between tones when seen under different light. Though Pantone’s purpose is to standardize the nuance of color, this multivalent choice is a reminder that colors are often in the eye of the beholder (quite literally).
Before the 16th century, if you had pointed to the color orange, someone in China would have said yellow, or saffron; in Europe, red, or geoluhread, Old English for yellow-red. It wasn’t until eponymous fruits were introduced to the West in the late 15th century, by way of Portuguese merchants coming from Asia, that the Sanskrit word nāraṅga was coined. It eventually made its way down the etymological ladder, populating the romance languages before its final stop in English as “orange.”
The first orange pigments were not red mixed with yellow, but naturally occuring ochres, muddied by impurities. The first vivid orange pigment was harvested from the mineral realgar in antiquity, but like many pigments, it’s dangerous. “Known as ‘the ruby of arsenic,’ realgar is extremely toxic,” paint-maker David Coles writes in his forthcoming book Chromotopia: An Illustrated History of Color. “The red crystals of the mineral yield a rich orange pigment, but it is made of arsenic disulphide.” Realgar was found in geothermal fissures, along with its yellow sister-mineral, orpiment. (Interestingly enough, Coles notes, in China, though both were called yellow, the former was “masculine” while the latter was “feminine.”) But it wasn’t a hit with artists or craftsmen due to its instability as a color; it did, however, gain popularity as a means for pest control in the Middle Ages.
Minium, or “red lead,” was a more useful orange pigment. One of the first synthetic hues to ever be produced, it was created by the Roman Empire. Cheap and easy to make, red lead could come in shades of ruby or orange, and was used prolifically for centuries. It was especially favored for medieval paintings: Painters who specialized in its use were known as miniators; their craft, painting at a very small scale, often for illuminated manuscripts, was named “miniaturas,” the basis of the word we use to identify tiny things today.
Red lead gave way to vermilion in the Middle Ages, and the deep red of vermilion enjoyed a long history of use in Europe, India, and China. In the mid-18th century, technology had advanced far enough that all iron-oxide pigments (reds, oranges, and yellows) could be mass-produced. But it wasn’t until the introduction of cadmium yellow in 1840, followed by cadmium red in 1910, that the full range of orange hues was unleashed to the world. Cadmium pigments are much more chemically stable than their predecessors.
Coral, being one of them, became a favorite among the in the 20th century, from the sunrises of to the parasols of . It carried on into the warm scenes of ’s French Polynesia, ’s tabletop flowers, and ’s poppy blooms. It appeared in the paper cut-outs of , and grew wild and lyrical in the works of the —Kandinsky, as mentioned, waxed poetic about its closest familial relation, describing orange as “red brought nearer to humanity by yellow.”
Orange has also been recognized as a color of introspection and spirituality. In Hinduism, orange represents purity; Buddhists, too, believe it to be the color of illumination, the perfected self. Monks of both religions may don robes that are closer to Tangerine Tango than Living Coral, but the history is there, just the same. As we enter 2019, we should remember coral’s links to perfection, to preciosity, and to protection from harm, and do our part to reciprocate and protect it, too.
Jacqui Palumbo is Artsy’s Visual Culture Editor.