WITH a few prisms and some brilliantly crafted experiments, Sir Isaac Newton established in 1704 that color was the effect of refracted light. This emphasis on color-as-light has endured throughout Modernity and encouraged an ever-more immaterial approach to hue. Indeed, notions of color’s immateriality have flourished in the era of pixelation, as a limitless diversity of colors seems available to anyone with an electronic screen. And yet, for most of human history, color has been the consequence of things; pigments and dyes have come from stones, plants, insects, and animals. This rootedness in stuff has made color especially impactful. Just consider this selected list of vocations that have been heavily influenced by the substance of hue:

  • Explorers who tracked down and mapped pigment deposits, and the miners who dug them up
  • Agricultural workers (many of them enslaved) who harvested plants, bugs, and other organic sources of dyestuff
  • Exporters who braved deserts, hurricanes, highway robbery and the tedium of customs protocol to bring color to market
  • Apothecaries who retailed pigments as both colorants and medication
  • Counterfeiters who profited from adulterating their color inventory, and the lawmen who prosecuted them
  • Scientists who developed synthetic coloring agents
  • Factory workers who toiled over vats of lye and steaming mordant
  • Modern “colourmen” who assembled swatches and sample books to assure clientele of their stock’s reliability
  • Medical professionals who treated those poisoned by toxic makeup and paint

Attending to color’s materiality, then, reveals a bold line that cuts across global history, linking disparate geographies, political economies, artistic cultures and intellectual disciplines. With this two-day symposium of internationally recognized scholars of color, we aim to facilitate a vigorous engagement among artists, humanities-based scholars, and scientists at Penn State and beyond. A concluding discussion will bring conference participants together to debate the methodological strengths and limitations of the framework, as well as future directions.

Sarah Rich and Daniel Zolli

Conference Organizers




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