On the left is a small glass bottle on its side. It contains bright yellow powder. Beside it to the right are small piles of bright blue, yellow and red powder. This is all against a black background.

Fluorescents: a brightly coloured accident

The hairy Greek polymath Aristotle believed that all colour was celestial light, bestowed upon us by the gods. His mentor Plato, on the other hand, had a theory that our eyes emit rays that join together with daylight to form a luminous medium. They had some fun ideas in ancient antiquity, didn’t they? But in fairness to them, colour has always been a tricky concept to understand. After all, colour isn’t ‘real’ – it only exists in our brains and they, as we know, are pretty mysterious. When we look at colour, in fact what we’re really seeing is our brain’s interpretation of light.

Of course, we humans rarely accept what we’re given without question and simply cannot be satisfied with just ‘seeing’. We are compelled to show others what we see – and how we see it. So, given that our world is an extraordinary and colourful place, for hundreds of years our brilliant brains have been busily translating our incredible, subtle and sometimes wild interpretations of light into the things we make. And in order to do this, we needed to mimic the colours we see around us. Over the centuries, this search for perfect colours have led to some, frankly, bizarre, baffling and downright weird concoctions and experiments. The kinds of things that will have you asking ‘Ok, how on earth did someone stumble across that?!’

For example, the painter JMW Turner was a huge fan of yellow. Not just any yellow, but a deep and luminescent orange-yellow that was vivid and bright in sunlight. In his pursuit of this elusive radiance, he used a paint called ‘Indian Yellow’, which was known to smell absolutely terrible. Why? Because it was made from urine. When cows eat mango leaves, the result is brightly coloured excreta which, when dried, forms a deep yellow pigment (although how this was discovered is anyone’s guess!). Despite the foul odour, the demand for Indian Yellow was enough that a significant number of cows were exclusively fed mango leaves in order to harvest and sell the resulting pigment. Eventually, the process was declared to be ‘inhumane’ and outlawed. However, this wasn’t the only decidedly grim example of the pursuit of perfect colour – history has documented hundreds of years of crushing up beetles (carmine red), grinding up bones (bone black) and pulverising long-dead bodies (mummy brown) to create precise colour matches. It just so happens that Turner’s beloved Indian Yellow might actually be an early foray into the world of fluorescent colour.

A deep yellow/orange lump of ‘rock’, against a grey background.
From high odour: Turner’s famed ‘Indian Yellow’ pigment was known to smell appalling. (indian yellow, C.I. 75320, historical dye collection of the Technical University of Dresden, Germany, shared under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)
Ten high-visibility fluorescent yellow jackets, hanging closely side by side. They have grey reflective strips at the elbow, wrist and shoulder.
To high vis: The first truly fluorescent pigments were used in the war effort. Today, we are used to seeing fluorescents in everything from clothing to street signs.

Now, it’s important to clarify here that when something is fluorescent, it certainly packs a big colour punch but it’s not the same as phosphorescence, which is the kind of ‘glow in the dark’ effect that lingers for a few minutes, or sometimes even hours. Of course, both occur naturally in the world but only Turner and a handful of other artists actively sought out pigments to create a rarefied sense of ‘glow’ to their paintings. And certainly, the bright, highly artificial fluorescent pigments that we are familiar with today didn’t arrive until the 1930s, coinciding with the huge popularity of the first neon lights, which were excitedly springing up on signage all over the world, most notably on cinemas and in Time Square, New York. This is why ‘fluorescent’ and ‘neon’ are often used interchangeably to describe bright colours, even though ‘neon’ is actually a colourless gas.

The story goes that Robert Switzer, the inventor of the first truly fluorescent paints, suffered a terrible accident in the summer of 1933, fracturing his skull and severing an optic nerve and was instructed by doctors to stay in a darkened room until he recovered his eyesight. To pass the time, he and his brother Joseph began experimenting with fluorescent materials because they thought it would be fun for a magic show. Eventually they mixed some of these compounds with a glue-like substance called shellac and inadvertently created the first black-light fluorescent paints. As a result, they started a company and were hired during the war to create daylight fluorescent pigments for the war effort. Bob and Joe basically gave the world the hi-vis jacket. One can’t begin to imagine how many lives they’ve saved since.

However, despite the sixties being synonymous with bright, primary colours and futuristic fashion, fluorescents only really came into their own as a cultural phenomenon many decades later, coinciding with the advent of colour television and the widespread availability of high-quality cameras. In the 1980s, the world suddenly started ‘thinking in colour’ – the brighter, the better! And although this is the decade most remembered for the fluorescents craze, we’ve never actually looked back. The fact is, they stand out. They catch the eye. In the right quantities, they are a powerful tool. Think of the trend for playful bright neon signs in home décor. The bright oranges, greens, pinks and yellows in sportswear evoke energy. It’s a suite of colour as associated with nightlife as it is safety. The subtle fluorescent glow of Turner’s paintings is a far cry from today’s acid yellows.

Thankfully, in terms of colour and design, we’ve learnt a lot from the eighties and now know that the power of fluorescents lies in carefully balancing their use, as opposed to splashing them everywhere. Whether it’s graphic design, styling fashion and interiors, or creating art, it’s wise to proceed with some fluoro-caution. A pop of colour can be just what you need to attract attention but too much can actually have the opposite effect. For businesses, their careful use in advertising and branding design can be a powerful tool. Fluorescents, although relatively new, have become the hard workers of colour – when you notice them, they’re doing their job – and have quickly settled into an important place in life’s colour palette.

Written by Hiroaki Shirakawa