The Alchemy of Purple
Basic purple is a secondary color, a mix of the primary colors red and blue. The name comes from a prized dye extracted from the murex snail as far back as ancient Greece. The range of purple shades, from crimsons to violets, depends on the proportions of red and blue in the blend. Purple is warmer and has more red in it than violet, a color name often used interchangeably with purple. But violet, closer to blue on a painter's palette, is actually beyond blue, at the end of the visible light spectrum observed in a rainbow -- a light color in its own right. Violet and purple officially belong to the cool end of the color spectrum; their complement, the color opposite them on the color wheel, is yellow.
Infinite Shades of Purple
The Color Association of the United States lists numerous variations on a red-blue mix: violet-pink, lavender, lilac, violet, pansy, plum, purple, periwinkle, cornflower, purple-orchid, dahlia-purple, imperial-purple, heliotrope, orchid, amethyst and others. Prune, raspberry, claret, aubergine and burgundy all contain strong overtones of purple. The Pantone Color Institute, which publishes a twice-yearly gallery of choices that influence fashion, home decor and other color trends, picked Radiant Orchid, a vivid hue with a lot of red, as its Color of the Year in 2014, calling it "expressive, creative, beguiling and magical." A Pantone key color for Fall 2015 is the softer Amethyst Orchid, "intriguing, vibrant, sensual and enigmatic."
The color associated with power, piety and royalty -- precisely because it was rare, expensive and hard to come by -- had humble and very smelly beginnings. The first purples were derived from a secretion of the Bolinus brandaris, the spiny dye-murex marine snail. The snail was easily harvested from rocks in shallow Mediterranean waters and boiled to make a dye called Tyrian purple. Massive quantities of the snails were needed to create dye baths to stain cloth that was then purchased by nobles. The boiling process released an extremely unpleasant odor, a workplace hazard offset by the high price the cloth could command. Emperors, kings and high-ranking church officials wore purple -- they were the only people who could afford it -- and the color took on exalted connotations.
Purple, in its many guises, is such a strong color that a little of it goes a long way in decor. The palest, most shimmering lilac or faded lavender might be a soothing backdrop as a wall color. But more vibrant mulberry, amethyst, royal purple and deep violet are best limited to sofa upholstery; a leather-covered pouf; a marquee cabinet; a bedspread and four-poster drapes; a note in the abstract carpet; and an echoing shade in the taffeta pinch-pleat curtains. Lavender, lilac and grape are romantic in a bedroom and alternatives to the ubiquitous pink in a little girl's room. A single orchid plant or a vase of irises in a neutral or all-white room is dramatic without being flamboyant.