Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Click here for the text in ancient Greek.]

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

This is a complete transcription of
de Coloribus

sometimes attributed to

as published in the
Loeb Classical Library
Cambridge (Mass.) and London, 1936

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

Aristotle: Minor Works

 p1  On Colours
(de Coloribus)


The work appears in pp1‑45 of the Loeb Classical Library's edition of Aristotle's Minor Works, first published in 1936. It is now in the public domain pursuant to the 1978 revision of the U. S. Copyright Code, since the copyright expired in 1964 and was not renewed at the appropriate time, which would have been that year or the year before. (Details here on the copyright law involved.)

Loeb Edition Introduction

 p3  All authorities are agreed that this tract was not written by Aristotle; but though it has been assigned both to Theophrastus and to Strato, there is really no evidence upon which to determine the author­ship. It probably emanates from one of the Peripatetic School.

As the author states at the end of the treatise, it is intended rather to supply data for a detailed examination into the scientific theory of colour than to expound a complete thesis. He has realized that the development of colour in animals and plants depends to some extent on heat, and he seems to suggest that heat and moisture are the controlling factors. It is of more value as a collection of observed facts than for any theory of the origin and development of colour in physical life. There is of course no knowledge of the part played by chemical action; but the author distinguishes between primary and secondary colours and raises a doubt whether black is a colour at all.

 p5  1 [link to original Greek text] 830A Those colours are simple which belong to the elements, fire, air, water and earth. For air and water are naturally white in themselves, while fire and the sun are golden. The earth is also naturally white, but seems coloured because it is dyed. This becomes clear when we consider ashes; for they become white when the moisture which caused their dyeing is burned out of them; but not completely so, for they are also dyed by smoke, which is black. In the same way sand becomes golden, because the fiery red and black tints the water. The colour black belongs to the elements of things while they are undergoing a transformation of their nature. But the other colours are evidently due to mixture, when they are blended with each other. For darkness follows when light fails.

But black appears to us in three ways. In the first, that which is not seen is, generally speaking, black naturally (for any light from such things is reflected as black); or secondly, black is that from which no light is conveyed to the eyes; for that which is not seen, when the surrounding region is seen, gives an impression of black. Thirdly, all things appear black of the kind from which a very small amount of light is reflected. This is why shadows appear to be black.  p7 In the same way water appears to be black when it is rough, as for instance the ripple of the sea; for owing to the roughness of the surface few rays can fall on it, and the light is scattered, and so what is in shadow appears black. It is for the same reason that cloud appears to be black when it is very thick. It is just the same with water and air when the light does not entirely penetrate them. For these also appear to be black when deep, for very few rays of light are totally reflected; for all those parts which are in between the light parts seem to be black because of the darkness. One can learn from many facts that darkness is not a colour at all, but is merely an absence of light, and particularly from the fact that it is not possible to perceive in darkness the character or shape of anything, as it is in the case of visible objects.

But that light is the colour of fire is clear from the fact that it is discovered to have no colour but this, and because it alone is visible by itself, whereas all other things are visible by means of it. This point must be further considered. For some things which are neither fire nor forms of fire seem to produce light by nature. Unless the colour of fire is light, light is not the colour of fire alone; but it is possible that this colour does not belong to fire merely, but that light is actually its colour. Certainly visibility is impossible in any way except by light, just as the visibility of all other bodies is only possible by the appearance of colour. But the colour black is seen when air and water are burned by fire; thus all things grow black when burning, such as wood and coals  p9 when the fire is quenched, and the smoke from potter's clay when the moisture which is in the clay separates out and is burned. For this reason smoke that arises from fat and oily matter is the blackest, such as from oil, pitch and a pinewood torch, because these burn to the greatest extent and have continuity of substance. Those things also become black through which water flows, when the moisture of those which are grown over with moss first dries up, like the plaster in walls. Stones behave in the same way in the presence of water. For these too when moss-grown and afterwards dried become black in colour.

These then are all the simple colours.

2 [link to original Greek text] The other colours derived from these by mixture in greater or smaller proportions make many different varieties. By greater and smaller proportions I mean such as red and purple, by mixture such as white and black, which when mixed give an appearance of grey. So when what is black and shady is mixed with light the result is red. For we see that, when what is black is mixed with the light of the sun and fire, the result is always red, and black things when burned always change to the colour red; for smoky flame and coal, when it is burned through, are seen to have a red colour. Purple is gay and bright whenever the rays of the sun are a weak mixture of white and shady. Consequently at the hours of sunrise and sunset the air seems to have a purple tint, the sun being at its rising or setting. For its rays being weak at the time are cast upon the air when it is inclined to be dark. The sea again has  p11 a purple tinge when the waves rise at an angle, and consequently are in shadow; for the sun's rays striking feebly at an angle cause the colour to appear purple. The same thing is seen to occur with plumage; for when exposed to the light it has a purple tint. When less light strikes it, it is of that dark tint which men call grey-brown; when however the light is strong and mixed with primary black it becomes red. But when it is light and shining as well it changes to flame colour.

As far as mixture with each other is concerned we must begin our inquiry by making a mixture starting with an observed base, but not assuming a similar origin for all. For some colours are not simple, but the same relation applies to some of the compound colours as the simple ones bear to them, because in a sense the simple colours must be mixed with one of these compounds, and we must not assume it to be equally obvious in every case even on a close inspection. For when we speak of a mixture of purple and red we must explain on similar lines those which are a mixture of these two and produce another colour, but must not expect a similar appearance. We must then base our assumptions and our examination of mixtures on what has been prepared before, for instance that the colour of dark wine occurs when sunlight rays are mixed with what is pure black and what is glittering, like the berries of the grape; for their colour is said to be wine-dark at the moment of ripening; for, when they are growing black, red changes to purple. According to the method we have laid down we must inquire into all the variations of colour, finding similarity of colour in objects  p13 undergoing movement according to their actual appearance, finding similar explanations of the mixing in each case, even in the case of those which both by origin and through mixture produce the appearance, and by bringing forward convincing proof. But we must make our investigation into these things not by mixing these colours as painters do, but by comparing the rays which are reflected from those to which we have already referred. For one could especially consider the mixing of rays in nature. But we require convincing proof and a consideration of similarities, if the origin of the colours is to become obvious. This is especially the case with the light of the sun, and that which comes from fire, air and water; for these being mixed in greater or less proportions produce in a sense all the colours. One must also base conclusions on the similarities of the other colours, when mixed with the rays of the sun; for coal, smoke, rust and sulphur and plumage when mixed, some with the rays of the sun and some with fire, provide many variations of colour. Other colours, again, must be considered in ripening, occurring as they do in plants and fruit, hair and feathers and all such things.

3 [link to original Greek text] We must not, however, neglect the variegated and the ill‑defined among colours, and the quantities to which their occurrence is due. We shall find that it is because they have an unequal and disproportionate share of light and shade; for the difference between light and shade is a quantitative difference of more and less, so that by themselves and when mixed with colours they cause change of colour, either because the colours mixed differ in quantity and strength, or because they have not the same proportions.  p15 For purple exhibits a large number of variations, and so does red and white, and each of the other colours, both in the matter of greater and less, and in their mixture with each other and in their purity. It also makes a difference whether the colour mixed is bright and shining, or on the contrary dark and dull. Shining is nothing but the continuity and intensity of light. A golden colour appears when what is yellow and sunny gleams with great intensity. This is why the necks of doves and drops of water appear golden when light is reflected from them. Some objects, when smoothed by rubbing or by other forces, exhibit varied and different colours, like * * *,​1 for though black they draw white lines, because they are originally composed of small elements which are thick and black, and by the dyeing process which takes place when they are made, all the passages through which the dyeing passes are coloured, so that a different appearances is given to the colour. But what is rubbed off from them is no longer golden in appearance, nor bronze, nor has it any other such tinge, but it is entirely black, because by the rubbing the passages through which the dyeing takes place are broken up, but originally they are of the same colour. For when the former colour is no longer obvious to us, because the dyeing process is dissipated, we see the colour which naturally belongs to them; and so they all appear black. But in the process of  p17 rubbing each of them to a homogeneous and smooth surface, as in treating on a touchstone, they lose their blackness, and recover their colour, the dye showing through when there is contact and continuity. But in the case of things burned and being disintegrated and melting in the fire those exhibit most colours where the smoke is light and misty and the colours are dark, like the smoke that arises from sulphur and from rusty bronze, and all substances which are dense and smooth such as silver. But other cases of variety are those which have dark colours and some measure of smoothness, such as water, clouds and birds' plumage. For these owing to their smoothness and the rays that fall upon them, mixed in various ways, produce various colours, just as darkness does.

We do not see any of the colours pure as they really are, but all are mixed with others; or if not mixed with any other colour they are mixed with rays of light and with shadows, and so they appear different and not as they are. Consequently things appear different according to whether they are seen in shadow or in sunlight, in a hard or a soft light, and according to the angle at which they are seen and in accordance with other differences as well. Those which are seen in the light of the fire or the moon and by the rays of a lamp differ by reason of the light in each case: and also by the mixture of the colours with each other; for in passing through each other they are coloured; for when light falls on something, and, being tinted by it, becomes reddish or greenish, and then the reflected light falls on another colour, being again mixed with it, it takes on still another mixture of colour. And by being affected in this way,  p19 continually but imperceptibly, it sometimes reaches the eyes as a mixture of many colours, but producing the sensation of the most predominant; so in water things appear more watery and things seen in mirrors appear to have similar colours to those in the mirrors. This also happens, one would suppose, in the case of air. So that all colours are a mixture of three things, the light, the medium through which the light is seen, such as water and air, and thirdly, the colours forming the ground, from which the light happens to be reflected. But the white and the transparent, when it is very thin, appears misty in colour. But over what is dense a haze invariably appears, as in the case of water, glass and air, when it is dense. For, as the rays from all directions fail owing to the density, we cannot see accurately into their inner parts. But the air when examined from near by seems to have no colour (for owing to its thinness it is controlled by the rays and is divided up by them, because they are denser and show right through it), but when examined in depth, the air appears from very near by to be blue in colour because of its rarity. For where the light fails, there, being penetrated by darkness at this point, it appears blue. But when dense, just as with water, it is the whitest of all things.

4 [link to original Greek text] All dyed things take their colour from what dyes them. For many are coloured by the flowers of plants, many by the roots, many again by bark or wood or leaves or fruit. Many again are coloured by earth, by foam, and many by ink; others again are coloured by animal juices, such as purple by the murex. Others again by wine, by smoke, by sand,  p21 or by sea as is the case with the hair among sea creatures; for these are all made reddish by the sea. This is true, speaking generally, of all those which have distinctive colours. For when the colours enter the passages of that which is being dyed together with moisture and heat, when they are dried they take their colours with them. And so it is often washed out of them, when the dye flows out of the passages. But the steeping in alum in the dyeing process produces many differences and mixtures, and so do the qualities of the substances dyed, as has been said before in the case of mixtures. When black fleeces are dyed they do not become all equally bright in colour, because their passages are dyed when the dye enters into them, but the spaces in between the hair receive no dye. These being white and lying side by side with the colours make the dye appear brighter; the black parts on the other hand are shadowy and dark. Consequently what is called brown-grey is brighter when on black wool than on white. For in this case the dye appears purer, being mingled with the rays of the black. By itself the space in between the passages is not noticed because of its smallness, just as tin is not noticed when it is mixed with bronze, nor any other such thing. The colours of things dyed vary in kind according to the reasons we have outlined.

5 [link to original Greek text] Hair and plumage and flowers and fruit and all plants can in many ways be seen to take on changes of colour at the time of ripening; but now we have to consider what are the primary sources of the  p23 colours which belong naturally to each species, what changes they exhibit and from what and for what reason they are thus affected, and whether any other difficulties follow these facts. The inquiry depends on the following facts. The primary colour of all plants is green; for shoots and leaves and fruit are all green to begin with. One can see exactly the same thing in rain water; when the water has stood for a long time, as it dries up again it becomes green in colour. This happens logically, and in all growing things this is the first colour that obtains. For all water that stands for a long time is green originally, being mixed with the rays of the sun, but it gradually grows black, but becomes green again when mixed with fresh water. For anything moist, as has been said, as it grows old by itself and dries up, becomes black, as plaster does in its receptacles; for all things which are always in water become black, because the moisture does not grow cold and dry, but all that is drained out and exposed to the sun becomes green because the yellow is mixed with the black. Or rather, as the moist part blackens, the green becomes very dark, and of the colour of a leek. Consequently the older shoots are much blacker than the young ones; the latter are yellower because the moisture in them has not yet turned black. For as their growth becomes slower and their moisture lasts for a long time, as the moisture becomes very black as it cools, it changes to leek-green by being mixed with pure black.

 p25  But in the case of those in which the moisture is not mixed with the rays of the sun, their white colour persists, unless it grows black by lasting a long time and drying up first. Consequently in all plants the parts above the earth are green at first, but beneath the earth stalks and roots are white.​2 Shoots, again, if they are below the earth are white, but if the earth is removed from around them they all become green right from the first, as has been said before, because the moisture which passes down into them through the shoots has this colour naturally and in the case of fruits this is soon spent on growth; but when they no longer grow, it is because the heat cannot control the food which flows into them, but on the contrary the moisture is exhausted by the heat. Then all the fruits become ripe; and as the moisture in them is also warmed by the sun and the heat of the atmosphere, each combines to take the colours from the juices, just as those which are dyed from the flowers. So they are coloured little by little, and most of all those which are turned towards the sun and the warmth.

So that the colours change in accordance with the seasons. This is obvious; those of a green hue all change as they grow ripe to their natural colour. For they are white, black, grey, yellow, blackish, dark, dull-coloured red, wine-dark and saffron and exhibit almost all the differences of colour. But since the largest number of colours appear when more are mixed with each other, it is obvious that the colours in plants  p27 must have the same mixture; for the moisture penetrating through them, and washing all colours through with it, produces all the possible colours. And as this is warmed up in the ripening of the fruit by the sun and the warmth of the air, each of the colours becomes fixed by itself, some more quickly and some more slowly, as occurs in dyeing by the murex. For when they have cut this open and drained from it all the moisture, and have poured this out and boiled it in vessels, at first none of the colours is quite obvious in the dye, because as the liquid boils more, and the colours which are still in it get more mixed, each of them exhibits many and various differences; for there is black and white, and dull, and misty, and finally all becomes purple when the boiling is complete, so that in the mixture none of the other colours is visible by itself.

The same thing occurs with fruits. For in many of them owing to the fact that the ripening of all the colours does not take place at once, but some form earlier and others later, they change from one to the other, as in grapes and dates. For some of these become red at first, but as the black is formed in them they turn to wine-dark; but at last they become purplish, when the red colour is mixed with a large quantity of pure black. For those colours which are formed later, when they prevail, cause the  p29 previous colours to change. This is most obvious in the case of the black fruits; for the larger number of them, as has been said, changing from their initial green redden and become tawny, but they soon change again from the red and become purple owing to the unmixed black which exists in them. But this proves the point; for cuttings, and shoots, and leaves of all such plants are red, because this kind of colour exists in them, since it is obvious that the black fruits share in both these colours; for the juice of all such plants is wine-dark.

But in their order of origin the red comes before the black. This is obvious; for the ground upon which the drops fall and speaking generally any spot at which there is a moderate fall of water in dark places all change first from a greenish colour to red, and the ground becomes as though blood had been recently spilled on the spot in which the green takes on the ripening; at the end this becomes very black and blueish. The same thing happens with fruits. In their case it is easy to see that the colour of the fruit changes, as the colours are laid on it afterwards. For the fruit of the pomegranate and the petals of the rose are white to begin with, but at last as the juices in them get tinted by ripening, they become shaded off and change again to the colour of sea‑purple and red. Other things have more  p31 colours in them, such as the juice of the poppy and the lees of the olive; for the latter is white at first, just like the fruit of the pomegranate, but after having grown white again it changes to the colour red, and at last by being mixed with black it becomes blueish. Consequently the leaves of the poppy are reddish on top, because their ripening comes quickly, but their other parts are black at the bottom, as this colour prevails in them, as is also the case with the fruit; for at last it becomes black. In the case of those plants which have one colour only, such as white, black, red or purple, the fruits of all these persist in having the same type of colour, when once they change from green to another colour. The flowers are in some cases of the same colour as the fruit, as is true of the pomegranate; for both its fruit and its flower become reddish; in some cases there is a great difference in colour, for instance in the bay and the ivy; for the flower of all these species is yellow, but the fruit of the latter is black and of the former red. The same thing is true of the apple-tree; for its flower is white tending to grow purple, while its fruit is golden. The flower of the poppy is red, and its fruit partly black and partly white, according to the ripening of the juices in it at different times. One can see this in many cases; for some fruits, as has already been said, exhibit many variations at the time of ripening.

So it happens that very different scents and juices  p33 are associated with both flower and fruit. This is still more obvious in the case of the flowers themselves, for, in the same petal, part may be black and part red and in some cases part may be white and part purplish. This is specially true of the iris;​3 for this plant has many differences in colour during its ripening, as is also the case with grapes, when they come to ripen. So in their case the tips of the flowers ripen, but these at the extremities have much less colour than the rest. In some of them the moisture is, so to speak, burned out of them before they take on their own proper ripening. So the flowers remain of one colour, but the fruit changes as it ripens. Some plants owing to the smallness of their food ripen quickly, but the fruits owing to their quantity of moisture change at the time of their ripening into all their natural colours. This is clear, as has been said before, especially in the case of dyeing with colour. For sometimes to begin with, when they are dyeing purple and put in the blood‑red dye, it becomes grey-brown, black and sky‑blue; but when the dye is boiled enough, it becomes quite purple, gay, and bright. In the same way many of the flowers must differ from the colours of the fruits, some receiving an excess and some a deficiency of their natural colours, owing to the fact that in some the ripening is incomplete, and in some complete. For these reasons it happens that flowers and fruit differ from each other in colour; but the leaves of most trees become yellow at the end, because, when their food fails, they  p35 dry before they change into their natural colours: in the same way when fruits fall off some become yellow in colour because are food has failed them before the time of ripening. This is also true of cornº and of all growing things; for they all become yellow at the end. For the moisture in them being no longer blackened by drying causes the change of colour. For when growing black and mixed with green it becomes, as has been said, greenish; but as the black grows steadily weaker, the colour changes back again gradually to green, and at last becomes yellow. So the leaves of the parsley, purslane and of some other plants grow red as they ripen. Except for those which grow dry quickly, these become yellow because their food fails before they ripen. The differences in the colours of plants are most reasonably accounted for by the reasons we have given.

6 [link to original Greek text]Hair, plumage, skin of horses, cattle, sheep, men and all other living creatures are white and grey and red and black for the same reason; white when the moisture which possesses its own natural colour dries up, and black on the other hand when the moisture about the skin at birth, as happens in all other cases, grows black when it grows old and has lasted a long time because of its quantity; for the complexion and the skin of all such is black. Those are grey, red, yellow, and other colours, which dry  p37 before the moisture in them changes completely to black. Those in whom this change takes place unevenly have all kinds of variegated colours.

So everything accords with the skin in colour, since men of ruddy complexion have pale red hair, and dark-skinned men have black hair. But if in any part of the body white leprosy has broken out, all have also white hairs in this place, as in the beasts of varied colours. So also the hair and plumage is in accordance with the skin, and what applies to the parts applies also to the whole body. The same is true of the hoofs, talons, bills and horns; for in the black animals these are black and in the white white, because in all these cases the food passes to the outer envelope through the skin. It can be seen from many facts that this is the reason. For the heads of all infants at birth are red because of their small amount of food. But this is obvious; for the hair grows weak and thin and short at first on all infants. But as their age increases the hair grows black, as they themselves get coloured by the amount of food that flows in. Similarly when the hair on the body grows and the beard at the time of adolescence, the hairs are reddish to begin with, as the moisture dries quickly because there is but little of it, but as more food travels to the parts the hair grows black. But the hairs on the body remain red for the longest time  p39 owing to lack of nourishment, since as long as it grows these also continue to grow black, as on other parts of the body and on the head. But this is clear; for in all living creatures which have long hair, speaking generally those near the body are blacker, while those at the extremities are more golden. The hair of sheep, horses and men are so, because the least amount of food is conveyed to those parts, and so they dry quickly. But even the plumage of black birds is blackest near the body and lighter at the extremities. The same thing is true of the parts about the neck, and speaking generally those which receive but little nourishment. This is clear; for before the period of becoming grey all the hair changes colour and becomes red, because the failing food supply dries quickly. But at last it is white, before the moisture grows black, as the food in those parts is matured. This is most evident in beasts of burden; for the hair of all such grows white. For as these parts are unable to draw their sustenance because of the feebleness of the heat, the moisture dries quickly and becomes white. So with men the hair about the temples most readily grows grey, and generally speaking about the parts that are weak and hard worked.

Most of all does the change to this colour take place when it changes its own nature. For a hare has been born white, and has also been seen black; so has a stag and a bear, and similarly a quail, a partridge and  p41 a swallow. For when they are weak at birth, all such things are white owing to the shortage of sustenance, because they ripen before their time. So, too, in the case of children; at first they have white heads and eyelids and eyebrows, as is true in each case when they approach old age. Obviously this affection is due to weakness and shortage of sustenance. Consequently most of the white animals are weaker than the black; for before their growth is complete, they are white while developing owing to shortage of sustenance, just as is true of fruits which happen to be diseased; for these ripen much more quickly owing to their weakness. But some creatures are born white and are very superior to the rest, as for instance horses and dogs. These change from their natural colour to white because they are well nourished. For the moisture in them not lasting a long time but being expended on their growth does not become black. Most of these are moist and fleshy because they are well nourished. So that not even the white of the hair changes. This is obvious; for the black parts become reddish before they go grey, because their sustenance is failing and becoming riper, but white in the last stage.

Yet there are some who suppose that all things become black because the food is burned up by the heat, just like the blood and other things, but they are wrong. For some living creatures are black to start with, such as dogs, goats and cattle, and speaking generally those whose skins and hair have sustenance from the beginning, but are less so as their age  p43 advances. And yet on this assumption it ought not to be so, but the hair of all such creatures should grow blacker at their prime, at which time the heat in them is strongest, and they should be more white at the beginning. For in every case the heat is much more feeble at the beginning than at the time at which the hair is beginning to turn white. This is clear in the case of those which are white. For some have the whitest skin from the start, those namely which have the greatest sustenance at the beginning, and in which the moisture does not dry before its time. But as their age advances they become yellow, because later on less food passes into them. But others are yellow to begin with, and whitest at their prime, just as among birds the colours change when the food in them fails. And this is the proof; for they all grow yellow round the neck, and speaking generally in those parts which go short when the food begins to fail. And this is clear; for as red changes into black and black again into red, so does white change to yellow. This happens in the case of plants; for some revert from the latter state of ripeness back to the former. This is most obvious in the case of the pomegranate. For the kernels are red to start with, and so are the leaves through scarcity of digested food, but later on they change back again into a greenish colour, when much food flows into them and the ripening cannot exercise the same degree of control; but at last, as the food is assimilated, the colour becomes red again.

Speaking generally we may say of the hair and  p45 plumage, that they all admit changes, in some cases as we have said because food fails, in others on the other hand because it is in excess. Consequently some hairs at some period of its growth and some at others are whitest and blackest, since the plumage even of ravens changes to a yellow tinge at last, when the food in them fails. But in the case of hair none ever changes in such a way as to have red, purple or green nor any other such colour, because all such colours occur when the rays of the sun are mixed with them, but in the case of hair which is moist all change takes place within the flesh, and it does not involve any mixture. This is obvious; for initially plumage is not at all like this in colour, but all the varied plumage of birds is, so to speak, black, such as the peacock, the pigeon and the swallow; but later on the plumage takes on all these varied hues, when the ripening of the body has taken place, both in the feathers and in the crests, so that in these cases as with plants the ripening of the colours takes place outside the body. So the remainder of living creatures, both water animals and reptiles and shellfish, have all sorts of colours, as the ripening in them is considerable. From what we have said one could best conduct an investigation into the question of colours.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 A lacuna of six or seven letters, probably containing the name of the stone.

2 Aristotle of course does not understand the chemical action of the sun, but he does at any rate know that the green is due to the sun's action.

3 The purple iris with a yellow centre is common in Greece.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 9 Nov 12