Power colours: gold, king of colours

Power colours: gold, king of colours

Giovanni Blandino Published on 5/15/2024

The story behind that most symbolic of colours and its irresistible allure

Of all the colours, gold has always exerted a special allure. Whether due to its unpredictable lustre, rarity or sense mystery, few other colours catch the eye and fire the imagination of humans like the colour gold.

Can you imagine standing in awe before a golden mosaic, illuminated only by flickering candle light in the dark of a medieval church? Or luxuriating in the opulence of bathing in a golden bath tub?

Today, we’re telling the story of the colour goldthe colour of the divine and the luxurious!

What colour is gold?

The colour gold is, naturally, associated with that most precious of metals. But what colour is gold exactly? Shiny yellow, many would say, but the answer is not as obvious as it seems. In fact, gold can come in many colours because, due to its extreme malleability, it’s rarely used in pure form. More often than not, it’s alloyed with other metals, which give it different tones. The most common and best-known colour is yellow gold, which is very close to the metal’s colour in its pure form, but there are is also white gold, rose gold and green gold.

When it comes to colour psychology, gold is associated with various states of mind and ideas, most of them positive. It makes people think of happiness, prosperity and glory, as well also spirituality and transcendence. But in some cases, gold is associated with a negative excess of these things: materialism, vanity or arrogance.

If you want to use the colour gold in digital media, the HEX code is #FFDF00.

A dazzling draw for the human eye

Since the dawn of time, gold and its lustre have been intricately linked with human history. It’s hard to find a civilisation that hasn’t coveted this precious material and found all manner of uses for it.

Gold has always had a special meaning to humans. From the left: statuette of Amun (circa 945–712 B.C.); Japanese statue featuring flying apsaras (circa 11th century); Inca female figure (circa 14th century). Images: metmuseum.org

References to gold abound in myths and legends, like the story of King Midas, while throughout history tombs and temples have been literally stuffed full of it.

In ancient Egypt, gold was believed to be the meat of the gods and was used to decorate the tombs of pharaohs – supposedly bringing them immortality – as well as to create everyday objects. Similarly, for early Christians, gold symbolised transcendence and the spiritual world.

In the Americas, the Incas believed that gold was the sun’s tears, while finding El Dorado – the mythical city of gold – obsessed European conquistadors.

Art and gold ground

Because of its meaning and lustre, the colour gold also was often used in painting and art. Gold ground, in particular, a painting technique used in early Christian art, became widespread during the Byzantine era: it involved placing a very thin layer of gold on the background of paintings.

The prominent gold ground of Simone Martini’s alter piece, Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus, 1333.

Gold ground was also extremely popular with late medieval and renaissance Italian painters. They developed a technique that became known as gouache gilding: it was a method that required meticulous care and attention as it involved placing very fine layers of gold leaf over the surfaces of paintings using a water-based adhesive applied over a specially prepared base.

In the Islamic world, where art usually eschewed the depiction of people in favour of abstract or architectural shapes, the colour gold had always been employed extensively. Gold was used to illuminate textual inserts, decorative borders and architectural elements, and again, various different techniques were developed to achieve this. In Persia, for example, artists would prepare a paint made from gold powder to apply to special parchments.

The use of gold in Islamic art. Image: metmuseum.org

The return of gold in the 20th century: Gustav Klimt’s sensual women and art nouveau

In European art from the 16th century onwards, gilding disappeared from paintings, relegated to the periphery: gold was no longer found in paintings themselves, just their gilded frames.

But at the turn of the 20th century, gold made a brilliant return to paintings. And this was thanks to a new art movement that brought the colour back into fashion: art nouveau. At the height of the Belle Époque – the period straddling the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century – this new artistic movement famous for its dynamic and floral motifs began favouring backgrounds and finishes in glittering gold. Often, these were created using other materials – like a thin layer of aluminium powder – rather than using the precious metal itself.

Two works from the “golden phase” of Austrian painter Gustav Klimt: Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) and Judith I (1901)

Probably the most famous exponent of the use of gold in this period was Gustav Klimt, the Austrian painter famous for his sensual women depicted on gold grounds. During his “golden phase”, the painter used oil paint mixed with very thin gold leaf and applied this mixture directly to the canvas.

Gold in the contemporary era

And today? How is this ancient colour getting on in our modern consumer society? Despite – or perhaps because of – its rich historic symbolism, the colour gold continues to be as relevant as ever in the new millennium.

Onitsuka Tiger “MEXICO 66” trainers, gold colour. Image: onitsukatiger.com

The colour gold is used in luxury packaging and special-edition products – from videogame controllers to iPhones, from Fender guitars to perfumes, from shoes to sportswear. And, of course, the stars wear gold-coloured outfits to red-carpet events like the Oscars.

Left: actor Emma Stone; right: Florence Pugh. Both wore golden dresses to the Oscars. Images: cosmopolitan.com; vogue.co.uk

When it comes to marketing and brand identity, the colour gold isn’t for everyone. But it certainly was for luxury brand Christian Dior in 2018, when it released its J’Adore campaign that showed actor Charlize Theron swimming in a glistening golden pool.

A gold-coloured logo?

Perhaps surprisingly, gold is rarely used in logos. There are, however, two notable exemptions, both from the car world: Chevrolet and Lamborghini.

The Chevrolet logo, features the iconic cross, which today is for the most part gold, but in years past has sported various different colours, from silver to red.

The current logo for American car manufacturer Chevrolet. Image: 1000logos.net

The logo for Lamborghini, the Italian luxury car maker, depicts a golden bull inside a shield with a gilded border. It symbolises the engine’s power, while also giving a nod to founder Ferruccio Lamborghini’s

El logotipo del famoso fabricante de automóviles Lamborghini.

Some people also use the colour gold to critique and subvert everything that it represents: from the fifties onwards, contemporary artists – like American Jeff Koons – have often used this colour in their work with a sense of irony, making us reflect upon ideas of the sacred, value and celebrity.

The Balloon Dog Gold (2015) sculpture by contemporary artist Jeff Koons on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Image: flickr/Rupert Ganzer [CC CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED]

What about you? Will you be using the colour gold in your next project? And if so, how?