Colour Story: Sepia

sepia color

Sepia is a black-brown colour with a reddish tone. It is named after the Sepia cuttlefish from which this pigment derives. Cuttlefish store their ink in sacs situated between their gills and when they feel under attack, they release a cloud of ink which distracts any predator long enough for the cuttlefish to make its swift escape. While the Octopus releases black ink and the Squid a blue-black ink, the Cuttlefish produces the ink that is the brown we know as Sepia.

Sepia is edible and used today in cuisine such as the Italian dish Spaghetti al nero di seppia (Spaghetti with squid ink) and is known as Ikasumi in Japan where it is used in various foods, including ice cream. The pigment itself may leave a temporary stain on your teeth after eating it which is due to its strong pigment capacity.

This strength would be useful in the world of photography when, in the 1850s, Sepia toning would begin on black and white photography. The sulphuric Sepia would tone the photograph with a warm brown and make the image more stable and longer lasting; an important step in the longevity of photographic work that would continue to be used until the 1920s.

Today Sepia-toned photography is a visual short-hand for ‘vintage’ or ‘nostalgia’ with imagery coming to mind of the ‘Wild West’ – which can now be recreated as souvenirs in photographic studios with the aid of themed costumes and props. Because Sepia has come to represent a by-gone age, the colour is often thought of as ‘faded’, but paradoxically Sepia toning in photography helped to stop the fading of the image.

The beginning and ending scenes set in Kansas in The Wizard of Oz (1939) are in our collective memory as black and white, but they were actually Sepia. They were shot on black and white film which was then Sepia-toned, much like sepia-toned photography, to add that ‘old fashioned’ feel.

A little-known piece of trivia is to be found in the scene where Dorothy, from inside her farmhouse, opens the door to the Land of Oz and to a world of colour. Here we see the sepia tones of Kansas and the colour of Oz in the same single tracking shot. To achieve this illusionistic effect the interior of the farmhouse was hand-painted sepia, as was Dorothy, and so the scene could be filmed in Technicolor, rather than on black and white film. When we see Dorothy opening the farmhouse door to reveal a world of colour, what we are actually seeing is the back of Dorothy’s body double, Bobby Koshay, dressed in specially designed sepia-coloured clothes, sepia make up and, in a sepia,-painted farmhouse. She opens the door to Oz and steps out of shot allowing Judy Garland to step into frame wearing a blue dress and through the door to Oz.

In the 30s, without the post production software available today, the producer Mervyn LeRoy, found an innovative way to transition, in a single tracking shot, from sepia to colour that may have seemed magical (and even astonishing at the time as most viewers had not seen colour in film) rather than the slight-of-hand and simple trick of the hand-painted sepia set.