Sepia: a Most Frightening Color

In today’s modern world, the word “sepia” is often associated with photographic filters that give a brown color to a selected image. Before that, it was a chemical process that altered black-and-white photos to this warmer tone, giving it better archival qualities as well. Sepia tones have been used for many purposes since Ancient Greece, and its original source required fear.

Sepia photos were occasionally given as novelty keepsakes. This is a photo of Bishop Juji Nakada (1928)
Sepia photos were occasionally given as novelty keepsakes. This is a photo of Bishop Juji Nakada (1928)

Sepia began its use in history as an ink. Discovered by the Ancient Greeks, sepia ink was popularly used up until the 19th century. In fact, Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings used sepia ink, giving it the characteristic red/brown we all recognize today. And today, we still find sepia ink used in certain types of black noodles. So, what exactly is sepia?

One of Leonardo da Vinci's studies (many of which are available on www.leonardodigitale.com)
One of Leonardo da Vinci’s studies (many of which are available on www.leonardodigitale.com)

Sepia ink’s origins are found in frightened cuttlefish. Like other cephalopods (squids and octopuses/octopi/octopodes), cuttlefish release ink when startled as a defense mechanism. This backfired when the Ancient Greeks began using the ink for writing and drawing. Since then it has not only been used for art, but also foods like the Italian dish “risotto al nero di seppia” (risotto with cuttlefish ink).

Photo by Thomas P. Peschak, National Geographic
Photo by Thomas P. Peschak, National Geographic

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