The study of pigmentation has played an important role in the intersection of evolution, genetics, and developmental biology. Pigmentation's utility as a visible phenotypic marker has resulted in over 100 years of intense study of coat color mutations in laboratory mice, thereby creating an impressive list of candidate genes and an understanding of the developmental mechanisms responsible for the phenotypic effects. Variation in color and pigment patterning has also served as the focus of many classic studies of naturally occurring phenotypic variation in a wide variety of vertebrates, providing some of the most compelling cases for parallel and convergent evolution. Thus, the pigmentation model system holds much promise for understanding the nature of adaptation by linking genetic changes to variation in fitness-related traits. Here, I first discuss the historical role of pigmentation in genetics, development and evolutionary biology. I then discuss recent empirically based studies in vertebrates, which rely on these historical foundations to make connections between genotype and phenotype for ecologically important pigmentation traits. These studies provide insight into the evolutionary process by uncovering the genetic basis of adaptive traits and addressing such long-standing questions in evolutionary biology as (1) are adaptive changes predominantly caused by mutations in regulatory regions or coding regions? (2) is adaptation driven by the fixation of dominant mutations? and (3) to what extent are parallel phenotypic changes caused by similar genetic changes? It is clear that coloration has much to teach us about the molecular basis of organismal diversity, adaptation and the evolutionary process.