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A lot of courses like forcing people to do use old tech as a way to understand the history of the medium. The idea is that it does two things:

  1. Makes you better appreciate the tools at your disposal.
  2. The better you understand the foundations on which the current standards are based, the more likely you are to write good semantic code.

Not saying I agree or disagree, but this is why.

As to the OP, I think the color property is going to be your best bet. It’s been a while since I used it, and it honestly might have been deprecated for HTML4 for all I know, but, without css (inline or otherwise) or using images, that’s the only way I know of.