Colour Theory

“Colour is more than just an expression of personal taste. The way we process colour and how we learn language are connected; colour even effects our perception of the passage of time. Colour is created in our ‘grey matter’, our brains. It’s made from the language we speak, the memories we carry and the moods we feel. It’s probably even in our DNA, and is certainly part of the stuff that makes up our right and left brain differences. Colour is naturally linked into our deep emotions and how we make sense of the world – thankfully something we all do differently.

We are born with limited colour vision, develop it over our first three months of life, and can categorise colours before we have the words to describe them.”

Above is a quote I found in a book by Victoria Alexander, titled ‘Colour a journey'(page 32). It’s a beautiful book and I would highly recommend it.

Today I have been looking at colour theory. How and why do colours work the way they do? Why do we find complimentary colour schemes so satisfying? Why does a cluster of random colours that don’t necessarily compliment each other seem so jarring?

Page 41 is rather interesting. Alexander discusses the way in which colour correlates with language and idioms within those languages. For example ‘feeling blue’ only works in the English language, and a sleepless night is labelled a ‘white night’ by the French.

Some colours share similar meanings in different languages, whereas others don’t. Personally, I would consider yellow a happy colour, but as a classmate pointed out today – it is considered a colour of mourning in Egypt. Every colour we can think of ties to an emotion of some kind, but what’s fascinating is how one colour can mean 100 different things to 100 different people. Those meanings also change across countries and societies. Some languages even categorise colours. We in England have possibly hundreds of different adjectives for colours, whereas some languages only have as many as five. We would have pink, red and orange; whereas another language would use one word to describe all three.

Japan only has two colour traditions: shibui and kabuki. Shibui is defined as colours related to nature, and Kabuki is defined as anything bright. Japan also uses adjectives for colours that describe the emotions/feelings attached to it. For example, we have earthy colours such as brown and green; but in Japan both of these colours would be referred to as shibui, which would infer words such as ‘subdued’ and ‘restrained’.

“Nothing makes a statement about honesty quite like nature’s own colours. When left in their natural state, fibres such as linen, cotton, wool, silk, hemp and jute have their own texture, integrity and story to tell. One born of nature.”

Above is another quote taken from Victoria Alexander’s ‘Colour a journey’ (page 85) on natural colours.

Even in today’s colourful society, natural tones play a big part. Often they will be used as background tones to provide a solid base for the brighter colours, or just simply colour our coffee each morning. Natural colours usually come from natural resources, which is why art dating back to ancient Egypt, and even further, uses muted earthy colours. Even today, when we have access to hundreds of bright and eye-catching colours, the tones created by nature can be refreshing and calming. Personally, I love looking historic art. Stripping colour away from the subject can help us focus on what is actually happening within the art – which is why I work in black and white, then add colour later.

Technically, black and white are shades – not colours. But this doesn’t mean they don’t play an important part in the world.

“White repels all light and is the absence of colour, and although it’s often thought of as a non-colour, it is far from it. If you spin a colour wheel fast enough, all the colours blend to create white. White is the sum of all colours.”

(Page 103)

In a lot of religions, white symbolises purity. Which is why, I suppose, we all start with a white sheet of paper/piece of canvas when we come to create something. That and white often has quite a calming effect, similar to green. White has very few negative emotions tied to it, which is most likely the reason shades of white (like magnolia) are used to paint a house ready for the next occupants. It creates a blank canvas, with none or very little emotion attached to it; which, in a way, makes it a good foundation. It also reflects light, making it ideal in hotter countries. This is why we find art galleries painted in white. The first and foremost reason is so not to distract from any work on display, but the second reason is this reflection of light naturally lights the room. Light created from electricity can be harsh and unflattering, whereas the natural light compliments it’s surroundings.

“Think Gothic. Think black. Black is perverse and ambivalent. It has intensity. It’s strong, the colour of many words, and we all know there’s good black and evil black. It has a greater depth than any other colour.”

(Page 277)

Black is a colour that absorbs. It sucks in it’s surroundings. A room painted in black looks smaller. A black mug holds in the heat. For many people in many places, black can symbolise grief. Queen Victoria made black a famous colour of mourning after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861; by wearing black every day after his death until the day of her own.

Black is the darkest of all of the colours. You couldn’t create a darker colour if you tried. For some people this therefore signifies the idea of ‘nothingness’, as after all black is created by an absence of light. But then how can it be if black is the colour the majority of us use to record our ideas and create? I don’t know one person who doesn’t own a black pen. When we come to type at a computer the default colour of our text is black. How can black signify nothing if it is used to record and create the fruit of life? But then which other colour could we use to signify nothing? None. All of the other colours suggest emotions and ideas that correlate to life and being alive. Black is the only colour that can really relate to the idea of ‘nothingness’. Yes, yellow is considered a colour of mourning in Egypt, but in order to mourn you must be alive. To those people, yellow signifies grief and loss, not ‘nothing’.

Speaking of yellow: yellow has ties to quite a few religions. In Asia it’s considered a sacred colour. The connotations of yellow can vary dramatically, from one extreme to the other. On the one hand you have links to religion and nature, while on the other you have links to hazard and danger. The robes of significant figures tend to be bright shades of yellow, as the colour acts as symbolism for beliefs such as rebirth. Back to religion: the use of yellow in Christianity is a perfect example of those extremely different connotations. It’s used a lot within the festival of Easter. Many an Easter have I helped my Grandma tint yellow boiled eggs or decorate cakes with bright yellow icing. But then on the other side of that, Judas if often depicted in yellow as it has ties to the likes of envy, betrayal and gluttony.

“Most often thought of as a mixture, a blend, a convergence of red and yellow, orange gives off a feeling of joy and is associated with optimism, festivity and happiness.”

(Page 143)

Like yellow, orange can travel from one extreme to the other. When I think of the use of orange in the world I think of the jumpsuits they make prisoners wear in America. It turns out the logic behind this is that because orange is considered colour with positive emotions attached to it, it will cheer up the inmates. That’s the theory, anyway. On the other end of the spectrum, like yellow again, it has ties to danger. Thinking back: all of the hazard labels on the chemicals in the labs at school were a really rich, bright shade of orange – it definitely catches your eye. Unsurprisingly, the colour is named after the fruit. To me, orange is one of the many colours of summer – which makes sense considering orange trees thrive a summer climate.

Red, above orange and yellow, is the colour of danger. Yellow and orange seem to warn, whereas red screams it from the rooftops (if the shade is bright enough). If you go into your overdraft you’re considered to be ‘in the red’. We use red as the colour for stop at the traffic lights. In warmer, less harsh shades, however; red has connotations of strength – which is why we see it on so many flags – passion and life. We look healthy when we have a red glow in our cheeks; we bleed red; and let’s be honest the majority of our insides are red. Red is definitely a living colour. The ties to religion are present with this colour as well. Another Christian festival, Christmas is traditionally celebrated using the colours red, green and gold. In the Buddhist religion red can symbolise elimination of desire, and in Chinese New Year red is used to symbolise rebirth and new beginnings.

Pink, which is technically a tint of red, is stereotypically a feminine colour. This was not always the case though.

“until the 1940s pink was for boys because it related to red, and was seen as the more masculine and decisive colour. Blue, for girls, was seen as the more delicate and dainty colour because it related to the Virgin Mary.”

(Page 188)

Pinking sheers are named after the colour due the connotations of pink being a decorative, embellishing colour. It has nothing to do with the actual colour. Interestingly, as mentioned earlier about the language of colours and how some languages have fewer adjectives, the Chinese language didn’t actually recognise pink until they came into contact with our Western culture. Now, in present day, the word in Chinese for pink still translates as ‘foreign colour’. Pink is considered a calming colour, which is probably why we use the colour to raise awareness for breast cancer – we need people to learn and not fear.

Green is also considered a calming colour, which is why we use ‘green rooms’ to help calm us. This colour has very strong links to nature, so is considered the colour of growth. It’s almost impossible to find any plant-life that contains no green whatsoever. We refer to our pollution of the planet as the ‘green-house’ effect. A green house is a place in which things grow and are nurtured, which makes the idea of using the term to describe pollution somewhat ironic. When we talk about saving the planet we say ‘go green’. What we really mean is look back to nature and to not abuse the nature around us. Although green has many positive connotations, it has quite a few negative ones as well. We refer to the emotion of envy as ‘the green-eyed monster’. We associate being ill with the colour green – I’ll bet the emoji on your phone/computer for feeling ill has a green face.

“Blue resonates with beauty, purity and wisdom.”

(Page 231)

Blue used to be considered a feminine colour because of this. Now though, although stereotypically still considered masculine, blue and pink can be used for either gender. Both colours have traits of both genders. Indigo, the plant from which a lot of blue dyes are sourced. In the 1930s, a British block printing duo named Barron and Larcher used a lot of indigo within their prints. The problem was, as they had a lack of access to the uric acid required to make the dye; they had to host what became known as ‘piddle parties’. They would entertain their guests in exchange for their urine, so that they could make the indigo dye. This was common practice across Europe.

On the colour wheel, blue sits within the colder colours. We illustrate water and ice with blue tints, so when the colour is translated elsewhere a lot of us immediately consider it cold. However, blue is also the colour of the sky, so it could be warm – if you wanted to argue it that way. We also link the colour blue with feeling sad. In the English language the phrase ‘feeling blue’ means to feel under the weather, to feel sad; however in other languages it doesn’t translate/work.

“Poised somewhere between red and blue, and named after a flower, violet is more blue than red, while purple is more red than blue.”

(Page 259)

Purple, violet, whatever you wish to call; it is considered quite a magical colour. Depictions of Merlin the wizard often show him in violet robes, and in many a television show the act of performing magic creates a purple spark or puff of smoke. Purple is also quite a regal colour, possibly because it is so difficult and expensive to make. This is why Cadburys use a purple wrapper – it looks regal and magical, meaning we just can’t resist. Purple also has the longest wavelength of the all the colours, which is why we go into ultra-violet (and infra-red at the other end of the spectrum) when the wavelength becomes too long (or short) for the human eye to be able to distinguish colour. Unlike the other colours, purple doesn’t seem to have any negative connotations. On the whole it seems to be quite a positive colour.

So there, in a nutshell, you have the theory of colours. I could go on and on and on for years – there’s so much to explore and learn; but these are the parts I found interesting and thought you might too.

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