fugitive colour

Gerhard Richter, Ten Large Colour Panels (1966-71) MOMA

“What are your colours?” Most of us will have an answer to this question, since most of us have strong feelings about our favourite hues, and the shades to which we are most drawn. We clearly recollect the unusual colour of the walls in which our grandmother’s house was painted, we remember the distinctive shade of yellow of a dress we wore when we were six, we recall the exact hue of our favourite magenta crayon, we spend years searching for a yarn that’s dyed a very particular, very elusive, kind of blue. If asked, we would be able to distinguish between two very slightly different purple shades, confidently describing one as “right” and one as “wrong.” We make decisions about what to wear, or make, or buy, based on the hues that we feel suit us. Sometimes we have thoughts about the colours that don’t or do suit other people. Sometimes other people tell us about the shades that they feel suit us (or don’t suit us): “oh no, Kate, that is not your colour.”

Yes, I do receive such remarks from time to time – including in relation to my Jibbie sweater

In our everyday lives, in a wide range of different contexts, each one of us, to some extent, identifies particular colours as “ours”, and, in turn we come to associate our identities with distinctive hues.  Colours distinguish us, they mark us out, and they separate us from one another too.  As individuals, as communities, and as nations, humans have often used colours to identify themselves.  As flags, as livery, and as sports strips, colours are things that nations, communities and teams all get behind.  

“Colours” have a long history in heraldry and vexillology, and for many centuries, in the form of standards or guidons, they have acted as powerful symbols of identity. On medieval battlefields, “colours” were rallying points, helping troops to locate the positions of their commanders, and capturing an enemy’s colours was the ultimate feat of arms.  Such associations of colour with ideas of maritime and military fealty are deeply culturally embedded: here in Britain, we still “troop the colour” to celebrate the monarch’s birthday and make figurative statements of allegiance when we “nail our colours to the mast.”

Sailor, Jack Crawford, nails Britain’s colours to the mast after the battle of Camperdown (1797)

And just like regiments rallying behind a standard, in our favourite colours we see powerful statements of ourselves. We know that we are always drawn to certain shades, and we are also aware of hues which arouse in us feelings of unaccountable dislike. For reasons we tend not to examine very closely, we might exclude particular kinds of orange, pink or yellow from our wardrobes, or express a strong negative reaction to a sofa in a certain shade of brown.  We love some colours, we hate others: isn’t that just how it is? This soft blue-green, that faded rose, these shades with which we surround ourselves, which we wear, knit, love and think of as being ours, appear to be dyed into the very fabric of our beings, permanent, fixed and fast. Colour has a very powerful effect on us, we feel colour very deeply, but we very rarely ask ourselves when or why that feeling began to seem instinctual or innate. Our “sense of colour” generally seems to us to be self-evident, and in much the same way that most of us are unlikely to sit down to interrogate the messy complexities of own cultural identities, so we tend not to stop to question the implications of “our” colours.

Johannes Itten, Farbenkugel in 7 Lichtstufen und 12 Tönen – a two-dimensional flattening out of Philip Otto Runge’s colour sphere of 1807.

Those who have written about colour have often expressed strong convictions in its purportedly self-evident nature. “Every colour produces a corresponding influence on the mind,” according to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his Zu Farbenlehre (1810) and, “we shall not be surprised to find that the effects [of colour] are at all times decided and significant.” Influential artist and teacher, Johnannes Itten, went further, confidently stating that “the laws of colour are eternal, absolute, timeless: as valid in the past as at the present moment.” For aesthetic theorists like Itten, colours and their effects were akin to universal principles, something upon which everyone agreed. But has there ever been any agreement about colour as “absolute and timeless”? Could colour be experienced by different groups of people in the same way throughout history? Could the effects of colour ever be said to be really universal? 

The Wilton Diptych (1395-1399). National Gallery. The glorious blue pigment that’s lavishly used for the the robes of the virgin and the angels is derived from costly lapis lazuli – the original ultramarine.

Take blue – which, across many different cultures over the past century or so, tends to top the majority of “favourite” colour polls. Has everyone, everywhere, at all times, felt exactly the same way about blue? How does blue actually feel? If asked, most people today might describe blue as feeling “cool” or “cold” – but that was certainly not the case just a few centuries ago. As distinguished historian of colour, Michel Pastoureau, explains, across the Medieval and early-modern periods, “blue was considered a warm colour and sometimes even the warmest of all. It was only in the seventeenth century that it began to “cool” gradually and only in the nineteenth that it achieved its status as a “cool” colour.”

The first colour system to incorporate coordinates of cold and hot, and to position blue and red as temperature polarities, was that of George Field. Chromatography or, a Treatise on Colours and Pigments (1835). The idea – and conventional wheel-like visual representation – of chromatic gradients, poles and complements – has clearly influenced how we now think about colour, how we see colour, and how we feel about it too.

High energy, short wave flames are blue, and these flames burn much hotter than those of red or orange hue. So why is it that the blue end of the spectrum feels cold to us? Most historians agree with Pastoureau that it is blue’s increasing associations with ice and water which compound its progressive “coldness” across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Though it might seem curious to us today, in texts of many languages published before 1700, water and bodies of water, like the sea, are rarely described as blue and are, in fact, more often associated with greenish hues. 

Al-Khidr, “the green one,” Islamic prophet and guardian of the sea

We might also recall the evocative descriptions of Homer, whose “wine dark” sea is never blue, but rather has a range of tonal associations which bespeak its constantly shifting nature as a reflective surface.

Tom Barr Seascape at Uig (2018)

If blue was not always cold, and the sea was not always blue, have limes always been lime green?  Do you think of lime green as the colour of this lime? 

a lime

Or do you think of it it one of the 122 variants that the Textile Color Card Association of the United States (now the Color Association) lists in its archive under lime

a few limey variants

. . . would you recognise any shade of green in Wassily Kandinsky’s extraordinary account of what was clearly his least favourite colour ?

“Absolute green is the most anaesthetising colour possible. It moves in no direction at all and has not the least consonance of joy, sadness or passion; it demands nothing, attracts nothing . . . passivity is the characteristic property or pure green, a property that gives it a kind of unctuous air of self-satisfaction. . . That is why, in the area of colours, green corresponds to what represents, in human society, the bourgeoisie; it is an immobile element, self-satisfied, limited in all directions . . . similar to a fat cow, full of good health, lying down, rooted, capable only of ruminating and contemplating the world through its stupid, inexpressive eyes.” 

Etel Adnam, Untitled (1984)

Would Edel Adnam – whose synthetic greens lift her canvases with joyous, vital energy – recognise Kandinsky’s passive, ruminative green? 

Nishapur bowl. Met Museum.

. . . would the maker of this beautiful tenth-century bowl, for whom green was the life-giving colour of paradise?

Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) National Gallery. Van Eyck developed a simple yet highly innovative method of mixing, applying and repeatedly glazing notoriously tricky organic pigments such as the verdigris used here. Unlike the canvases of some of  his contemporaries his greens have stayed fresh and “true” for 600 years.

. . . would Jan Van Eyck, whose Arnolfini portrait sings with a glowing, jewel-like green? 

As an artist, Kandinsky certainly had very strong feelings about colour: feelings which perhaps made him more than ordinarily susceptible to hokum theories about the moral significance of particular shades, such as those peddled by his theosophical contemporaries.

Kandinsky was a fan of Besant and Leadbeater’s frankly completely bonkers colour theory

According to historian, John Gage, in artists and theorists who write about the subject,  “there seems to be a universal urge to attribute affective characters to colours.” Why might that be? Colour is something mysterious, powerful and elusive: it is perhaps only natural that those who study its effects should attempt to explain, classify and systematise that mystery. And perhaps it is the sheer strength and depth of our feelings about colour that lead us to associate it with ideas of right and wrong, goodness and badness, “foulness” and “beauty.” Take the distinction Goethe draws here between two shades of yellow:

“By a slight and scarcely perceptible change, the beautiful impression of fire and gold is transformed into one not underserving the epithet foul; and the colour of honour and joy is reversed to that of ignominy and aversion. To this impression the yellow hats of bankrupts and the yellow circles on the mantles of Jews may have owed their origin.” Zu Farbenlehre (1810)

Expulsion of the Jews from France, 1182. Miniature from a manuscript of the Grandes Chroniques de France. c.1320-5. Bibliotheque Royale de Beligique. For further exploration of yellow in the history of anti-semitism, see this post.

Like many other who have thought and theorised about colour, Goethe confuses the essential nature of particular shades with the cultural meanings (and prejudices) with which they have become associated. Such associations are always time-bound, contingent, ideological: they say absolutely nothing about colour itself, but simply point to the person, place and moment in which a particular colour is perceived. The only reason we see “flesh” in the hues of Whistler’s famous portrait is because of the cultural spaces in which we are positioned.

James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink (1871-4) The Frick Collection.

Only for some of us could “nude” be experienced, as Pantone describes it, as “pale pink with beige undertones.”

Leatrice Eiseman and E.P. Cutler, Pantone on Fashion: A Century of Colour in Design (2014)

The understanding of colour, then, is never universal or objective, but always relative and subjective, arising directly out of one’s personal position, prejudices, perspectives. Such perspectives are formed and reinforced through language. In Russian, there are two distinct words for two different kinds of blue, goluboj (голубой) and siniiy (синий), while in Japanese a single term, ao  (青 / あお), historically described both blue and green. Similar overlaps between greens and blues exist in Irish, and in Scottish Gaelic, in words like gorm and glas. The language of colour profoundly affects the way we see it, and the way we feel about it too.

Jasper Johns, Jubilee (1960)

While some theorists and artists try to fix colour in a world of impossible objective meaning, others are far more accepting of its relative, fugitive nature. “In order to use colour effectively,” wrote influential Bauhaus teacher, Josef Albers, “it is necessary to recognise that colour deceives continually.” For Albers, colour is so wonderful precisely because it is ephemeral. Our perceptions of colour are, he demonstrates, continually shifting: in different light conditions, and in relation to adjacent and surrounding shades. For Albers, the power of colour lies in the fact that it can never really be trusted.

Japsper Johns, False Start (1959)

How do we experience colour in Jasper John’s False Start? Perhaps the first thing to strike us is the sheer exuberance of its splats and splodges – here is a joyous riot of simple, ready-made colour, straight from the tube. We see colour, we revel in colour, and then we notice the stencilled, anonymous labels that seem to be telling us how to see. We experience a disjunction between our accepted understanding of each shade, and the linguistic label assigned to it: that is not yellow, that is not what yellow means. Colour’s substance and its signs have fallen out of kilter, and standing before John’s canvas, we are prompted to question the material reality of what we see and the words used to describe it.

vintage crayola crayon set (1958)

As children, opening a box of crayons, we experience something very similar to what we feel when encountering False Start. We are immediately excited by the substance of colour, by the thrilling materiality of the crayons and their beautiful arrangement into rows and graded hues. Each crayon is marked with a name. These names are strange and numinous, they are like nothing we’ve heard before. We roll the words around our mouths: periwinkle, magenta, goldenrod. The crayon is one wonderful thing, and the strange name is something else. But then there’s a third something to consider: the greyish paper in which the crayon is contained. This paper is definitely not the same colour as the crayon, but it is marked with that strange word. To what, then, does the word refer, to the rich and saturated colour of the crayon or to the grey-ish hue of the wrapper? Then, as we apply the crayon to a surface, we experience another disjunction, since the colour of what appears in front of us is definitely not the same as what we are holding in our hands. Where then, does periwinkle reside? Is it in the sound of the strange word, in the wonderful deep-hued waxy stick, or in the somehow far less satisfying smudge of colour that we apply to the white page?

Alighiero Boetti, Verde Ascot (1968). Boetti’s industrial materials and commercial shade names make us pause to reflect on the contemporary commodification, naming and experience of colour

As young children, opening a box of crayons, we have an immediate, instinctual, awareness of what Josef Albers tells us: colour continually deceives. We love colour, we are excited by it, but we approach it with an awareness that it is somehow not to be trusted. Our very first experience of colour, then, is one of joy and questioning, simultaneously. Yet as adults, somewhere along the line, we often lose both parts of that equation. We rarely give ourselves permission to joyfully revel in colour, and nor do we ever ask ourselves why it might be that some shades arouse in us such strong positive or negative feelings. Why do we hate bottle green so much? Why do we feel orange is simply not for us?

Elmer Bischoff, The Orange Sweater (1955). MOMA

Colour is a very powerful experience which defines our individual, aesthetic sense of being in the world. Colour is an important material: a creative substance that has always sat at the heart of human acts of making as pigments and paints, yarns and textiles. Colour is deeply embedded in discourse: it is something that cannot be separated from the cultural perspectives, historical moments, and languages in which it is articulated. Continually oscilating between presence and impermanence, between indelibility and ephemerality, colour is something of immense power, whose nature is also always essentially fugitive. So in order to gain confidence with colour, to revel in the joy of it, to create with it, knit with it, to play with it freely, we perhaps need to put ourselves in the place we sit when opening our first box of crayons: that place of simultaneous joy and questioning. And that’s the place from which I would like our continuing discussions in the Allover club to situate themselves. So lets look forward to taking this discussion forward together, as we explore, interrogate, and celebrate, wonderful, fugitive colour!

Tell me more: Have your feelings about your most loved or most loathed shades changed over time? Is there a colour (or group of shades) that you would never wear? How do you think your colour preferences might be affected by your personal situation, associations, and memories? Please share your experiences and thoughts in the comments section. This is a global club, with members from all over the world: all perspectives are welcome, will be received without judgment, and will add to the debate!

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Experiments in Colour and Media. Royal Academy of Arts.

With especial thanks to Felix, Tom and the commenters on this post for thoughtful crayon-related discussion.

Further reading: 

On flesh, nude, and their exclusions, see the important recent exhibition from the Science Institute: Redefining Nude (2022)

Josef Albers, Interaction of Colour (1963). Highly recommended.

Michel Pastoureau, Blue: the History of a Colour (2018)

John Gage, Colour and Culture (1995)

Alexandra Loske, Colour: A Visual History (2019)