Why Colour is a Grey Area

7th December 2018

Whether you’re ‘tickled pink’, ‘green with envy’ or ‘seeing red’, there’s no getting away from the fact that colour has huge cultural, emotional and psychological resonance. It’s a complex, and also rather mysterious, concept, as Deborah Mulhearn reports…

“Mem’ries…misty water-coloured mem’ries…” sang Barbra Streisand in the schmaltzy film The Way We Were. We usually access nostalgic memories through our ‘traditional’ senses – responding to smells like the autumnal tang of woodsmoke or to sounds like summer birdsong. But colour also powerfully evokes memories and associations.

Looking back on the scorching summer of 2018, it’s the vivid colours that will stay in my mind: the endless unvaried blue skies, of course, and the brilliant gold of the sun, but also the parched yellows and sun-baked browns as our gardens, parks and fields dried up. I’ll remember those aerial photographs revealing the pale patterns and footprints of long-lost buildings, archaeological sites and formal gardens contrasted eerily against the brown earth, and how, as the grass and vegetation turned green again with the rain, the ghostly imprints disappeared like fading afterimages on the retina.

There was also fashion’s timely fling with Frida Kahlo’s hot pinks, emerald greens and burnt oranges – was it just me, or did everyone at the recent V&A exhibition seem to be channelling their own inner Frida? – and perhaps most memorable of all, all the colourful kits and flags of the World Cup. ‘Colours’ are in themselves a synonym for flags.

Colour, so easily taken for granted, is really rather important. It works on us in strange and wonderful ways. It’s used figuratively: we see red, feel blue, have black moods, call cowards yellow and the environmentally-virtuous green, and so on. Colour is also used persuasively: marketing and advertising companies have long used it to manipulate our perceptions, emotions and behaviour.

The psychological effects of colour are uncanny and not always logical. Scientists conducted experiments by giving volunteers steak to eat under a green light, for example, and they all said it tasted revolting. A few years ago a French wine company marketed a blue Chardonnay, its hue created by a filtering process that used dark grapeskins. It didn’t sell, although this summer, relaunched under a new name, it has had better success.

In the US, prison cells have been painted pink. It’s said to be a calming shade, used to deflect potential aggression. But it’s surely intended to emasculate the prisoners, too. The pink tactic has also been used in testosterone-fuelled American college football, where one team painted the walls of the opponents’ dressing room pink – to irritate the visitors rather than encourage them to chill out, one assumes. Here in the UK, Norwich City Football Club has tried it – though commentators have pointed
out that it may have the opposite effect: if players are calmer they will surely play better.

Some colours are sacrosanct, however. You might mess with your opponents’ heads with pink dressing rooms, but you’d never change the colour of a football strip, imbued as it is with the partisan passions of the fans. Or would you? Cardiff City Football Club had always played in blue, but new owner Vincent Tan changed it to red, a lucky colour in his native Malaysia. Fans were understandably outraged, especially as their team had always been known as The Bluebirds.

Tan discovered that the strip was non-negotiable. For a few seasons the team played in red, while the football chants rang out passionately and provocatively: “We’ll always be blue.” Tan finally relented and the team is now back in their original colour.

“Emotional reactions to colour are not boxed off from other parts of the mind, and football kits are part of an associational network triggered by colour perceptions, both conscious and unconscious,” explains Dr Sam Coleman, who researches and teaches about colour from a philosophical as well as a scientific perspective at the University of Hertfordshire.

Colour clearly has great cultural, emotional and psychological power, and its associations all feed on our acquired resonances and cultural knowledge. “Colour is very mysterious and powerful, and far from straightforward,” says Coleman. “We are taught at school that it is simply the effect of light bouncing off an object, so grass is green because light from the green part of the spectrum is being reflected by the grass. But where do colours actually exist?” he asks. “We are told, or believe, at least three different and incompatible things: first, that grass is green – it’s common sense to believe the colours we see are on objects; second, that light is colour – think of how we learn about rainbows and the light spectrum; and third, that colour is an effect in the mind of different frequencies of light reflected into the eye. If the mind is the brain, then colour is a kind of brain activity!”

But colours can’t be all three, as Coleman continues. “If they are ‘all in the mind’, this implies an intrinsically colourless world ‘out there’. There is no light bouncing around inside our heads when we’re sleeping, but many people dream in colour. So where does our experience of colour come from? And if the world suddenly turned to black and white, we would still remember colour. It can’t be entirely explained by science.”

The way we perceive colour also varies from person to person (and animal to animal) – so when I argue with my daughter about whether Heinz tomato soup is actually red or orange, we are both right.

Most mammals, including humans, are trichromatic, or see colour via three cone receptors on their retinas. Cats, however, see in black and white, whereas pigeons, for some obscure reason, are tetrachromatic, which means they have four cone types and consequently see millions more colours than we do.

A tiny percentage of the population has grapheme-colour synaesthesia, where they ‘see’ numbers and letters as colours. Other people, such as the artist Kandinsky, ‘hear’ colours when they listen to music, and this kind of auditory-visual cross-modal experience often runs in families. Both the writer Vladimir Nabokov and his mother saw the alphabet in colours.

Blindsight is another strange, colour-related condition that scientists happens to people with certain brain injuries. Scientists conducted tests on people who had damaged their visual cortex. Despite being ‘cortically blind’, when asked to guess colours of objects they couldn’t see, they consistently scored over 90%: far greater accuracy than could be accounted for by chance.

“We all have a blindspot where the optic nerve connects to the retina, but normally-sighted people can’t do any colour detection or accurate guessing of colours or shapes shown to that blindspot,” says Coleman. “That’s why blindsight is so amazing. A blindsighter will actually get annoyed at being repeatedly asked about the colour of a stimulus they say they can’t see… but then almost always get the colour or shape right, which is undeniably strange.”

Much of our understanding of the science of colour comes from English physicist Sir Isaac Newton, who investigated light and colour in his 1704 work Opticks. The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was the first to assert that colour exists in relation to other colours and to darkness and the absence of light. He also attributed emotions and qualities to colours, in 1810 in his Theory of Colours.

Before photography was invented, colours had to be matched to descriptions in words. Abraham Werner, a German geologist, first attempted to standardise names and descriptions introduced for colours in the late eighteenth century. But he did not include samples. This was left to Scottish artist Patrick Syme who republished Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours with colour samples taken from minerals and other examples from nature to precisely record the vast array of Werner’s colours.

This book became instantly popular with writers, artists and scientists, including Charles Darwin who took a copy with him on The Beagle. It was published in 1821, the year that John Constable painted The Hay Wain, a painting known for its meticulous representation of the colours and formations of sky and clouds. My father used to call things sky-blue pink, a nonsense colour that nevertheless accurately describes a certain sky and cloud formation. That perceived colour combination is a direct link to warm memories of him. And if ever an artist understood sky-blue pink, it was Constable.

Colour also depends greatly on context, time and place. From my endlessly browsable Dictionary of Colour, on a page opened at random, I find that Italian pink is not pink at all, but a shade of yellow, named for a process rather than a pigment. Pink is also a verb meaning to cut in a zigzag – I can’t see this word without thinking of my mum’s pinking shears, which coincidentally were a metallic corally pink.

Naples yellow, on the other hand, is most definitely a yellow – a toxic yellow paint that once contained poisonous antimony. Medics can’t agree on what caused Vincent Van Gogh’s madness and subsequent suicide, but ingestion or inhalation of this pigment is a possibility. Knowing this, the sunflowers take on a more sinister and tragic association.

Colours don’t change. But our reactions to them do. For example, petrol blue was the colour of my hated school uniform. (We were called the bluebottles). I couldn’t wear it for decades. But now that petrol blue is commonly marketed as teal, I find I quite like it. Can renaming a colour change its perception? Or is it simply that time has passed and I have left those memories behind?

“Novel experiences create new memories and a different context in which to perceive and respond to them,” says Coleman. “We are fond of saying that things are something else, that colour is really surface texture properties that reflect light, or that it’s brain activity.

But colours are ultimately what they are – mysterious properties that help us perceive and make sense of the world.”

So colours can be redeemed, rebranded and recontextualised. Sometimes we just have to embrace and enjoy what we don’t understand. Time for a glass of wine, I think. But will it be red, white…or blue?

Find Your Local