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COLOUR CRAZY: How Colors Work in Nature, Art, and Culture

How Colors Work in Nature, Art and Culture

multi-colour design for blog about Colur
Crazy Colour, design by Janet Strayer

The power and meaning of color are evident in nature and the cultural world. Colors signal freshness, ripeness or poisonousness in the natural world, and serve to attract many animals, including us. Yet how much more they mean to us in our cultural world! Colors can irritate or soothe, raise or lower blood pressure, affect mood and reactions.


Oddly enough, color is not a property of objects. The world is colorless, as Galileo tells us. Color is a sensation that exists because light exists and acts upon the peculiar neurophysiology of different species. Sensory receptors and brains in many species are equipped to register and perceive color. Humans have three types of color receptions (for red, green, and blue light), so all the colors we can see are composed of red, green, and blue. Yet these three are enough to distinguish a million colors.


Humans can survive without color vision. We can detect shape, edges, and other necessary visual facts without color. Other animals, like birds, detect more colors than we can. But among primates, humans have the keenest color vision. This may have evolved because color functions to affect emotions, provide information, and for communication.


Color is to our vision as flavours are to our food, which the food industry knows when using artificial colors to enhance products. And as advertisers and designers know, colors affect our attention and reaction to products, packaging, and settings.


Colors have delighted and mystified us for ages, sparking theories, scientific investigations, and systems to describe and understand them. Isaac Newton as well as the author Goethe are among the many scientific contributors. Our human physiology, psychology and culture, too, have shaped our perception of and reactions to color.


Two Worlds of Color: as Light or as Pigment

In the natural world, colors are a phenomenon of light wavelengths. In the art world, colors are a quality of pigment. These two worlds differ in how color is seen.


White light contains all visible colors in a spectrum that appears in a rainbow, from red to violent in sequence. Nature's primary colors (those that cannot be mixed by any other combination of colors) are red, blue, and green. Mixing the primary colors in different combinations will get us almost all other colors. For example, mixing red and green light yields yellow. Surprised?


Here's the glitch: pigments don't behave as light does! Even the primary colors differ between the light and pigment systems. The primary colors in the material world of pigments (again, colors that can't be mixed by any combination of other colors) are red (magenta), blue (cyan), and yellow. Mixing pigment and mixing light differ. Mixing red and green pigments yields brown, not yellow.


The intact eye sees color based upon light refraction, so light theories prevail even in painters' understanding of color. You paint using pigments, but you see the colors created via light. How to get the red you see in the world onto your palette requires a translation of light into pigment.


Color Systems

Computer monitors, TV, and the like use an Additive Color Model based upon transmitted light. In contrast, pigment colors use a Subtractive Color Model based upon reflected light (chemicals in different pigments absorb wavelengths selectively). If the physics of this interest you, there are scads of articles with illustrations on the internet.


What most interests me, however, is the question raised earlier: how to create with pigment the color we see via light.

color wheel

Artists use a cheat-sheet to help them do this. It's called a color-wheel. You've probably seen some. They range from simple 12-step circles, shown here (3 primary colors and their intermediaries) to elaborate models that fill in the continuum of colors in-between. All these wheels and models do is remind us, in theory, of some basic pigment-color relationships. For example, the color that contrasts most with any color on the wheel is the color opposite to it (i.e., red and green). Or, that two primary colors (red and yellow) mixed equally will result in a predictable secondary hue (orange). And so on. Lots to experiment with. And that's what it's really all about. Because seldom do artists just want to duplicate colors on the wheel.


Do You See What I See?

Artists want to create the color they see in the world or in their mind. There are now many pigments (natural and human-made) for red, blue, and yellow. So which of the reds will do? That's important because accurate color-mixing depends on knowing which red, for instance, to mix with which yellow to get a particular orange. Pigments nowadays are systematically described by alphanumeric codes (I'll spare you that).


Decorators and color manufacturers must have a blast naming the varieties of colors within a given hue (basic color category, like red or blue). Walking into the paint section of Home Depot, I picked up about 30 different color cards showing company names for varieties of "blue". Same for green and other hues. There are so many varieties of "white", you come to appreciate the fact that that white light contains all colors. The paint section of any big store is a play-pen for anyone liking color. The point is, color names can be very confusing. Try describing a color you like to someone. Periwinkle blue? Sky blue? What's important, especially for artists, is to know how to get the "sky blue" color you want via pigments. A little appreciation here for those who can!


Identifying and describing color boils down to three basic components: Hue (name on the color wheel), Value (where the hue falls on a darkness-lightness continuum), and Saturation (hue purity versus degree of grey mix). What we call "maroon", for example, is a red hue that is dark and low saturation (a less intense red) because it's been been mixed with another color (brown) that dulls it. Dull colors are key to painting after kindergarten because of how well they harmonize with other brighter, more saturated colors right out of the tube or crayon box.


Want to throw that palette at the wall yet? Don't worry about it. In both the natural and art worlds, all colors are changed by the colors around them. Yes, everything is relative! Many colorists learn to think in terms of color "families" (different tints, tones, and shades of red, for instance). As someone who loves working with color, I do this and then look to see if a color I paint has the effects I want based upon the colors around it, changing color mixtures as I go. No formulas, just a look-see process.


Appreciating color, whether or not you care about its theory and descriptors, is all about being aware of the variations in color and a bit about the effects different colors and combinations can have. They can be harmonious, pleasing or displeasing (both of which are meaningful for artististic effects), agitating or calming, and more. A bit about the psycho-cultural aspects of colot comes into the picture as well.


Psycho-Cultural Aspects of Color

Visual artists use colors expressively and deliberately to create effects. The perceptual and psychological effects of color also occur within larger historical cultural contexts that give them meaning.


To get an idea of how much humans value color, I'd like to recommend a good read: Color: Travels Through the Paintbox (2003) by Victoria Finlay. A wonderful book that reads as easily as a detective-story, it relates the dramatic history of colors in the world. Part travelogue and adventure story, it relates the quest for different pigments, how they were discovered in different regions of the world, traded, invented, and used across centuries. It relates a time when orange was poison, blue was as expensive as gold, and how purple built a nation. The book presents a captivating mix of history, culture, chemistry, and the practical, social, and artistic issues of the use of color


Turning to a psychological viewpoint: if we can see color, we're affected by it. This is true of most animals, particularly humans. The psychological aspects of color derive from the peculiarities of our visual perception system. Special detectors in our eyes for black/white values (rods) and for color (cones) are only the beginning. Many visual phenomena are built into our perceptual system, including visual after-effects. Stare exclusively at red for a bit, then move your eyes to a blank area and you'll see green. Same for blue and yellow. Simultaneous contrast is the tendency of one a color to induce its opposite hue, brightness, and intensity on adjacent colors. This is fundamental to painting. Place a white next to any dark to make it darker (and the reciprocal). That's what explains why the grey line below looks as if it is changing in brightness (it's not). Same for the two dots.


illustration of simultaneous contrast using BW values

Similar effects happen for color contrasts. For example, blue looks darkest against a pale yellow, lighter against a dark green, and most intense against an orange. Op Art has a party with these illusions. Many other interesting perceptual effects of color have been studied, and lead to the conclusion that colors relate in a dynamic system. No wonder colors affect us, whether or not we're aware of this.


A dominant color in a painting or a room can have a big psychological impact via our perceptual, physiology, and cultural associations. Effects can differ even within the same color family, as when comparing effects for a yellow-orange (generally positive) versus a yellow-green (generally more aversive). Keep this in mind when reading the very simple list of common associations listed below for the main colors (black and white included). Our own subjective associations and personal experience of colors also have much sway, aside from the more general associations listed below.


Generally, warm colors (red, orange, yellow side of the color wheel) tend to evoke feelings ranging from warmth and comfort to anger and hostility. Colors on the cool side (blue, purple, and green) tend to evoke feelings from calm to sadness. The list below is intended to be "for fun" rather than formula. Even in this fun list, you'll see some contrary associations to the same color. That's because each color can yield almost opposite reactions, depending on its tint or shade.Light purple has more positive associations, for instance, than dark purple.

List of Color Associations

YELLOW: associates to Optimism, Happiness, Friendliness when it's a pure yellow or yellow-orange, but a yellow-green tends towards Anxiety or Distaste.


ORANGE: has the strongest physiological responses of all colors tested, stimulates energy and attention/ Strong reactions, both positive and negative. Enthusiasm, Energy, Fun, Warmth, Flamboyance, Danger


RED: tends to increase heart rate. Some studies indicate females prefer red more than males do. Red associates to Passion, Aggression, Excitement, Danger, Blood, Fire (yet dull or 'dirty' reds may feel closing-in on you).


GREEN:has more pigment types than any other color. Associates to Peace, Rest, Reassurance, Harmony

BLUE: Tends to lower heart rate. Associates to Calm, Trust, Coolness, Intelligence, Indifference


PURPLE: associates to Luxury, Dark Magic, Extravagance, Death, Mourning, now often used in video games for "evil" figures


BLACK: associates to Power, Glamour, Mystery, Death, Evil


WHITE: gives a sense of space and is inclusive of all colors, or it can be too stark and remote. Associates to Light, Purity, Clarity, Serenity, Sterility




Each historical epoch and culture attributes meaning to colors somewhat differently, emphasizing some aspects over others that are commonly perceived. White is the color of mourning in Japan, for example, because an association to purity and spirituality in an afterlife is emphasized. In contrast, black is the color of mourning in many Western countries that emphasize its association with death and loss.If there's any conclusion to be drawn from all this, it's that colors operate in wonderfully predictable and diverse ways. That's because we live in a physical and psychological reality that includes our optical and subjective perception as humans in a historically changing cultural context.

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