Art & Culture

Wild About Colour

What if I told you that colour doesn’t exist?

First, a return to your elementary school science class might be helpful. When light hits objects around us, those objects absorb different frequencies. The frequencies that aren’t absorbed are reflected back to us and the cells in our eyes translate that information into different colours. So the colours we see are not tangible parts of the world around us, rather, they are created by our brain to help us make sense of the world. 

A grouping of different coloured pencil crayons, the tips pointed in a circle.
A rainbow of colour, or at least that’s how our brains interpret it. Andrés Nieto Porras, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If you’ve ever argued with a friend about whether a colour was green or blue—or perhaps been part of an online argument about the colour of an infamous dress—you know that we don’t all perceive colour in the same way. In some cases, as with colour-blindness, some people may not see certain colours at all or may only see them in particular circumstances. Given the work our brains are doing to translate external stimuli into colour, it’s remarkable that we share a common sense of colour at all.  

Last week, I wrote about umwelt—the idea that every person and every species has a unique perception of the world. This concept extends to colours as well. As humans, we see a rainbow of colours—far more than cats and dogs, but fewer than birds. However, we don’t see ultraviolet, a colour that many other species can see. 

Which brings me back to the question I began with: what if colours aren’t real? Colours are not intrinsically part of the world. Our minds create the colours we see and other species see those colours differently. We each have a unique way that we perceive the world around us, extending to our understanding of colour.

Colour isn’t just about what we think we see. Language and society play a role as well. In English, we have names for 11 main groups of colours, each of which can be broken down into an infinite number of variations. Other cultures describe colours differently. Many cultures use five groupings of colours to describe the world: dark, light, red, yellow, and blue+green. Our society also shapes the meanings we give to colours, even if those meanings are sometimes contradictory. Red, for example, is associated with love, but also with anger and war. As a contrast, in China, red is a symbol of joy and good fortune. Our culture shapes our feelings about colours and our language reflects that. 

Which brings me, in an admittedly circuitous way, to colour and art. Colour has been a part of art for more than 75,000 years when our ancestors went to the trouble of finding and preparing red ochre to decorate their cave paintings. Today, colour and art are almost impossible to separate—who can imagine Van Gogh without blue or yellow or Monet without purple and green?

Red ochres drawings of animals on a cave wall including giraffes, horses, and antelope.
Red ochre paintings from Nswatugi Cave in Zimbabwe. Kate, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

We have the ability to see millions of colours, but the process of translating the world around us into pigments that become art is more difficult than it seems. Many pigments for different colours were discovered by accident, such as is the case with Prussian blue, the result of a laboratory experiment gone wrong. Other pigments like ultramarine blue were created by grinding up lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone originally found in Afghanistan. Even humble white isn’t as simple as it seems. For years, lead white was prized as a pigment, until the toxic properties of lead were revealed and it was banned from use.  

Piles of multi-coloured ground pigments on sale in a market stall.
Many art pigments have a complicated history. Dan Brady, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

We continue to create new pigments all the time. In 2014, Vantablack, described as the blackest black, was created for use on space telescopes and in 2009, YInMn blue, a rich blue pigment was developed. Both of these pigments are extremely expensive and are unlikely to be featured regularly on gallery walls anytime soon. Regardless, our continued pursuit of new pigments points to our continual desire to find ways to take the myriad of colours we see and represent them in our art. 

Whether it’s about how we see it, what it makes us feel, or the art we create, nothing about colour is straightforward.

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