The Vagaries of Light

Colour.  It’s part of our daily lives.  Whether we pay much attention to it or not, it’s there, all around us, in everything.  We might only engage with it when we’re deciding what to put on in the morning, or perhaps when picking out paint or soft furnishings or plants for the garden; or we might spend quite a lot of time making decisions about it as artists or crafters.  One way or another it finds its way into every part of our lives, moving us, challenging us to feel something about it.

I have often wondered why it is that colour can have such an effect on us and why that effect can be so powerful; why colour or combinations of colour can fill us with such joy or so utterly repel us and why these effects seem to differ from person to person.  For instance, why do people have ‘favourite’ colours?  Why does one person revel in fluorescent pink while another feels more at home with a soft warm brown?  You only have to sit outside on a busy street watching passers by to see the diversity in this thing we call taste.  Of course there may be other factors involved in some of the choices we make about such things – sadly, fashion, magazines and TV seem to have an every increasing influence on our decision making – but I would like to think that for most people there is a bottom line of ‘do I like it?’.

Women in different coloured tights

Now, I’m aware that I’ve started this piece out with a lot of questions, most of which I have no hope of answering!  Colour is a bit of a mysterious force and in many ways, that’s how I like it to stay :). However, hours at school forcibly spent poring over colour wheels did help to explain some aspects of it:

Most of us are familiar with the idea of primary colours – red, blue and yellow – as the ones that you can’t mix from other colours and which form the basis for all the others.  Then we have the secondary colours – purple, orange and green – made from mixing two primary colours.  Thirdly we have tertiary colours such as blue-green, red-purple, yellow-orange, made from mixing one primary colour and one secondary colour.

Artists such as Johannes Itten, who was part of the German Bauhaus movement in the early part of the 20th century devised a version of the colour wheel to show the relationships between these primary, secondary and tertiary colours.

Itten’s Colour Wheel

Itten wrote extensively on the theory of colour and identified that those that sat close to each other on the wheel harmonised, while those that sat opposite complemented each other through their contrast.  He also wrote about the way in which colours based in warm tones such as red, orange and yellow advance, while those that are based in the cooler spectrum – blues, greens and purples – tend to recede.  I could go on but the subject is simply vast!  If you’re interested in knowing more about colour theory you can view a great website that lays out many of the key concepts at

So, Itten and his contemporaries gave at least some structure if not an explanation as to why some combinations of colour are generally perceived to work while others don’t.  But it still doesn’t really address my question as to why people respond differently to colours – even when they fit to the theories – sometimes seemingly at random.  Colour in these instances seems to act as a language.

Artistic movements such as Fauvism in the early 1900s recognised the expressive potential of colour and made it the subject matter of their paintings.  ‘Fauve’ translates as ‘wild beasts’ and the paintings of artists such as Henri Matisse were seen in this way due to their expressive brushwork and intense colours.

Madame Matisse by Henri Matisse

Madame Matisse by Henri Matisse

The Fauves broke away from the traditional uses of colour as a means to describe a subject in a very realistic way and instead looked to colour as a visual language in its own right, more expressive of the inner response of the artist.  This break with tradition paved the way for many of the more expressive movements that came later.  I think it is perhaps that relationship between colour and our inner experiences that fascinates me most.

Developing awareness of our own personal colour language can be helped along by understanding what colours mean to us, how they affect us emotionally as individuals.  For instance why do I find an all bright red room overbearing and oppressive?  Could it be partly Itten’s theory that as a strongly warm colour, in that saturation and entirely surrounding me, it advances towards me too much?  Is that oppressive feeling simply because of the way I perceive reds?  Or could it also be my discomfort with the way that that perception feels emotionally? I know I find the feeling of being ‘enclosed’ quite uncomfortable, and yet others who don’t find that sensation excessively unpleasant may find their emotional focus on the invigorating aspect of the colour and feel happily revitalised by it.

Red background with the word Red written in white across it

Similarly, with colours such as turquoise – which as a cool, receding colour  feels more expansive to me, more open and light and comfortable – others may find this kind of colour too cold and unwelcoming.

Colour therapy tells us that as colour is light and light is energy, each colour has a particular vibration and this vibration corresponds to a different aspect of ourselves.   We can help to redress imbalances in ourselves, or to strengthen aspects of our health by learning to identify the colours we need.  These kinds of beliefs in the therapeutic power of colour have been around for centuries, with cultures all over the world developing their own associations.  Quite aside from art, it seems colour has always been a form of symbolic language that we can learn to speak and understand, whether subconciously or with a high level of conscious awareness.

Rainbow over trees

Oswald Scheffers ‘Tundra Rainbows’

What are the feelings and words you associate with different colours?  How do you feel when you are in a room of a certain colour or are dressed in a particular colour or look intently at something of a particular colour (e.g. a plant like lavender or sunflower or marigold)?  Because colour is all around us all the time we tend not to notice all the responses that we experience but paying attention to this enables us to enhance our creative voice as well as supporting us in changing our mood or creating environments and spaces that will facilitate us in what we wish to use them for.

Although we may still choose to select colours for whatever purpose by eye, from our instincts and intuitions rather than logical thought processes, it can be an interesting exercise to spend some time reflecting on our personal responses to colour.  One way to do this is to find somewhere to sit quietly (I always find a cup of tea helps…tea helps just about anything to be honest :D) and just imagine yourself immersed in a single colour.  Pay attention to how you feel, to any images or words that drift across your mind.  Write them down as they come.  If you find it hard to visualise colours then collect objects of different colours instead.  Try not to look at the shapes or to think about their function if they have one.  Just try and spend some time entirely focussed on their colour.  I made a list of some of my own associations:

  • Red – warm, heat, fire, summer, poppy, blood, life, vitality, vibration, wild, moving, frenzy, primal, pulse, drum, sex, fruit, berry, juice, raw, meat, survival, thorn, wine, energy, ruby
  • Yellow – sun, joy, will, solid, strong, health, vitality, well-being, power, expressive, optimistic, radiant, sunflower, buttercup, dandelion, expanding, open, smile, warm, flame, resilience, corn, harvest, abundance, citrine
  • Blue – water, deep, calm, speak, mind, depth, flowing, still, peace, sleep, renewal, soothing, rest, comfort, relaxing, cool, balm, spiritual, mountains, air, clean, fresh, sodalite
  • Orange – nurture, warmth, uplifting, comfort, rich, hedonism, sensual, skin, indulgence, expressive, bubbly, bawdy, connection, generosity, creativity, pleasure, appreciation, marigold, honey, carnelian
  • Green – nature, growth, repair, renewal, force of life, cycles, expanding, trees, grass, hills, fields, healing, earth, health, Spring, gratitude, love, self-worth, aventurine, copper
  • Purple – rich, opulence, wealth, royalty, luxury, occult, spiritual, mystery, psychic, unseen, power, enlightenment, lavender, sage, protection, amethyst

These are just my associations, yours may be entirely different.  Some of what we associate may come from our personal memories, some from cultural associations or other systems of colour symbolism we may have learnt.  Some may also come from how we feel or what we need right in that moment we choose to connect with the colour.  Because that’s another weird thing about colour, our tastes change with our mood.  One day we might love a colour, the next we might feel no affection for it at all.

Colour is a mystery.  I keep trying to fathom it out but every time I think I have something sussed it changes on me.  I like that.  It’s like the colours of the hills out here in the Peaks.  One day they are green and vibrant, the next they’re brown or chestnut or deep blue or purple.  Sometimes the hills disappear, engulfed in a frothy white mist.  Sometimes they are streaked with dark patches where the clouds cast their shadows.  They are different every day.  Colour is like that.  It transforms before us, always subject to the eyes that look upon it and the vagaries of light.

My gallery this time is all from Folksy makers who have made pieces that I have selected primarily for their fab use of colour.  Enjoy 🙂 xx

Felted wool cushion in rainbow colours

Felted Merino Wool Cushion by Feel Good Felt

Striped birthday card

‘Lollipop’ Birthday Card by Ello Design

Leather Cuff wallet with pink triangle design

Leather Cuff/Wallet Wristband by Beautiful Skin

Colourful quilt

Patchwork Quilt – Spectrum by An Heirloom in the Making

Twisted Agate Necklace with Carnelian and Turquoise

Twisted Agate Necklace with Carnelian and Turquoise by Brockstones

Print of dragonfly painting in blues and oranges

10 x 8 inch Dragonfly Print by Spiral Moon

Alpaca yarn in sunset shades

Alpaca Sunset Handpainted 50g by Land of Llama Designs

Pink, Purple and Copper Bracelet

Pink, Purple and Copper Bracelet by Phoebe Dreams Jewellery

Ocean Colour Mix Frilly Knit Scarf

Ocean Colour Mix Frilly Knit Scarf by All Kinds of Handcrafted Bits

Flower and Leaves Brooch Yellow and Russet

Flower and Leaves Brooch Yellow and Russet by Pats Paraphernalia

Orange and Green Shell Button Stickpin Brooch

Orange and Green Shell Button Stickpin Brooch by Button It


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15 thoughts on “The Vagaries of Light

  1. Cynthia Brock on said:

    Many thanks for including my necklace in your very interesting and thought provoking blog. I am very much affected and moved by certain colours and textures but find it difficult to put into words how they make me feel.

    Kind regards
    Cynthia Brock

    • You’re welcome Cynthia, it’s a lovely piece 🙂 – glad you enjoyed the blog. I know what you mean about it being difficult to pin down how colour affects us exactly. And perhaps there’s no need, just to recognise that it *does* affect us – often more than we realise I think! xx

  2. An enjoyable and thought-provoking piece. Your discussion brought to mind Impressionist painting, particularly the series produced by Monet, in which he takes the same subject and paints and repaints it in all seasons and at all times of the day, to show the effects of light on the colours. Or another Monet painting, The Magpie, where what at first looks like ‘white’ snow, turns out on closer inspection to be made up of a myriad of shades – blue, cream, grey, brown…
    Thank you!

    • Thanks Lesley :). I know the Monet paintings you mean I think – like the series of the cathedral? They are fascinating and I’ve often thought about them when I’ve looked out to the hills and moors round here with their changing lights and colours – then wished I was a better painter so that I could have some hope of capturing them lol! Impressionist paintings are extraordinary up close, as you say. I saw one of Monet’s big waterlily paintings at an exhibition at the RA many years ago and couldn’t believe the detail of colour when I looked up close, what a fantastic ability to be able to ‘see’ colour in that way 🙂 xx

  3. This is an extremely interesting and thought-provoking blog post which I thoroughly enjoyed. It is strange how taste in colours changes with age too. The vibrant colours we choose in youth tend to be muted as we grow older, and not just because our skin tone alters. Perhaps we feel the need for a more peaceful and tranquil existence as opposed to the constant challenges and excitement we aspired towards when we were younger? Anyway thank you so much for featuring my Flower and Leaves brooch. As for the rest of the collection – absolutely fabulous! I especially like the tones of copper/turquoise and green/orange which, of course, are complementary colours on the colour wheel as you pointed out!

    • Thank you Pat – glad you enjoyed the post, and it was a pleasure to include your beautiful brooch :). I agree that our tastes change as we age – I hadn’t thought about it but once you’d said it I realised that’s true for me too – while I used to love wearing blindingly bright colours when I was younger, and still have a few favourite bright t-shirts (!!) in general I tend to be more drawn towards earthier shades these days, I honestly can’t explain why lol!! Perhaps you’re right, that the muted tones are actually more calming tones, I don’t need the intense charge of the more vibrant colours so much. Hmm, that’s interesting, you’ve given me something to go away and ponder on 🙂 xx

  4. Polly bucknall on said:

    I love colour…I find it strange when I hear people dream in B&W …my dreams are always in colour :)…..I have different favourite colours depending if you are talking decoration or to wear…if pushed I would say my fave colour is the blue colour of the sky on a sunny day…interesting blog as usual Beth…and love that you added some items from folsky pages at the end 🙂

    • Glad you enjoyed the blog Polly 🙂 – I dream in colour too! I can’t imagine dreaming in B&W! To me colour is often part of the language of my dreams, I tend to remember the colours I see – I think that’s probably one of many reasons why I have sat down and tried to understand what I personally feel about different colours, so that I can understand better what my dreams are trying to say 🙂 xxx

      • Polly bucknall on said:

        yes Beth, I definately agree that colour in dreams play a part in interpreting them …though I am not into dream interpretation on a regular basis ,one of the most memorable and wonderful dreams I had in recent months featured colour in a big way…..when I woke up I was amazed that by relating the colours to crystals and the chakras linked with them I knew even without much analysing what the dream meant 🙂 xx

  5. Like you say everyone has different feelings to certain colours. I just love colour, from bright to muted. My partner and I live in a flat by the sea and the colour in each room reflects that. I try to let people feel confident abut choosing and matching colours and not to be frightened at experimenting. A friend requested a quilt in Aubergine and Lime Green and it was only after I’d put it together that I started noticing that planting schemes in some gardens I had visited, had chosen exactly that!
    So embrace colour in all aspects of our lives – it will make us feel better.

    • That’s interesting about choosing colours that reflect the environment that you live in. I think we do tend to absorb those colours that surround us all the time. Colour seems to be part of the way that we form a connection to a place. And I’m all for experimenting with colour! It’s amazing sometimes, the colours that you just wouldn’t think would go, just look fantastic with each other! 🙂 xx

  6. Thanks for including my work in such an inspirational blog. The choice of colour being intuitive strikes a chord with me. I often work that way;drawing from from the subconcious for my colour inspiration as well as for the aesthetic qualities. More often than not my favourites are the colours that are spiritual or dream like; that create a sense of serenity and well

    • You’re welcome Amanda – I’m glad you enjoyed it :). It’s so interesting with the different responses to this post, to see the different ways that people relate to colour and draw on its inspiration. That serene dream-like quality you mentioned really comes across in your work and I think it was that feeling within the colour that I picked up on and was drawn to 🙂 xx

  7. Great Blog! Thanks for the useful links. So much to read up on!

    • Glad you enjoyed it Sophie, and that the links are useful :). It really is such a vast subject. I realised when I was writing that I could only really scratch the surface!! 🙂 xx

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