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?’.
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 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 worqx.com.
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.
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.
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.
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