Everyday Color Theory
A poetic crash course on the history of color
A version of this essay was presented at SPAN 2019 during the “Hue & Glue: Hands-On Color Theory” workshop. Read to the end to find instructions for an exercise that explores the relationship between color and light.
The color you see is only the color you think you see. Your interpretation of light landing on a surface depends on your frame of reference and your frame of mind—both can be altered at the speed of light.
When I’m overwhelmed in a crowd I distract myself by looking for as many red-colored objects as I can. Red is not typically a calming color, especially if you’re staring at miles of brake lights in traffic, but it’s really easy for me to see. Red becomes the most dominant thing on my mind.
“Someone who speaks of the character of a colour is always thinking of just one particular way it is used.”
— Ludwig Wittgenstein
Humans have used red since the neolithic era, as seen in the prehistoric cave drawings; When developing languages, red is typically the color named first after black and white. It’s now used so frequently in advertising—because it attracts the most attention—that people have learned to ignore it. The ad industry has successfully made a highly visible color…invisible.
In grade school, I learned that yellow was the most soothing to color with when I brought the expensive markers I wasn’t allowed to use at home to school. I colored in a picture of Paddington wearing a raincoat well enough for my teacher to hang it on the wall for parent-teacher day. The comfort I experienced from quietly meeting the black lines with a high-contrast yellow, disappeared as I waited for my mother to find me out.
In her piece commemorating a decade of internet colors, designer Laurel Schwulst reflects that “yellow tries to show you the way” in Google Maps. Artist Ian Whittlesea describes yellow as the easiest to mentally conjure in his seven breathing exercises to become invisible—inspired by the literature of Rosicrucianism, theosophy, and esoteric yoga. According to Whittlesea, Indigo is the most difficult color to generate and green can be the most difficult to keep stable.
Colors can be hard to see. To the chemist John Dalton, red, orange, yellow, and green all appeared the same. The rest of the color spectrum appeared as gradients of blue and purple. Dalton went on to write the first scientific paper on the subject of color blindness, “Extraordinary facts relating to the vision of colours” in 1798.
Ludwig Wittgenstein — the Austrian philosopher who popularized the rabbit-duck illusion as a means of describing two different ways of seeing — wrote in Remarks on Colour, that “not every deviation from the norm must be a blindness.” He pointed out that the “normal” sighted and the color-blind do not have the same concept of color-blindness.
People with decreased ability to differentiate between hues experience color through a series of judgments. My colleague, for example, explained that for red, green, and brown to function for him, he has to consider their context. These judgments may be “wrong” when they need to be “right”; Like the order of a traffic light, the alternating red and green battery light on a vape pen, or the order of a color legend matching the clockwise color placement in a pie chart.
“If one says ‘red’ and there are fifty people listening, it can be expected that there will be fifty reds in their minds,” wrote the artist and educator Josef Albers. We see fifty different reds because we each perceive and experience color differently.
The artist Wassily Kandinsky could practically hear and taste color because of his synesthesia. To him yellow was a trumpet’s C note, black was the end of things, “blue is cold, red is a square, and green is a feeling,” as summarized by the painter Amy Sillman who called Kandinsky’s philosophy a kind of color astrology in her essay “Drug, Poison, Remedy, Talisman, Cosmetic, Intoxicant.”
In 1810, writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe decided that an equilateral triangle was the most effective form for his ideas on the psychological effect of colors. This new way of organizing color came about a hundred years after Sir Isaac Newton first arranged colors on a disk, to create an early form of the color wheel. The triangle served Goethe as a modular system of desirable and dissonant color relationships that evoked vibes like serious, mighty, serene, and melancholic.
Colors can change depending on the nature of surfaces, like the atmospheric oxidation of the Statue of Liberty’s plating from shiny copper to verdigris (a bluish-green patina). In 1906, the Army Corps of Engineers vetoed a proposal from the United States Congress to restore the statue, concluding that the patina protecting the underlying metal from corrosion “softened the outlines, and made it beautiful.”
We can see those softened outlines because light helps us discern forms. I find Vantablack—one of the darkest known substances, absorbing 99.96% of visible light—unsettling. As Kassia St Clair explains in The Secret Lives of Color, “black is an expression of light, in this case, it’s absence.” My eyes hunt for the surface, and Vantablack leaves nothing to see.
White surfaces reflect and scatter visible light, and according to Wittgenstein “very few people have seen pure white.” In the essay “In Praise of Shadows” on traditional Japanese aesthetics, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki wrote that “western paper turns away light, while [Japanese] paper seems to take it in, to envelope it gently, like the soft surface of a first snowfall.” If you take a piece of computer paper, that you know is white in its normal surroundings, and place it next to snow, the paper may appear grey. A white can be light grey in poor lighting or a light grey in good lighting.
Or a dress can look black and blue under yellow light and white and gold in blue light.
In full sunlight, the petals of a red flower appear bright red against duller green leaves. At dusk, the red flowers become darker while blue flowers appear brighter than they did in full daylight. This effect is called the Purkinje shift.
Albers based his career on studying these kinds of shifts in color. In his book Interaction of Color, first published in 1963, he created color theory exercises that could make “colors lie”—as Tamara Shopsin put it in her essay “Homage to an Homage of an Homage.” By itself, a color appears dominant, but when placed next to an even stronger hue, we can see its more diminished true nature.
Sixty years before Interaction of Color, the artist and historian Emily Noyes Vanderpoel published color studies in her forgotten book, Color Problems: A Practical Manual for the Lay Student of Color. Her work predicted trends that wouldn’t occur for several decades, like the concentric square format of Albers’s Homage to the Square.
In color therapy, also known as chromotherapy, shifts in color can change minds. Each color is believed to have healing energies that can affect the body, like red for passion, green for harmony, and violet for intuition. One method for administering chromotherapy includes eating foods of a specific color. The artist Sophie Calle does this in her series The Chromatic Diet. Inspired by Paul Auster’s Leviathan, in which a character inspired by Sophie Calle herself restricts her diet to foods of a single color on certain days, Calle recreates and photographs each meal in the book as an act to bring herself and the fictional character closer together.
An inventor in Arkansas advertised Vision-Dieter, his special two-color tinted glasses that deter shoppers from buying brightly-colored food packages. He boasted that “you won’t believe your eyes” and that the combination of a blue and brown tint was a “secret European color technology.” But the product didn’t work and the FDA destroyed most of the glasses.
Before the computer, the physical production of pigments limited our access to color. Naturally occurring, finely ground minerals mixed with toxic solvents — or the urine of cows fed mango leaves — were expensive. Ultramarine was the most expensive blue used by Renaissance painters and remained available only to the rich, or those backed by wealthy benefactors, until the invention of a synthetic version in 1826.
In “On Color,” Sillman notes that most oil painters can tell the difference between colors from their weight alone, but that also means we’re “somewhat doomed to the palette provided by manufacturers.” Even our ready-made digital palettes are predetermined for us by the choices of both software and hardware manufacturers. (Or whoever we borrow from when using the eyedropper tool.)
Our perceptions of people or objects in photographs change dramatically from black and white to color. If I see myself in a black and white photo, I am far less critical about my polychromatic flaws because they’re filtered out. And if I see a colorized photograph of a historical figure or event, I’m surprised by how real they seem.
With the invention of movable type, the colorful heraldic language for coats of arms, was transferred into a one-color hatching system for books, wax seals, and coins. The graphic design duo Dexter Sinister tested the transference of color data to one-color hatching by converting a László Moholy-Nagy panel that he originally “painted” over the phone with a manufacturer.
In the Farnsworth-Munsell test, in which a subject has to arrange 100 hues on a continuous gradation scale, less than sixteen percent achieve a perfect score. According to Johannes Itten, one of Albers’s instructors at the Weimar Bauhaus, distinguishing the many shades of a color depends on the sensitivity of the eye and “the response threshold of the observer.” In English, we only use about thirty names for colors in daily vocabulary, and only a “trained artist can discriminate and name a great many hues,” wrote Umberto Eco in “The Colors We See.”
Albers believed that developing a sensitive eye for color took practice, but it doesn’t come without a bit of work: Illustrator Tamara Shopsin writes that Albers’s exercises “were hard and time-consuming”; Sillman compared his Interaction of Color to notes from a test kitchen: “To do his exercises, you first have to gather color swatches like ingredients, splice and dice them, layer them and shift them around to test them out on your eyeballs.”
“When one becomes infatuated with the seven [spectral] colors, the mind is easily distracted,” wrote Masanoba Fukuoka, in his manifesto One-Straw Revolution. One of the most important organic farmers of the twentieth century, Fukuoka believed that viewing the colors of the world with “no-mind” — a state that recognizes the insufficiency of intellectual knowledge — helps one see the color of the colorless as color.
A flat gray surface can come to life through its small modulations of shading, which requires a visual sensitivity to tonal differences. The act of arranging the subtle differences is like arranging lengths of sticks or consecutive numbers, according to Wittgenstein, who once asked, “To what extent can we compare black and white to yellow, red, and blue?”
To use his own words in response, “Colors are the children of light, and light is their mother.” Notably, Vanderpoel also called color “the music of light.” Black and white, yellow, red, and blue preserve their relationship with light through the scales of tones between their lightest and darkest. The continuous scale does not change in saturation, but changes in brilliance. As all colors we can and cannot see differ depending on their surface, surrounding, and our state of mind—they will always in some way share their brilliance.
Group collage exercise
Challenge your eye and your sensitivity to color tones by tearing up paper and recreating the subtle tones in a large greyscale image — segment by segment and color by color—in this hands-on group collage.
- Collect color paper in at least 5 different colors (suggested: red, blue, purple, orange, and green) in sets of 10 tones from light to dark, for each color. This can be construction paper or scraps of printed color inks on paper found in magazines, etc.
- Print this large black and white image divided into 42 panels. Each panel is 8x8 so it can be printed using an 8.5x11 laser printer. You can also select your own image, but don’t show the rest of the group until the end.
- Label the back of the image panels so you know what order they go in because they will be reassembled on a wall.
- Each participant takes one image panel and a single set of color paper in the 10 light-to-dark tones.
- Each participant recreates the shading of the image panel using the color paper and glue. Pay special attention to the subtle variation in shading because some panels will have more subtle gradations than others. Sometimes it helps to squint or blur your eyes.
- As participants finish, have them add their panel to the wall in the correct position and order according to the label. Tip: set up a grid using masking tape on the wall and label each spot with its corresponding image panel so participants can easily locate the position of their panel when they pin it up.
- Watch the colors and image come together, together.
Further reading and links
Everyday Color Theory on are.na
Bright Earth: The Invention of Color by Philip Ball, 2008
Color Problems: A Practical Manual for the Lay Student of Color by Emily Noyes Vanderpoel, 1902
“Extraordinary facts relating to the vision of colours” by John Dalton, 1794
“Pop Culture Colour Theory,” performance lecture by James Goggin, 2011– ongoing
Remarks on Colour by Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1950
The Art of Color: The Subjective Experience and Objective Rationale of Color by Johannes Itten, 1961
“The Pink & Blue Project” by JeongMee Yoon, 2005–ongoing
The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St Clair, 2016
Theory of Colours by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1810
Thought-Forms: A Record of Clairvoyant Investigation by Annie Besant and
C.W. Leadbeater, 1901