Colour Wheel, J.A.H Hatt, 1908

Colour is unique to our human experience. Every day billions of us convert colour into a whole complex code of symbolism— of emotion and order. Without us necessarily realising it, colour has become part of how we interpret the physical world around us, it makes anything from natural landscapes to carefully constructed advertising easily translatable to our pre-defined ideas. But why is colour so important? Do we all have the same associations to colour?

Philosophers have dedicated a whole branch of theory to such questions. Some argue that colour is not a ‘property’ out there in the physical world; others say that such a statement is complete rubbish. But what do we know? That colour is language. Ever heard the idioms, ‘feeling blue,’ ‘green with envy,’ ‘black sheep of the family,’ or, ‘seeing through rose-coloured glasses.’ Of course. These expressions run off our tongues without question —they are clichés, cultural signifiers.  Yet what they all state is that emotions can be made visible by colour. Perhaps colour is a way human beings can express what we all privately experience (anger, fear, temptation, lust, happiness) yet collectively ‘know’ by intuition.

Colour is a sign of civilisation. Some of the most fantastic places on earth are made so by their colours—both artificial and natural. Jodphur, Rajasthan’s second largest city, is a breath-taking example of how humans create their own sense of community in aesthetically hostile places.

Jodphur, Rajasthan, India

Located in the dry, bleak plains of the Thar desert, Jodphur ’s blue city-scape is the connective colour that marks where people live together in an otherwise bewildering space.

Riomaggiore, Italy

Even here in Europe, the Italians have sought to decorate Riomaggiore with fantastic colours that make the community appear calm and soft—somewhat a contrast to the jagged rock face which harbours it. Yet colour is relative to societies, it means different things to a culture depending on superstition, environment and objects. Take the colour red:

  • · China: good luck, celebration
  • · West: Passion, danger and excitement
  • · India: purity, brides
  • · South Africa: the colour of mourning

Or white:

  • China: Death, mourning
  • West: Brides, angels, peace
  • India: Unhappiness

Still, just as much as our emotional comprehension of colour is used to create unity, happiness and togetherness, it can be also be manipulated by corporations like Coca-Cola, Google, and Wallmart so that we buy their products. In fact, colour is now so inextricably tied to a visual code of economy that we are willing to pay 50% more for a product if it has a certain package—this is despite our box thrown away as soon as we get home and ‘out of sight’. This is where capitalism, as it does with all human experience, rushes in to gobble up our wonderfully innate feeling for colour to structure and maintain its system. Once again, our love of form and identity has been corrupted by the big guy in the chair.

Perhaps just as much as we love colour. We should stand back and reflect on its significance in our own lives, trying to push aside its over-use in supermarkets—places that actually overpower our senses, so much so, that our eyes hurt and we lose our natural enjoyment of colour. It is good to remember that brands do not share colour, they steal colour to increase their profit margins, using so much that it becomes excessive, and even ugly. Colour is to be enjoyed by us all, not dominated and colonised by people who can afford to travel to see real colour from a yacht in Bermuda. But trash our lives with synthetic colours which claim to be offering ‘different products’ which are always just the same.

Next post: 10 most colourful artists and their works…

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