About: Colourful tales
The human eye can see more than 10 million colours – all capable of swaying our thinking, affecting our moods, raising our blood pressure or communicating immediate clear messages.
We see a swathe of red. Is it danger? Warmth? Heroism or even passion? What if the red is more crimson than fire-engine? Or perhaps closer to orange? Does the hue change the way in which experience the colour? Then there’s the context in which that red is used, the culture in which we live, and our own rich history of personal experiences. Our response influences how we translate that colour with words or art. Is it possible to reproduce that particular red in another time and place? Will it be the same in an Australian summer as it is in the depths of a Russian winter? The complex interaction of so many factors can leave us reeling!
This year, Art & About Sydney gazes on colour. We celebrate how artists play with colour and the impact this has on how we experience our city. As you walk around and experience the vivid, the incandescent, the muted, and the sharp – here are 10 small (but colourful) tales to tease – and leave you eager to find out more.
Ask anyone what their favourite colour is and there’s more than a 40 per cent chance they’ll nominate blue. Blue is seen as constant, dependable, soothing and calm; and yet, blue is also associated with depression and moodiness.
I see red
Women perceive a greater range of colours than men, particularly shades of red. Scientists believe the difference evolved as a result of how early ancestors found food. Men surveyed the landscape for prey, while women gathered fruit and vegetables that were often identified and rated by colour.
Mauve was discovered in 1856 by English chemist Sir William Henry Perkin, who produced the first synthetic dye from coal. Its use in cloth dyeing led to the naming of the Mauve Decade (1890s). The colour was identified with decadence and artificiality.
The colour wheel
Sir Isaac Newton developed the first circular diagram of colours in 1666. He split white sunlight into red, orange, yellow, green, cyan, and blue beams; he then joined the two ends of the colour spectrum to show the natural progression of colours. Newton associated each colour with a note of a musical scale.
A century later, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe created a colour wheel showing the psychological effect of each colour. He divided all the colours into two groups – the plus side, producing positive effects (from red through orange to yellow) and the minus side, producing negative effects (from green through violet to blue).
Current colour theory was developed by Johannes Itten, a Swiss colour and art theorist who taught at the Bauhaus School of Applied Arts in Weimar, Germany. Itten’s colour wheel is based on red, yellow, and blue as the primary triad and includes 12 hues.
It’s black and white
Are black and white colours? In his book, Advice to Artists, Leonardo da Vinci wrote: “the first of all simple colours is white, although some would not admit that black or white are colours, the first being a source or receiver of colours, and the latter totally deprived of them. But we can’t leave them out, since painting is but an effect of light and shade … so white is the first then yellow, green, blue and red and finally black.”
Interestingly, although we think of white as an absence of colour, if you spin a colour wheel, all colours become white. If you mix all pigments, you will only ever get a shade of grey.
Fifty shades of green
Green is second only to blue as a favourite colour. Green is the colour used for night-vision goggles because the human eye is most sensitive to and able to discern the most shades of that colour. It is associated with peace, tranquillity and nature, yet it is also associated with jealousy and illness.
Yellow is associated with cowardice, jaundice, caution (the yellow/amber traffic light), as well as ageing. However, yellow is also sunshine, optimism, happiness and friendship. In Italy yellow refers to crime stories, with the first crime novels published in the ’30s having yellow covers. Yellow is also often thought of as one of the easiest colours to see – hence the many yellow taxi companies.
Hot and cold
Warm colours are often said to be hues from red through yellow, browns and tans included; cool colours are often said to be the hues from blue-green through blue-violet, most greys included.
However, in the solar system, the hottest stars radiate blue light, and the coolest radiate red.
Orange and pink are close friends of the colour red. Orange is worn by Buddhist monks; it is also the national colour of the Netherlands – but which came first, the colour or the fruit?
Pink is the one colour that isn’t in the light spectrum, and yet we can still see it. Another interesting pink fact: If you stare at a pink dot for a long time and then look away, you will see a green dot. This is the afterimage of pink – the colour that is complementary. People often think green is the afterimage of red, when in fact, red’s afterimage is closer to turquoise.
What about the sound of colour?
Synaesthesia is the capacity to see sound and hear colour – an accidental cross wiring in the brain in which affects one in 2,000 people, and occurs more often in women than men. The Russian painter Kandinsky is believed to have had synaesthesia, wanting to create the painterly equivalent of a symphony in his work. He recalled hearing a hissing noise when mixing colours in his paintbox as a child, and later became an accomplished cello player, which he said represented one of the deepest blues of all instruments.
And now … enjoy!
The complex, fascinating world of colour has provided rich and fertile ground for our most creative minds for centuries. If we lost you when we began to introduce the concept of sound into colour, take heart from Kandinsky’s guidelines to enjoying art: “Lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and … stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to ‘walk about’ into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?”