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Why We Don’t Trust Colour in Art

By Anna Souter


Bridget Riley, Cataract 3, 1967 (via Art UK)

“In visual perception a colour is almost never seen as it really is – as it physically is. This fact makes colour the most relative medium in art.” Joseph Albers


In his book The Interaction of Color (1963), Joseph Albers doesn’t hesitate when he points us to the idea that, when it comes to colour, we can’t trust our powers of perception. We think we know colours as facts – red is red, brown is brown, blue is blue – but actually our perception of two iterations of the same colour in the same image can be completely contradictory. Albers found colour almost magical in its properties, in its ability to shift, mutate and affect our emotions.


The way we perceive colour depends entirely on context, light and form: in other words, with colour comes uncertainty and self-doubt. In his 2000 book Chromophobia, David Batchelor argues that in the Western world we are afraid of colour and we have made a systematic attempt to purge it from our lives, and particularly from art, since the days of antiquity. He argues that although it seems strange to link colour with the development of Western civilisation, it is nevertheless “no exaggeration to say that, in the West, since Antiquity, colour has been systematically marginalized, reviled, diminished and degraded.”[i] He points, for example, to the classical tradition of sculpting in white marble, where artists believed (wrongly) that they were following in the footsteps of the ancient Greeks and Romans (who actually chose the plainest marble they could because it was the best substrate for painted decoration).


In today’s world, we seem more wary of colour than ever. The epitome of “cool” in architecture is all stripped-back, clean lines painted a universal white. Form is privileged over colour and white is chosen not for its qualities as a colour, but for its non-qualities, its generalised identity. But where does this distrust of colour come from?


Human instinct and the body


Our fear of all things colourful comes from some of our deepest human instincts. Colour is fundamentally unknowable: we don’t trust it because it makes us aware that we can’t trust our own senses. One person’s blue may be another’s green, and this unassailable difference might, in a more primitive time when our perceptions of the natural and human world were more important to our survival, have meant the difference between safety and social isolation, between life and death.


As a result, we associate colour with the unknown and with the Other. In cultural terms, this means that we can find many examples of “a fall into colour” being presented as a fall from grace, a lapse. For example, in the early cinematic masterpiece The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy falls from the gloomy grey Kansas sky into the Technicolor land of Oz where everything is defined by its colourfulness (ruby slippers, yellow road, emerald city). But while wonderful, the land of Oz is not somewhere Dorothy is allowed to stay. The place “over the rainbow” is only a dream, a hallucination: the world of colour is not grown-up or sophisticated, or even real.


Indeed, in figurative and linguistic terms, as David Batchelor points out, “colour has always meant the less-than-true and the not-quite-real. The Latin colorem is related to celare, to hide or conceal; in Middle English ‘to colour’ is to embellish or adorn, to disguise, to render specious or plausible, to misrepresent.”[ii] In this formulation, as in The Wizard of Oz, colour is deceitful. It lures us in with the promise of happier times, but it proves, like the flimsy scenery in the film, to be merely a surface-level distraction or facade.


The idea of colour as lapse or corruption can also be seen in fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings. When the wizard Saruman goes over to the dark side, he rejects white and chooses a multi-coloured identity instead:


‘For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!’
I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.
‘I liked white better,’ I said.
White!’ he sneered. ‘It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.’
‘In which case it is no longer white,’ said I. ‘And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.’[iii]


This idea of colourfulness denoting the opposite of wisdom also aligns with the common perception that colours should be associated with “primitives” and children, while sophisticated Western societies reject such superficial ornaments. The 18th century German writer Goethe points to this in his Theory of Colours (one of the first theoretical works on the subject of colour):


It is also worthy of remark, that savage nations, uneducated people, and children have a great predilection for vivid colours; that animals are excited to rage by certain colours; that people of refinement avoid vivid colours in their dress and the objects that are about them, and seem inclined to banish them altogether from their presence.[iv]


Animals, children, savages: in typical formulations, these are associated with the bodily, the primitive and the exotic – or the Other. In particular, the association between colour and sex or sexuality remains especially powerful. Prostitutes “paint” their faces in bright make-up, while the LGBTQ movement is united under the symbol of the rainbow.


This helps to corroborate the idea that colour is essentially of the earth rather than the mind. Turning to the history of colour in art, paints and pigments have traditionally been derived from natural materials, such as the cochineal insect (red) and burnt animal bones (black). Furthermore, many of pigments used to be lead-based or used other noxious chemicals, meaning they had a physical effect on the body of the artist who used them. Shades of green, in particular, were often mixed with arsenic, and this has been linked to Cezanne’s diabetes and Monet’s blindness.[v]



Colour constructions


The way we talk about and understand colour is highly constructed, both by science and by art. The way we recognise colours is often closely related to form, as well as to how we have seen particular objects represented. One of the reasons we think of the sun as yellow is because we have seen innumerable painters use yellow paint to depict it.


However, the reason behind why many colours are used is not necessarily because of any representational correlation. For example, in Western religious art the Virgin Mary is always painted with a brilliant blue robe. This is not because the colour blue is intrinsically related to the function of religion or to the emotions it arouses, but because blue was always the most expensive colour to produce. Blue pigment is traditionally made from lapis lazuli, a precious stone that for centuries could only be mined from a single mountain in Afghanistan. Its worth was often equal to that of gold.


It is interesting that, even today, this blue tone is associated with religion, or at least with something transcendental or other-worldly. Even Yves Klein’s iconic monochromatic blue paintings or his performative body paintings play on this association which now feels intrinsic to the colour, despite (or perhaps because) of the fact that the pigment was deliberately created to be synthetic and cheap to produce. In this way, we can see how our understanding of the world is constructed: the early capitalist impulse that led to Mary being depicted using the most expensive paint resulted in a fundamental change in our perception of a particular colour, and in our emotional and intellectual response to it.


Even our scientific understanding of the rainbow and the colours of refracted light is not as fixed as we think. Sir Isaac Newton was the first person to isolate the colours of the spectrum, but over the course of his career he changed his mind about exactly how many colours there were. In the end, as David Batchelor points out, he “opted for the seven-colour version only because he was anxious to sustain an analogy with the musical octave. [….] It is chiefly the imperceptible transition from one band of colour to the next which has led to these ambiguities, and it is not surprising that we sometimes have to resort to mnemonics to remember the order.”[vi] This suggests that we struggle to distinguish one colour from another when the boundaries are not made clear.


As Bridget Riley, a consummate colour-painter, puts it, “for all of us, colour is experienced as something – that is to say, we always see it in the guise of a substance which can be called by a variety of names.”[vii] Even for the painter, colour is never purely and solely colour. It reminds us that we can’t rely on or even necessarily recognise our own responses to visual stimuli. The fact that colour undermines our ability to trust ourselves is translated in cultural terms as a fundamental mistrust of colour, especially when it appears in the most cultural of formats: art.


Read our interview with David Batchelor here

[i]  David Batchelor, Chromophobia, 2000, p. 22

[ii]  Batchelor, Chromophobia, p.52

[iii]  JRR Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings, 1954

[iv]  Goethe, Theory of Colours, 1810

[v]  Sarah Gottesmann, “A Brief History of Colour in Art“, Artsy, 20 May 2016

[vi]  Batchelor, Chromophobia, p.181

[vii]  Bridget Riley, “Colour for the Painter”, p.31


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