A World of Colors
The Fun and Fancy Free Art of Pixels
Lessons from Grandmothers
Poking the Gravid Chicken
A World of ColorsMyths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
What is your favorite color?
It is very likely that about half of you answered ‘blue’ to my question. At least that is the result that surveys held in the 20th century (and the few we have from the late 19 th) consistently give in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Blue is definitely the first color, followed by green, with the only exception of Spain, where red is the dominant one before blue and yellow.
Things change in Latin America: in Brazil the first two colors (in order) are blue and red, in Chile blue and white, in Peru red and green, in Colombia (old data) yellow is first, followed by blue.
Even more different are the results for Japan, the only Asian country for which we have data gathered according to the same criteria used in the West. There white wins the day (40 %) followed by black (20%) and yellow (10%).
It is interesting to know that, often, for the Japanese, the specific color is way less important than its qualities: white is well and good, but is it matte white or glossy? This is the crux of the matter, and so we have many different whites bearing different names, ranging from the dullest matte to the maximum possible glossiness.
This distinction wasn’t traditionally important (or even noticed at nearly the same extent) in the western hemisphere, where other factors are paramount, first among them the depth of colors. It has started to come to our attention in the past few decades, though, coming in through the market of printing paper. While not so long ago the discriminating factor over here was the grain of the paper and the relative warmth of tones you could get in a print, right now the first discriminating factor has became ‘matte or glossy?’
In a great part of central Africa, instead, when you consider a color, knowing if it is in the red range or the green range (some languages have words for three colors only: red, white and black) is way less important than knowing if it is moist or dry, soft or hard, smooth or rough, sad or happy. Color is a category investing the whole range of sensory and emotional perceptions.
Sometimes the vocabulary related to colors inside the same tradition is different for men and women. This is the case among the Fulbe: the words used for the range of the browns are different according to the speaker’s gender.
Moreover, some colors find a definition and are recognized as separate shades only in some traditions. For instance this is the case of the Chinese qing 青 (usually translated blue or green colors for which other names exist) which my Chinese teacher explained to us in a specific contest as ‘the color of faraway mountains’, and that, given its lexical uses (it is often linked to shoots and sprouts), seems to have a specific connotation of ‘verdant, lush and moist’ that’s not so evident in plain ‘green’ (lü 綠)
Of course, this sort of differences in how people relate to and define colors is not limited to the geographical aspect. It would be naïve indeed to think that our Middle-Age or Classical-Age ancestors would share our own view only because we happen to inhabit the same geographical space they did.
For instance, let us think for a moment of classical Greek architecture and sculpture. My mental image is one of white columns in the sun and marble-white, perfectly proportioned statues; even though I know that this is an image owing much more to neo-classical sculptors like Thorvaldsen (1) and Canova (2) than to Praxiteles (3) and Polycleitos (4).
It is well known and documented that Greek architecture and sculpture were extremely colourful, with temple columns painted in a regular sequence of red, yellow, blue that, seen in a distance, gave the impression of a vibrant white, to be resolved in its component colors as one approached the building, while statues where often painted in non-naturalistic colors (green beards are well known in Zeus’ and Poseidon’s statues, for instance). Thus the common association of classical clean lines to the purity and cleanliness of white marble is more of a modern mental construct than an originally classical idea.
For us, after centuries of studies in optics and with our knowledge of spectra and spectral color classification, it is evident that green is located somewhere between blue and yellow, but in the middle Ages such a declaration would have made no sense. In the medieval classifications yellow and blue weren’t elements in the same range and, as such, could not have an intermediate color. Green’s place is somewhere else, near black, or anyway outside of the linear scale of colors.
In the next few columns we will explore the vast world of colors, their use, and symbolic meaning in history and in different traditions. The first one, next month, will be blue.
(1) Bertel Thorvaldsen (Copenhagen 1770- 1844) Icelandic-Danish sculptor, one of the most famed neo-classical artists . Lived and worked in Rome for many years.
(2) Antonio Canova (Possagno 1757-Venice) has been defined ‘the epitome of the neo-classical sculptor’, one of the greatest personalities behind the birth of the style.
(3) Praxiteles, was the most renowned Attic sculptor of the fourth century B.C., he is credited as being the first to sculpt the nude female form in life-sized works. No original work of his survives, but we have numerous copies.
(4) Polycleitos, sculptor in bronze of the fifth-fourth century B.C. in the opinion of the ancient either equal to Phidias or ranking immediately below him. Member of the school of Argos, he sculpted the colossal statue of Hera in ivory and gold that stood in the Heraion of Argos.
Color wheel from http://faculty.fortlewis.edu/lancaster_k/video304/colorwheel.jpg
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