The Idea of Color

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Roger returning from painting “en plein air”

I’ve been thinking about color this week as I’ve been working. I should say the idea of color. Let me explain…

If you think that color is a physical thing, an apple is red, the sky is blue, you may have to think again.

What is color anyway? Think about how they make paint. On it’s simplest level they take a substance like clay for example, and mix it with a binder (oil, wax, glycerine, latex,etc..) to produce a paint, eg. yellow (ochre), brown (sienna, umber). But what is the color? Clays have color but are not the color.

Color is light refraction off of the surface of the clay. This is true for the color of all objects. A red apple is not actually red, it is refracting light that appears red to us. If you don’t believe me, think about what an apple looks like in moon light; gray. The same goes for red paint. the paint isn’t red but it appears that way to us.

So lets talk about this appears to be thing. Light coming from a window illuminates an apple on a table. The light is refracted by the surface of the apple into various wavelengths (like a prism)  and travels to your eye. Your eye transmits this wavelength into electrons that flow to your brain and your brain says that appears to be red.

Here is where it gets interesting. What if you are colorblind? Literally your eye cannot process this wavelength so you don’t see red but some variation of color. You may recognize this color as red but it is not the same as what a normal eye would see. Color is subjective in this way. Even to a normal eye everyone sees color differently. It is an idea of red.

Is our perception of color tied to our language skills? We are, after all, talking about an idea. Listen to this fascinating episode of Radiolab from National Public Radio. They make the case that without language color doesn’t exit. http://www.radiolab.org/2012/may/21/

Have you ever thought about how blind people perceive the idea of color? Have you ever tried to describe a color in other than visual terms? I always resort to descriptions that involve other senses and emotions.

Can you know the blues without visually perceiving the color? Emotion has always been associated with and affected by the idea of color. This is the strength of the idea of color in all arts. The idea makes you feel.

11 thoughts on “The Idea of Color

  1. whineandcheersforwine 08/07/2012 / 5:59 pm

    Once again you’ve got me thinking…..Interestingly you made me realize that I do not associate a statement such as “I feel blue” with its color form. But yet there it is as obvious as it can be. Maybe I am color blind when it comes to emotion. See, now you’ve got me thinking again……

    • Roger 08/07/2012 / 6:12 pm

      Or perhaps you are not perceiving all of the colors?

  2. ginger 08/08/2012 / 4:20 pm

    You never hear of anyone getting the “reds”, but everyone gets the “blues” sometimes.
    Thanks, Roger for the thought-provoking article…

  3. whineandcheersforwine 08/08/2012 / 10:26 pm

    Thanks Ginger for the reminder. There is this great Bette Midler song from the seventies & actually written by Sammy Hagar with John S. Carter Jr called RED. The production is a bit dated now but at the time I thought it to be a real rocker and even a possible audition for Ms M soon to be great role in The Rose playing a Joplin type vocalist. She had not recorded such a rock sounding vocal before. Here are some of the lyrics;

    I read that it’s all black and white.
    Oooh, the spectrum made a shade I like!
    Ooh, those crinsom rays of ruby bright.
    Ah! The technicolor li-i-ight!
    Red! Red! I want red!
    There’s no substitute for red!
    Red! Paint it red!
    Green ain’t mean compared to red!
    You don’t know what it does to me.
    Yeah, that crimson sin intensity!
    I’m haunted by the mystery of red, red, red!
    Red! Red knocks ’em dead!
    Some like it hot-tah!
    I like it red!
    Red’s my lover, got me covered!
    Red’s my number and he’s a commer!
    Red’s my drummer. I hear his thunder!
    Move over, brother!
    Red is a mother!
    He’s a mother!
    Red! Red knocks ’em dead!
    Red, red, red, red!
    Red! Red! I want red!

  4. Roger 08/09/2012 / 9:38 am

    There is a big cultural aspect to color as meaning to think about as well. Death: black, white
    Marriage: white, red. Also color representing emotion as you have pointed out. Red: anger, desire. Green: jealousy. Yellow: happiness. So do the colors associate themselves with the emotion or event in our mind or vice versa? Or are they choices subconsciously made to be in conformity with the dominant culture?

  5. ginger 08/09/2012 / 6:04 pm

    Ernest, that’s great! I never heard that song or saw the lyrics before. They really get the ideas across colorfully! Thanks… Have you never been green with envy?

  6. ginger 08/09/2012 / 6:14 pm

    Yes, Rog. I love thinking about the colors relating to our emotions, and it occurs to me that they may be related to the chakras or energy centers in our bodies. I can’t account for all of them, but here’s a start. Yellow and green for example, are bilious and related to the liver; red, the heart, and white and blue the highest, the mind and spirit, (neck and head. ) it’s been so long since I meditated on the energy centers. Now I want to research this a bit.

  7. ginger 08/09/2012 / 6:26 pm

    I got the chakras mixed up for sure. Should have done the research first! Sorry for the misinformation. Green represents the heart chakra just for one example. Still think the concept is rooted in ancient thinking. Envy is definitely the emotion of the Green-eyed monster.

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