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Updated: Jan 21, 2019

I never met a colour I didn’t like. - Dale Chihuly

When it comes to colour, most people think they know what to expect; however, the concept of colour, it’s history, theory, cultural and psychological significance and affects (respectively) shows just how complex colour actually is, and essentially proves it be almost a scientific phenomenon. It’s interesting to note, that based on how colours are represented in nature, the word “colour” only entered the English language as a noun at the end of the 17th century officially.

We tend to think of the meanings of colour in fixed terms: red for anger, yellow for cowardice, pink for girls and so on. But when we look at different colours from a historical perspective, it turns out that their meanings are culturally contingent – changing depending on place and time. (Gavin Evans, author of new book The Story of Colour: An Exploration of the Hidden Messages of the Spectrum).

A colour is a physical object as soon as we consider its dependence… luminous source, other colours, temperatures, spaces… - Ernst Mach

To the Human Eye

In nature, light creates the colour. In the picture, colour creates the light. - Hans Hofmann

The human eye, or more specifically the retina which is covered by millions of light-sensitive cells, can detect over 10 million colours, by processing the light into nerve impulses, along the cortex of the brain via the optic nerve; however, the brain cannot remember such complex details with accuracy for more than a few seconds. Humans only perceive the reflected colours and more likely warmer colours as opposed to cooler ones.

Colour As Light

Achieved by, light receptors transmitting messages to the brain, when observed by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666, it was determined that colour is not inherent in objects, rather the surface, some reflected, and others absorbed. The colour “red” for example, in an apple, or rather the “red” surface, is reflected in wavelengths that we perceive as “red”, absorbing the rest. Similarly, “white” appears when it reflects all wavelengths and “black” when all are absorbed. Scientists believe and have proven that birds, fish and other mammals perceive the whole spectrum, with some insects such as bees being able to see ultraviolet colours, invisible to the human eye, as part of colour camouflage.

Colour is not something that can be understood entirely, but partially. That’s how complex colour is; but, recognising the physical nature of colour and light and its multiplicity of symbolism and cultural context, understanding colour relationships, interaction, communication and psychological effects, some understanding can be achieved.

Colour has a diverse history, and emphasises the senses and humanities, as it saturates our senses and ignites us emotionally. Colour consciously and subconsciously occupies our minds, as an iconographic, full and expansive visual language on its own.