"All colors are the friends of their neighbors and the lovers of their opposites."
~ Marc Chagall
The other day I read a fascinating article about colors, cultures and language. The title is "The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains" [link below]. Its focus is the relationship between language and color perception.
The thing that startled me was how few words some cultures have for colors. According to the article, some have names for only four or five colors. The Dani people of New Guinea have just two words for colors and one Amazon tribe, the Pirahã, is said to have none. I, who grew up with ever-larger boxes of Crayolas, have a gluttonous color vocabulary. Dozens and dozens of words. According to studies quoted in the article, once you start naming colors, the left side of the brain – the language side – takes charge. Naming colors becomes a new skill to be developed.
Discovering the color wheel ranks among my most memorable childhood experiences. I had always liked to draw and color, but this – it thrilled me. It showed me the relationships between colors – I hadn't known they had them. It showed me how to blend, and how not to blend, my little jars of tempera colors. I suddenly understood that harmony and dissonance were not just musical terms: They applied to color, too.
I had a similar thrill years later when, as a first-year art student, I was told to buy a Color-aid kit for my color theory class. I checked and was pleased to discover they're still on the market.
The Color-aid kit of my art school days was a box of 100 or so color swatches. They were a lot like paint chips but in a profusion of colors, some of which vibrated wildly when placed side-by-side. Who knew colors could do that? I suddenly had a new sense of the possibilities of color.
"Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions."
~ Pablo Picasso
Color theory class also gave me new ways to think about colors: by their hue, saturation and chroma. I don't know what they're teaching now, but in those days, these were defined as the three properties of color. Hue is of course the color itself. Saturation is the richness and depth of the color – how much color is in the color. Chroma I interpreted as the brightness of the color – the amount of light it seemed to emit. Knowing these terms made me feel like I understood color for the very first time. Ms. Pantone 1969.
It was a gorgeous day in New York City today – all clear air and bright, bright colors. As I walked down the street I instinctively noticed the sky that went down the blue scale from ultramarine to powder, and the trees that went from the yellowest green to apple, fern and forest, and I thought about a fact I'd just learned: that in many cultures, the words for blue and green are the same.
I would feel lost without my color names. Thank you, Crayola.
"Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night."
~ Rainer Maria Rilke
Read the article: