This blue-green hue has a history as vast as the calm, summery seas it resembles
In Homer’s Odyssey, on his return home, the hero meets Proteus, known also as the Old Man of the Sea. Proteus is one of the stranger deities in the Greek pantheon: he has the gift of prophesy, but hates using it, so to get the truth, you have to hold him down while he squirms and transforms himself into myriad shapes – tigers, snakes, even water itself – trying to break free. Given this attribute, Proteus is the god most associated with the variable nature of oceans, rivers and lakes. The word ‘protean’, taken from his name, means changeable – and it feels appropriate that water should have a god dedicated to its inconstancy. Even its colour is up for debate. Homer famously referred to it as ‘winedark’; James Joyce, in his Modernist take on the Greek writer’s epic, was less effusive. ‘The sea,’ he wrote, ‘the snotgreen sea’.
Water, as everyone knows, has moods. If the sea is stormy and treacherous one evening, you might well wake the next morning to find it pale blue and becalmed. Navy one moment; brown-grey with beigetipped waves the next. The reason we tend to think of it as blue is complicated. In a glass, of course, it usually looks clear, but if water is deep enough, more of the longer wavelengths – reds and yellows – are absorbed, leaving the shorter wavelengths to be scattered, thus making calmer, clearer water more likely to appear greenish blue.
Another reason why we tend to immediately associate water with the colour blue is cultural. Perhaps due to advertising, holiday memories or childhood imagery – seas are nearly always perfectly azure in picture books. Aqua’s watery associations lend it some ocean-like attributes: it’s refreshing, summery, nautical, a little mysterious and very capacious. Aquas come in almost as many shades as the sea itself: near-turquoise, minty, dark teal or the clear, untroubled blue of the aquamarine stone.
In our homes, this colour can be taken in many design directions. One is the more synthetic, mid-century route, with less grey and perhaps a dash more blue. Think icy movie-goddess dresses deepening to that tint redolent of Studebaker cars – this works better on accessories than on whole walls, where its single-mindedness soon palls. The inkier, greyer aqua hues have a more modern feel. Little Greene’s ‘Turquoise Blue’ ( see above right) feels clean and refreshing, making it perfect for bathrooms or kitchens. Toe-dippers might try Claire Gaudion’s abstract ‘Rhythmic Tides’ rug (£359; clairegaudion.com), which includes several of the sea’s infinite hues, from winedark to… let’s call it green.