The Simple Things
FROM THE FIRST SIGNS OF SPRING TO A FRESH COAT OF PAINT, THE COLOURS AROUND US CAN HAVE A PROFOUND IMPACT ON OUR EMOTIONAL WELLBEING
After the dark, short days of winter, where the urge to huddle indoors is mostly irresistible, spring is here to paint the world anew. Look up to see a piercing blue sky against a bright green new leaf and you can’t help but feel a little in awe of nature’s palette. Daffodil yellow – caught on first sight of a gently nodding flower head by the roadside – speaks of all the promise of the season to come. From the sight of a rainbow or a mighty flock of pink-footed geese, to a soft ball of wool in battleship grey that seems to wink from a shop window, colour can trigger feelings we never knew existed. So, how might an awareness of the hidden power of the hues around us influence the decisions we make in our everyday lives?
Where science is concerned, seeing is a case of believing. Although fully sighted humans have three types of colour receptor in our eyes (red, green and blue), we’re able to pick up the likes of coral, moss green and magenta because of the unique and varied wavelengths of each colour. (Sir Isaac Newton discovered this in the 1660s when he refracted white light through a triangular prism to reveal a rainbow.) So, our favourite blue mug only looks blue because the object absorbs the colours of the spectrum that match those of its own structure; the rest (the blue we see) is what’s reflected back to us using vibrations of light, cleverly decoded by the rods and cells in our retina that pass their workings straight to the brain.
“‘Greenery’ has been named Colour of the Year, representing the lushness of the great outdoors – its properties emblematic of vitality”
If Newton was our man in science, then Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – a German artist, poet and politician – might be described as the technicolour soul-searcher. He linked colour directly with psychological impact and his Theory of Colours, published in 1810, lay the foundations for colour research as we know it today. Yellow, he describes, “carries with it the nature of brightness”, red “the impression of gravity and dignity” and green, perfect harmony: “The beholder has neither the wish nor the power to imagine a state beyond it.”
Over two centuries later it comes as little surprise to learn that ‘greenery’ has been named the ‘Colour of the Year 2017’ by global colour matching system, Pantone. Evoking a zesty pea soup of a green, the colour is described as representing “the lushness of the great outdoors” – its properties “emblematic of the pursuit of personal passions and vitality.” We’re back to nature again, when even a simple cactus or spider plant can be enough to lift both our spirits and the look of a tired, paper-filled desk.
Colour has long informed our subconscious. “I found that I could say things with colour and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for,” said American artist Georgia O’Keeffe. One look at her bright canvases filled with bold, magnified flowers and we get a better glimpse into her thought process. A picture can indeed say a thousand words but colour also has a knack of coming back to us as emotive shorthand in everyday conversation. Who hasn’t seen someone looking ‘white as a sheet’, described themselves feeling ‘blue’ when the week hasn’t really gone to plan, been ‘tickled pink’ at a new promotion at work or seen the classic ‘red mist’ descend on someone close to bursting point.
Within society, too, we are signposted by a rainbow of instruction; green is for go (and recycle here), double yellow lines ask us to pay heed, while red still rides high as the showy, dangerous one – all stops, looks and listen outs. Yet there’s much to be said for its use as a positive colour choice. In 2004, students at the University of Durham revealed that those who wore red in wrestling tournaments defeated blue-wearing opponents sixty per cent of the time, while, according to colour expert Mandy Griffiths, we could all benefit from ditching our favourite black for something altogether brighter.
“True red suits everyone and you can’t go too wrong with navy blue and purple, either,” says »
“Society is signposted by a rainbow of instruction. Green is for go, yellow heeds caution and red rides high as the showy, dangerous one”
Mandy, who helps guide people toward their ideal colour palette based on their skin tone and ‘season’ type.
For Mandy, there’s a world of difference between the ‘autumns’ among us (typically looking good in oranges, rusts and browns) and the light, pastel tones suited for a ‘spring’ palette. Her business, itsmycolour.com, is based on ‘getting your colours done’; a concept that originated in America and reached here in the 1980s where every wannabe power dresser signed up. But in an age where most of us would feel reasonably confident with our own colour preferences when picking new clothes, isn’t the idea of seeking guidance a little old hat?
Mandy, who sees between 30–40 clients a month, says not. For some people it’s about helping them to further their career, for others it’s about boosting confidence, or it can be simply about spending money more wisely and avoiding those mistakes that lurk at the back of everybody’s wardrobe. “Colour is how we define ourselves but very few people have a clue what really suits them,” she says. “A few flashes of colour can really help people stand out – and colour directly translates to confidence within society.”
For those of us happier when clinging to the darker side of our wardrobe, there’s much to be said for inching some colour into your home one statement wall at a time. Thanks to the rise and rise of bright and sophisticated colourways threading through wall paints, chairs, lamps and furnishings, magnolia is near to witnessing a vintage renaissance. And while you can’t go far wrong with a touch of Farrow & Ball’s shaded whites for a hint of Scandi minimalism, we’re now free to be our own masters of interior colour with the help of a kaleidoscopic sea of swatches and test pots. Why wouldn’t we want to dabble in Dulux’s ice-cream-coloured ‘Lickedy Lick’ or test out the rose-tinted tones of ‘Carmine’ by Little Greene before committing to a whole room of pink?
For writer and author Kassia St Clair, it’s all about the story behind the shade. Her book, The Secret Lives
of Colour (John Murray, see issue 53 of The Simple Things), tells the tales of human civilisation through the prism of 75 colours – from the poisonous ‘Scheele green’ that was blamed for the death of Napoleon to the gruesome origins behind ‘Mummy brown’. Yet for Kassia, some of the biggest revelations lay closer to home, forever changing her relationship with the colours around her. “Because my dad always decorated every room in our house yellow, I’ve
always rather disliked and avoided it in my own home – it seems over-familiarity bred contempt,” explains Kassia. “Learning about its salacious and subversive past, however, has given me a newfound respect for it. I may not be quite ready to reach for a pot of daffodil-hued paint, but I am currently eyeing up a very dashing mustard-bright yellow quilt for my bedroom.” Experimenting with colour is a lot of fun and once you start to play with it, or even just pay more attention to it, you may find yourself surprised by the impact it can have. As the modern master of colour, David Hockney, once said, “I prefer living in colour,” and we have to agree.