The experience of colour

A new book reveals how the history of colour is really the history of humanity

November 08, 2021
Is the sky blue, or bronze? Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, circa 1530. Image: FineArt / Alamy Stock Photo
Is the sky blue, or bronze? Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, circa 1530. Image: FineArt / Alamy Stock Photo
The World According to Colour
James Fox
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Colour is first and foremost an experience: it exists only so far as we are here to look at it, and nobody looks at colour in exactly the same way. The human eye possesses around 100m photoreceptors responsible for absorbing photons, the particles of energy that make up light. As these photons enter the eye, they trigger a rapid chain of events in the brain that ends in our ability to see, and make visual sense of, the world.

Only about four or five million photoreceptors, called cone cells, are responsible for colour vision. Most people have three types of cone cell, each of which picks up on a different wavelength of visible light. By comparing these different wavelengths, the brain can distinguish between millions of different hues and shades of colour. But everyone perceives colour slightly differently. Some people have fewer cone cell types than others, and therefore perceive fewer colours; others have a fourth type of cone cell, and so possess an “extra dimension” in how they see colour. (Whether or not this leads to seeing more hues of colour remains unknown.)

But to some extent, colour also has a life beyond any individual perception. It exists as both the quality of a thing as well as an approach to that thing, or—as James Fox writes in his new book, The World According to Colour—“a dance between subjects and objects, mind and matter.”

In order to teach us the steps of this dance, Fox—an art historian at Cambridge University best known for his art programmes on the BBC, such as A History of Art in Three Colours—draws on art history, science, anthropology, literature and politics. He tackles one colour at a time (black, red, yellow, blue, white, purple and green) over the course of seven tightly woven chapters. Throughout, the narrative is firmly grounded in human stories. We learn how lapis lazuli went from the mountains of Afghanistan to the ultramarine pigment in Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. By scouring every word of his work, we discover that Shakespeare’s favourite colour was probably black. We take a walk through the Quranic paradise and find not only a tree-lined garden but also green cushions, brocades and silks.

Despite all these fascinating stories, there remains the niggling doubt—as Fox admits in his preface—whether colour is “one of those subjects that simply can’t be written about.” Often in The World According to Colour, it is hard to know when the discussion of colour actually begins. At what point do we stop looking at blood and see red? Where does black sit, beyond darkness? Fox would argue that some associations are just so fundamental to human cultures everywhere that to try and separate them is impossible. There has never been a time when our blood was not red, nor the forests and plants of the natural world green. Yellow is intimately linked to gold because the word itself is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root for yellow, ghel. And so on. But perhaps a more interesting question here is not whether colour associations are innate, but what meaning we bestow on them.

In this respect, Fox is much more interesting when he explores how the meanings of colours shift and turn with the centuries. Since pagan times, yellow has been the colour of light and sun worship; with the advent of Christianity this dovetailed with concepts of divinity, hence gold leaf became the material of choice to depict saints and the heavens. By the Middle Ages, however, Christians also came to see yellow as a symbol of deceit. As such it was often used for the robes of Judas, like in Giotto’s Betrayal of Christ. Fox posits that this change might have come down to a rejection of classical iconography, which coveted yellow—or perhaps other growing associations of the colour with the processes of decay and ageing.

Even more revealing is the story of the Torres Strait islanders who, to the surprise of British scientist William Rivers in 1898, struggled to identify blue when asked to describe a sample of pigment. The problem had nothing to do with perception. Anthropologists have discovered that many languages lack a distinct word for blue, often conflating it with green and sometimes even black and yellow; for the ancient Greeks, the sky was bronze. It’s a reminder that even the ways in which we try to understand and distinguish colours from each other—like Fox’s choice to examine just seven here—are forever limited by the language at our disposal as much as by the acuity of our eyesight.

Is this to suggest that the meanings we give colours are all arbitrary? Is there no reason why we can’t, with a bit of effort, exchange the meanings of clean and pure white for those of royal and luxurious purple? Sitting at the intersection between science and the arts, colours answer this question both ways. They mean what they do because we say so: but what we say is not always a conscious choice. Examining colour is a day-to-day tussle to relearn and reimagine the world and our own place in it. “The history of colour,” as Fox reminds us, “is also a history of humanity.”