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Colour is also a spectrum

By Jennifer Stern

, |

Colour is also a spectrum

By Jennifer Stern

, |

5 min read

And it is subjective.

Spring has come and gone and, as summer approaches, there’s a palpable sense of possibility and renewal. So it’s a great time to brighten up our lives and our homes to match the sense of optimism and – yes – even joy.

But choosing colours can be so tricky. Is it a good idea to paint your child’s bedroom bright orange? Or should you just stick to a safe colour like beige? Well, it’s all up to personal choice, really, but there is also so much more to choosing colours. In fact, it’s quite a science.

Colour and mood

A quick internet search will yield a smorgasbord of sites offering insight into how colour affects our mood, and how clever use of paint can affect anything from productivity to appetite and mental health. And that bit, I think, is indisputable – colour does affect mood. Although, whether you can predict how any particular colour will affect mood is moot. But there are some pretty safe guidelines:

  • Light is more important than colour, so use lighter colours in a room that does not get much light.
  • Yes, green is calming, but only dependably so if it comes from living plants.
  • The same is true for blue – it’s calming when it’s a clear sky, or reflected by a lake, or the sea.

White may seem to be a safe choice, but it can be over-bright, and seem clinical.

But beige is always safe … Hmm, for ‘safe’ read ‘boring and unimaginative’. There are people who are actively offended by beige walls.

Colour is subjective

While the above ‘truisms’ are widely accepted, they do not take into account that people are individuals with unique histories. As an example, I just love the colour green and, when given a choice, will almost invariably choose it. But one of my closest friends finds green positively nauseating, which I can’t understand. I also can’t understand how she will gaily wear maroon or brown, because – you know – they’re ugly and depressing. That’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.

Colour is a cultural construct

To misquote a fabulous philosophical conundrum: ‘If a tree in a forest has leaves, and there is no person there to see them, are they still green?’ Common sense tells us that it’s highly unlikely that, while we are away, the leaves in the forest secretly turn blue, and quickly change back to green when we stroll by. But, while it’s unlikely that they change colour, are they still ‘green’?

That questions the very nature of the term ‘green’. Take the needles of a pine tree, for example. They appear to be what I would call dark green – and you probably would, too. But, according to a cross-cultural study on colour perception in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Himbas from northern Namibia do not distinguish between dark green, dark blue, dark purple, dark red, dark brown and black, calling them all ‘zoozu’.

Colour is a spectrum

If you think the above is odd, just ask a group of your friends – with a similar cultural and educational background – to distinguish between blue and green. Sure – at either end of the spectrum, there will be agreement: ‘that’s definitely blue, and that’s definitely green.’ But when you venture into the realm of turquoise, teal, cyan and aquamarine, you’re likely to find disagreements: ‘my car is not blue, it’s green!’ And you’re likely to find the same issue with pink, blue and purple because, let’s be honest, most of us don’t know the difference between lilac, lavender, mauve and purple.(Hint – they are not synonyms.) Colour is genuinely, literally, a spectrum. And, like any spectrum, there are no discrete values, only degrees of difference. So, while turquoise may be bluer than teal, it’s still not blue. Or is it?

Be honest, can you really find indigo in the rainbow? To me it looks like the blue band just segues into the violet band. And, you know what? It looked like that to Newton, too, when he first studied how sunlight behaved when passing through a prism.

He first divided the spectrum into red, yellow, green, blue and violet, but then – on looking further – he added orange. Now that’s interesting, because in many languages there is no separate word for the colour orange – you would just have to choose whether to call it red or yellow – or reddish yellow, or yellowish red. And, at the time Newton was playing with prisms, oranges had only been available in Britain for – at most – a hundred years, so the term as a colour was probably only a few decades old. (Yes, the fruit came first, and the colour was named after it.) And, at much the same time, the East India Company started importing indigo in larger quantities.

Indigo referred to the dye (from the plant Indigofera tinctoria) and not the colour. But language is dynamic, so it was around this time – as indigo was supplanting the indigenous woad as the main source of blue dye in Britain – that the term ‘indigo’ came to refer to a specific shade of blue. Newton couldn’t resist adding in orange and then, because he believed seven to be, superior number, he added indigo. This gave the spectrum seven colours, to match the seven notes of music (which are a construct, not a law of nature) and the seven planets in the solar system (and we all know how cast in stone that number was). So, if colour is so unreliably subjective, perhaps there is a good reason to stick to neutrals.

Grey is the new beige

Beige is so 20th century – perhaps because we’re tired of its use in decor, but possibly because the Banting mantra ‘don’t eat beige food’ has subliminally turned us against this old stalwart.

For the last two decades, grey has been making serious inroads into beige’s territory as the go-to not-white neutral. Like white, it goes with everything but, unlike beige, it does not lean towards brown or yellow. (And no-one has to remind you not to eat grey food.)

Grey has a certain industrial-chic sophistication that’s quite hard to place, and it is so versatile. And savvy designers are even pairing it with beige, which is more than just hedging your bets. But, is it here to stay, or is it a passing fad that will fade quicker than the paint on the walls?

Bottom line

Yes, colour is a science but it is also – probably more so – an art. So the bottom line here is to paint your rooms any colour you like. And if your little darling has decided that bright turquoise (or teal or cyan) bedroom walls will make them happy, it’s worth giving it a try. If it turns out to be just another fad, you can always repaint, and chalk it up as a life lesson.

Please note, we are talking about the interior of your home here – please don’t go wild and paint the exterior walls bright orange or purple. The HOA may have a few words to say about that.

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