The vivid descriptions of Pantone’s colour of the year 2022 reminded me of a beautiful book I read a few years ago: The Secret Lives of Colour, Kassia St Clair. An encyclopaedia of history, language and etymology, centred around what brings brightness to our days, colour!
Over the last few weeks I’ve been flicking through pages, stopping at colours that caught my eye and referring to pencil marks indicating a previous interest.
The book depicts a history of 75 hues. Stories of colourmen, kings, fashion and buffalos, sprinkle the multicoloured pages. In this short read I’ve pulled together my favourite stories and some of my own findings inspired by colour.
Pink in Prisons
RED is the term used for a whole range of shades; pink being one of those shades. The history of a particular tint is one of my favourites from the book…
Baker-Miller pink is a colour named after two Seattle based, US Naval Correctional Officers. Following the research of Alexander G. Schauss in the late 70’s, Gene Baker and Ron Miller took the rise in violet crime into their own hands. With an intention to calm down their inmates the pair painted a holding cell in a baby pink colour. It worked! ‘over a period of 156 days there wasn’t a single incident’.
St Clair writes:
Schauss began making public appearances to demonstrate how the newly christened Baker-Miller pink could sap the strength of even the toughest man. During one memorable television appearance he tried it out on the reigning Mr California: the poor man could barely complete a single bicep curl. It soon became something of a pop culture phenomenon in America. It crept over the seats of bus companies, the walls of housing estates, small-town drunk tanks (hence it’s other nickname, ‘drunk tank pink’) and, finally, the visitors’ locker rooms at college football stadiums. (This last use led to a ruling that football teams could paint visitors’ locker rooms any colour that chose, just as long as the home team’s locker room was painted to match.)
In the first few pages of The Secret Lives of Colour, Kassia St Clair provides an in depth introduction of how we see colour and how we divide the spectrum, providing a foundation of knowledge that pulls us into the science of colour.
During this intro the smallest mention of Himba, encouraged me to dig out some photos from when I toured through Africa in 2010. St Clair doesn’t go into much detail but due to my own experience of their culture my interest was activated. I was inspired to do some of my own reading.
Through the evolution of language the Himba people don’t have a word for blue, this effects how they see the colour. They see blue as a variant of green and find it harder to distinguish due to the lack of a label. This 2 minute video: How Language Changes The Way We See Color explains an experiment that took place digging into this phenomenon.
Kim Youdan 2010
Fascinating isn’t it that different cultures view colour in such a variety of ways, not just the cultural meaning but literally seeing the colour. Language is a powerful tool to help us navigate and it reminded me of a quote from Tom & David Kelley in their book Creative Confidence:
“Language is the crystallisation of thought. But the words we choose do more than just reflect our thought patterns — they shape them. What we say — and how we say it — can deeply affect a companies culture.”
Not only relevant in a work environment, applicable to culture in wider society too.
What came first the orange or orange
My favourite stories within the pages of The Secret Lives of Colour are the stories that I can relate to in my own life. Tales providing texture and adding layers to the relevance of colour I see all the time. For instance, the story from The House of Orange, and the Dutch affinity with this fierce hue.
Their love of orange led farmers to artificial selection. Over the course of one hundred years, tinkering with traits, the Dutch have turned a South American vegetable into what we now know as the carrot. Previously a yellow or purple bitter root, now a bright orange, sweet vegetable. It’s one thing naming your house after the colour, another kind of love affair creating a vegetable to reflect your favourite colour.
I don’t blame them, orange is favourite! Maybe because my ancestors are Dutch…but that’s another story.
So which came first the orange or orange? This is not a chicken or egg kind of story. They arrived at the same time. As the fruit made its first appearance in Europe in the 16th century, so did the name to label it. There wasn’t a word for the colour before hand — not in the way we know it now…Shakespeare had used ‘orange’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “your orange tawny beard,” but this tone described a brighter, lighter tawny, and not the colour we now associate with the warmth and vibrancy of orange today.
Heather Gill — Unsplash
Blacker than Black
When living nomadically I researched colour culture a fair bit. As part of my art practice at the time, I used particular colours in my work inspired by that process.
It seemed to me that Eastern culture had more meaning associated with their use of colour than my own experience in the west. Reading about Japanese kimono design for instance. Each month had a significant colour palette for that time of the year. The symbolism, vibrancy and history, folded into the fabric which was then wrapped around the Japanese women who wore them, was beautiful to learn about. The appreciation I had for the art form was heightened by this knowledge. Tapping into that knowledge throughout our time in Japan created more meaning for that experience.
Specific names of colours also piqued my interest. For example, the Japanese don’t just have black they use words such as Yamishōnin, meaning black marketeer, Karasuba-iro alluding to glossy black, and Yakenonokarasu: blacker than black. Poetic descriptions which — I imagine — provide a more immersive reading experience.
Even the word for colour, iro, has connotations of sexy, attractive and beautiful in the Japanese culture.
2017 Kim Youdan
Colour Glorious Colour!
I will always explore the tints, tones & hues which pepper our days. A stimulant which brings brightness, provides texture & meaning to our experiences, and can alter our mood with a simple change in shade.