Debate: is colour purely subjective?

Published 16 February 2017

Can we consider colours as purely subjective forces? Kassia St Clair and Emyr Williams go head to head. Vote on the winner below.

  • Yes...

    How we perceive colour depends on our individual brains and collective cultures, claims critic Kassia St Clair.

    First, a fact: the sky is not blue. But then, neither is the sun at the heart of Monet’s Impression, Sunrise orange; or the courts at Wimbledon green; and “The Dress”, which caused a social media furore in 2015, was neither blue and black nor white and gold. In fact most scientists – the debate still rages – believe that nothing is really coloured at all. What we think of as colour is created in our brains in response to different wavelengths of light entering our eyes.

    Before you give up on me, and this argument, as hopelessly abstruse, let me go back a bit. Any answer to a question about the subjectivity of colours can only be answered by understanding how we see them in the first place. The process of seeing colour begins with light rays hitting the objects around us and being reflected off their surfaces and into our eyes. We see different things as different colours because the surfaces of objects absorb some wavelengths of the visible spectrum and reflect others.

    Monet’s orange sun, for example, is soaking up much of the short wavelengths (the violets, blues and greens) and reflecting some longer ones. This information is relayed to our brains where it is processed, allowing us to see those wavelengths as a colour: orange. But our brains are also altering the information they receive to help make sense of it and allow us to process it more quickly – and this is where the subjectivity comes in.

  • Brand logos, cultural associations and even half-remembered childhood fables can all be grist to the brain’s mill

    Kassia St Clair

  • The brain’s processing can be as simple as allowing for very different light conditions. So, for example, we will understand that a blue table in full sunshine and the same table in deep shadow are really the same colour, because our brain will helpfully filter the colours to off-set the dramatic change in the light. This is also why identical hues can look radically different if placed on, say, a mid-grey rather than a screaming pink background, and why it is always best to test paints on your own wall rather than relying on a swatch seen under fluorescent bulbs in a store.

    But our brains layer in other data too. Brand logos, cultural associations and even halfremembered childhood fables (Little Red Riding Hood is perhaps the ne plus ultra) can all be grist to the brain’s mill. When looking at a silk scarf in a particular shade of green, for example, we might remember that this shade was very popular on the runways recently or that it reminds us of a favourite painting, making the scarf more attractive. Conversely, our brains might dredge up that time we drank rather too much chartreuse, suddenly making the scarf less appealing.

    There is even some (highly contested) research suggesting that language can subtly alter the way that we perceive colours. It is relatively well known that many ancient languages, such as the Greek of Homer’s day, didn’t include a word for blue. But even today not all languages share colour categories. Russian-speakers, for example, have different words for dark blue (siniy) and light blue (goluboy); by contrast, in many languages blue and green share a category. Himba, a language spoken by a tribe in south-west Africa and beloved by anthropologists, divides colours into five basic terms – English has 11. What effect does this have on colour perception? Those whose language uses separate words for different colours were fractions of a second faster at picking the odd one out from a selection.

    Colours are, then, highly subjective: we are creatures formed by a composite of experiences, associations and cultures, and those influences colour our perception.

  • No...

    Artist Emyr Williams argues that colours are objective forces that can create a unified whole in painting.

    Jackson Pollock once said: “The problems of contemporary painting are independent of any one country”. The same goes for colour in painting, which is neither sociologically determined nor culturally dependent.

    Paintings constructed through colour are capable of such surprising and unforeseen visual delight, transcending the mechanics of their making. This “beyondness” is only possible when the artist is disinterested in colour to the point that it serves a greater purpose than the office of taste-making. I am not talking here about systematically made optical art. Colour can build the perception of a haptic, perceived space when the execution is spontaneous. It’s about working in the moment and reacting to the colour as the work takes shape.

    Matisse’s great “Vence interiors” from the late 1940s are paintings that have achieved this particular state of gestalt. His organisation, of what are essentially primary and secondary colours, is such that the surfaces seem to glow.

    Colours and their juxtapositions operate here as forces which, although seemingly in competition with one another, somehow unify into a summative whole, generating pictorial light and opening out space to us in a heady, palpable way. Using colour as a fact of pigment quality rather than cultural association, and finding expression by the control of its facture, is to bear down on the objective reality of what colour is and can be. Furthermore, to produce art with this ambition invites an interrogation of how we relate to colour in our wider lives.

    For an artist wishing to use colour with such an intent, considerations of extrinsic colour association are weights, not levers. People can experience colour differently due to physical anomalies, but cultural biases can become restrictive and even produce schisms. We must search for content in our art forms that avoids courting the subjective interpretation of imposed narratives.

  • Painting forces me to look at colour with a curious scrutiny, one which feels like I am looking at something external to myself.

    Emyr Williams

  • Cultures respond to colour in their own unique ways. Lifestyle, belief systems, valuation of materials, pigment scarcity – all these have affected peoples’ regard for, and judgement of, colour. But does this pragmatism turn us into prisoners of subjectivity, desperately looking for an affirmation of our relationship to colour?

    Colour, revealed through visible light reflected upon a surface, is a minuscule percentage of the electromagnetic spectrum. This tiny fraction of reality is what we see. Why muddy the purity of this reality by seeking to trap it in the habitual?

    Clichés such as ‘dark colours are serious’ and ‘primaries are frivolous’ almost compel us to be ashamed of any meaningful engagement with colour. If we wish to search for the universal, then we have to get beyond the local.

    There is an old saying: a three-legged stool finds its level. The three primary colours are the building blocks of a palette. When I am painting, any applied colour will compete with an existing or subsequent hue. To put these three primaries into a work and unify them is a great challenge. I find it useful to think of any colour with the word ‘a’ in front of it. So it would be ‘a red’ instead of just ‘red’, raising a question of how should I temper or tune this red and what consequences of using it thus could I discover. I am looking for conflict repeatedly, and strategies emerge to deal with these conflicts as I paint.

    Painting forces me to look at colour with a curious scrutiny, one which feels like I am looking at something external to myself. When I see colour in this way it gives me something to believe in. It doesn’t feel like it comes from me, though – I am searching constantly… objectively.

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