Wednesday, January 6, 2010


At the beginning of life, one is only able to distinguish a few colors – red, black, bright blue, and strong contrasting pattern . When one is learning to speak one starts with simple one syllable words: “mom”, “dad”, “dog”, “up”. As infants grow and their vision and vocabulary become more complex, they build sentences, learn grammar, and eventually put complex ideas together into stories. Along a similar trajectory, their vision develops, the colors of the world become easier to distinguish, and they develop visual as well as verbal vocabularies.

The idea of one’s understanding of color becoming more developed over time also translates into art education. As art students, one begins the study of painting with monochromatic studies and limited palettes. Slowly, an artist will add colors and variety to her palette, until as a mature artist, she settles into a selection of colors that best help her to communicate her ideas. The relationship between color and communication is what interests me. How do words and color work together, or not? What is the relationship between color and verbal expression? Color and control? Color and power? These are large questions that artists, scientists and philosophers have been exploring for generations, but in this paper, I will closely examine excerpts from readings that have caught my attention, and in doing so will clarify my own relationship to color in my practice.

In his book, Chromophobia, David Batchelor describes color as “Silent”.

Silence. The silence that colour may provoke is a mark of its power and autonomy. Silence is how we have to voice our respect for that which moves us beyond language (83).
Does color communicate silently? The elements of art (color, line, value, shape, texture, space, form) all have the ability to communicate emotion and ideas to the viewer of a painting. Of these elements though, color carries with it the strongest power to elicit complex associations, both symbolic and sensory, from the viewer. Josef Albers, in his book, Interactions of Color, discusses the symbolic associations with color that are common in Western culture (Albers, 48).

For example, in the United States the color red may express political conservatism, danger, or passion. This can only mean that as a Western culture, we have already helped to form and ingest a language that color speaks. We hear color.

Because of these powerful associations, color is a very effective communicator. Color inspires memories, ideas and emotions, which are often translated into words. Poets throughout history have used color as a descriptive tool to help them paint images and inspire associations, with words. This would not be possible without the strong link between color and verbal language. Color has a voice. The voice of color can be heard not only in the poet, but in the critic, the educator, the passionately moved, and empathetic viewer. Color speaks through us with our own words and is given another life through our verbal expressions.

I read, I see. I see, I speak. Our senses and our mind operate together and we communicate with one another about our experiences. Color’s voice becomes more eloquent and articulate as the maker, the viewer, or we, become more developed through our education, life experience, or practice. The visual vocabularies that we build through looking with our eyes, and remembering with our imagination, hold thousands of colors that are linked to experiences, emotions, and ultimately words. Poets have used the power of these associations consistently over hundreds of years. The following is from Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem, The Sphinx:

Sea waves are green and wet,

But up from where they die,

Rise others vaster yet,

And those are brown and dry.

This next poem is from Robert Frost's Sand Dunes:

Up rose the merry Sphinx,

And crouched no more in stone;

She melted into purple cloud,

She silvered in the moon;

She spired into a yellow flame;

She flowered in blossoms red

This poem is from Divina Commedia by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

With snow-white veil and garments as of flame,

She stands before thee, who so long ago

filled thy young heart with passion and woe.

The following is from Winter Memories by Henry David Thoreau:

Within the circuit of this plodding life

There enter moments of an azure hue

And finally, this poem is from From Emily Dickinson's 'n Winter, in My Room:

In winter, in my room,

I came upon a worm

Pink, lank, and warm.

A familiarity with the language of color, and a strong verbal vocabulary, work together to facilitate communication between the arts. The play between word and image enhances our experience of both art forms. We hear what we see. We see what we hear.

Silence is not color’s power. The power of color is within its effective ability to inspire further expression through language. Color has an innate power in this sense, and powerful things are often a threat to those that feel insecure. The need to define and control power is a reoccurring theme in Baxter’s analysis of Chromophobia . Although Baxter cites many compelling examples of efforts to mute or manage color by those that are threatened by its power, I see examples of its selective use by those in power for their own communicative needs. For instance, colors are used by groups of individuals to express identity, ideas, and inspire loyalty. Examples of this type of communication with color are the flags of countries, paper money, and the uniforms of groups from sports teams to fraternities. Coming from countries where money was multi colored, the founders of the United States chose to eschew the chromatic currency in favor of a monochromatic form of paper money. In the context of Baxter’s argument that color is associated with less sophisticated forms of thinking, this switch would indeed make sense (Batchelor 22). The decision to embrace monochromatic currency was made not as a conscious critique of Europe, but simply as a way to stand apart from what was, and create an identity that would not be confused with the past. There is a somberness that is reflected in the color scheme of US currency that also communicate the gravity of leaving all that is known behind for new lives, as of yet to be defined. The colors of the American flag: red, white, blue, are simple, primary, and direct. The symbolic interpretation of these colors communicates the struggles and hopes of founding a new country. Red describing the blood of battles, White for the unknown future, or hope for better days ahead, and blue for the expansive territories that were as of then, undefined, or the endless sky. Of course this is one subjective interpretation, but it illustrates the potential for colors to communicate ideas, and objectives symbolically, and the symbols we use to describe these ideas are words. The monochromatic beginning of the United States currency (which is now, two centuries later adding more color to its paper money), and the primary simplicity of the United States’ flag, bring me back to the ideas of birth and development; the first classes in art school. Lack of color is not where we end after growing more sophisticated, as many of Batchelor’s arguments suggest, but where we start – and develop from.

Color is not Silent. Its voice is a varied as its uses, but it is a compelling voice. Color reminds us. Color creates conversation. Color defines and describes. Color participates. Color is a verb. It is an active process. How does hearing the voice of color help me to communicate with color through my work? Color teaches me to think in a more complex way as I experiment with different palettes. I am beginning to hear the complexity in the arguments that color makes. I can hear color mumble and I can hear color shout. She recites poetry to herself and is a gifted linguist. Color teaches me that there is always another way to say something – a more interesting, compelling choice of words. Of all the lessons that color gives to me through her voice, what I value most are her lessons in listening. Color is teaching me to listen.

Works Cited
Albers, Josef. Interaction of Color. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. Print.
Batchelor, David. Chromophobia. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.Print.
Cagil, Joy. “The Use of Colors in Poetry”. Web. 29 Oct. 2009. Use-of-Colors-in-Poetry&id=214314>.
Hamer, Russel D. “What Can My Baby See?”. The Smith Kettlewell Eye Research Institute. 29
Oct. 2009. Web. .

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