Thursday, 6 March 2014

Colour -- the treachery of colour -- part one

Wassily Kandinsky, Impression III (Concert), 1911
photo: mgHAxu9viwsUPg at Google Cultural Institute
It has been a hundred years since the first English edition of Wassily Kandinsky's Concerning the Spiritual in Art was published. Kandinsky investigated the psychological effects of colour, was the first abstract painter and was the founder of Der Blaue Reiter group.

Today, colour psychology has become somewhat faddish but the information on the subject is not always very reliable. Let's take yellow for example: imagine that you want to change the colour of your two-year old's bedroom and want to get away from the usual pink (girl) or blue (boy) colour schemes. Being aware of the problems of the "terrible two's", you think that a happy colour might help with temper tantrums and what could be happier than yellow? After all, it is the colour of the sun and yellow daffodils bring the promise of spring. You might be a little bothered by the idea that yellow means cowardice, but investigating that further, you discover that the equation of yellow and cowardice has nothing at all to do with colour psychology. After discovering that cultural colour meanings are almost always confused with the psychological effects of colours, you start to think a bit more about your colour scheme ideas. Yellow is also the colour of gold so it can signify wealth -- but just a minute, to the Chinese, pink signifies wealth. You realize that there can be at least two different types of colour psychology: human and cultural.

After searching online, yellow is starting to look like a good choice -- you read about it being positive, giving confidence, enhancing self esteem and lots of other positive effects that seem calculated to take the edge off of the "terrible two's". Something, though, is not quite right. After seeing all of these positive comments about yellow you see, also, that fear is mentioned, But you have already discovered that this is an American culturalism and seems derived from an English  term having nothing to do with cowardice. Perhaps people are just copying some of these ideas without looking into the subject in more depth.

Kandinsky actually experimented with colours and paid close attention to what effects he was actually observing. He did not restrict himself to the use of colour psychology in painting but even brought it into the world of theatre with The Yellow Sound.

So let's see what Kandinsky had to say about yellow in Concerning the Spiritual in Art:
The first movement of yellow, that of approach to the spectator (which can be increased by an intensification of the yellow), and also the second movement, that of over-spreading the boundaries, have a material parallel in the human energy which assails every obstacle blindly, and bursts forth aimlessly in every direction.
Yellow, if steadily gazed at in any geometrical form, has a disturbing influence, and reveals in the colour an insistent, aggressive character. [Footnote: It is worth noting that the sour-tasting lemon and shrill-singing canary are both yellow.] The intensification of the yellow increases the painful shrillness of its note.
[Footnote: Any parallel between colour and music can only be relative. Just as a violin can give various shades of tone,—so yellow has shades, which can be expressed by various instruments. But in making such parallels, I am assuming in each case a pure tone of colour or sound, unvaried by vibration or dampers, etc.]
Yellow is the typically earthly colour. It can never have profound meaning. An intermixture of blue makes it a sickly colour. It may be paralleled in human nature, with madness, not with melancholy or hypochondriacal mania, but rather with violent raving lunacy.
Somehow, using a colour that might promote blind, aimless, human energy and violent raving lunacy no longer seems to be the thing to lessen the effects of the "the terrible two's". You start wondering if you might find an interior designer familiar with colour psychology and its effects on small children. That could be expensive, though -- and how would you know if the the person you hire really did know the subject as well as was claimed on their web site? Maybe you will stick with the off-white's -- seems safe enough.

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