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May 19, 2017

Color and Culture – Culture and Color...

By the time I arrived in art school I was convinced I was severely color blind. Largely because my previous art teachers and peers would talk endlessly about color distinctions I did not seem able to make. They'd say things like "Oh, look at that beautiful 'pinkish-green'", or "Can't you see the red in that (green) tree?" (I tried. Oh, how I tried...) Such discussions always left me feeling inadequate and ill-prepared to make art until my sophomore year in school when it became time to take a semester-long class devoted to only color.

At first I was intimidated but that class was the best thing that ever happened to me. In fact, that class was life-changing. It literally opened my eyes. Or more accurately, it opened up my mind because the professor who taught it offered tools I could use to understand what I was looking at. He gave me (and my fellow classmates) a precise language I could use to analyze, comprehend, and parse color.

In his class, I learned there was objective terminology one could use to reduce a color into its fundamental elements (as in Hue/Value/Chroma). I learned that we do not see isolated colors, we see relationships between colors. I also learned there is the color of nature, which is out in the world, and there are optical effects of color that only occur within the eye and brain. I learned about the interaction of color. And color persistence. And so much more. As a result, that professor opened up color to me like a light bulb. My hardware, my eyes, hadn't changed. But my perception had. And all that talk about pinkish-greens, and red-trees began to make sense.

In addition to explaining the simple mechanics of color, that professor delved into the cultural constructs of color – both in how different cultures at different times in history categorized the visible spectrum, and the ever-evolving symbology of color; meaning, what certain colors represented to certain people in different parts of the world. Even the whys and hows of such symbology. (For example, white often represents purity in most parts of the Western World, but in contrast, often represents death in Asia. And red often represents impurity in Western Culture, yet again in contrast, can represent purity on the Asian side. I know, I know, I simplify things greatly, but you get the picture, yes?) And while I learned there is no universal color code that can be applied to all of humanity, there are common color stages most cultures incorporate, and the more nuanced the terminology, the more nuanced the seeing.

So I was pleased to stumble across a short Ted Talk video (below) that neatly summarizes a few of the cross-cultural stages of color I remember from that class. The anthropological aspects of color continues to interest me today even though I have remained mostly a naturalistic painter. While I may not believe color is as quantifiable as the video below will imply, I do accept our individual perception of color is greatly impacted by what we expect to see. Or perhaps, what we have been told to see! But then, as this video shows, there does seem to be a few things about color that develops in a similar manner across different cultures and perhaps that part of our color perception is hard-wired. I dunno.

Color, and the Perception of Color are two of the things I enjoy teaching most in my classes. Largely due to that one day, in that one class, when suddenly I understood color. I just got it and could see so much more. That moment had a profound impact on the rest my life and I will always grateful for that teacher's ability to make someone see what they couldn't see before..


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