Seeing red

February 29, 2006

Robert Genn

With a little help from the animals, vegetables and minerals,
one of humanity's persistent habits is to colour ourselves with
pigments and coloured objects. There are five main functions:

To be seen or noticed
To give info of rank or status
To warn of danger
To remain unseen or to confuse
To be admired or desired

It seems that colour itself is loaded with potential power.
Interestingly, it's the colours black and white (dark and
light) that have the most differentiating variations in the
vocabularies of the world's languages. Also, for some reason,
women use colour as a verbal signifier almost twice as often as
men. Men tend to use size.

Next to black and white, red is the most popular colour. It's
also the last colour to go and the first to return in
near-death experiences. Associations with blood, soil and
sensual stimulation account for some of red's historic
popularity. Red roses arrive with Valentine's red heart.

Psychologist Nick Humphrey notes that in the case of "flame,"
both safety and danger are signified. It's the ambiguity that's
important. Red depends on context. Apparently, red asks us to
gather more information.

It's safe to say that with the advent of modern dyes and
pigments, there is more colour around these days. Bright
colours were formerly rare and had to be coaxed from sources
like bird feathers, cochineal beetles or cow's urine. Do we now
suffer from colour overkill? Is colour losing her winning ways?
Incredibly, the British Army was formerly tailored in red; the
appearance of power and threat having more value than ease of
shot. Of course, red still signifies danger (stop signs are
generally red) and is present on almost every national flag.

From a painter's point of view, a "red surprise" is most
effective for bringing focus and heightened interest to many
works. "Warm is better than cool," say some of the colour
pundits. Red will remain forever hot.

Best regards,


PS: "Colour is a power which directly influences the soul."
(Wassily Kandinsky)

Esoterica: Last evening, painting in the garden of our rented
Hawaii home, I was victimized by the Purkinje Effect. In 1819,
a Czech physiologist, Jan Purkinje, noticed a curious
phenomenon as he watched the flowers in his garden. He realized
that the relative brightness of differently coloured flowers
changed as the light faded. Red flowers became almost black,
while green leaves remained green and bright. At low light
levels, the human eye becomes more sensitive to blue and green
light than to red light. It's not just about red, but how we
see red.