06 March 2020

The Psychology (or psychopathology) of colour

by Marco Romanelli

Red (for excitement), green (for calm), black or white (for death or life respectively), yellow (for attention-grabbing), grey (conservative), blue (as in blue skies) and pink (enough!).

To quote Goethe: “If yellow and blue, which we consider as the most fundamental and simple colours, are united as they first appear […] the colour which we call green is the result. The eye experiences a distinctly grateful impression from this colour.” He added, somewhat ironically: “Hence for rooms to live in constantly, the green colour is most generally selected.

A “colour code” has always existed, although never set in stone. There are precise, recognised and shared rules for those belonging to certain castes, groups, regions and periods. Think of white, and all the classic statuary, or better still, the Parthenon, a matchless model, and its effect on Palladio: a shame white was good for nothing!! The 5th century Athenians would have been truly appalled if they had seen it as pale as it is now, just as nowadays we probably wouldn’t queue for hours and hours under the scorching sun only to find it a nauseating mix of blue, red, green or terracotta-coloured.

Equally, what use would the words with which the Inuit describe the colour of snow be to us in Southern Europe? While we can grasp the fact that the white of snow in the air (qanik-) may be different to the white of snow on the ground (aput-), it would be harder to get our heads around the “white, almost snow-white, but faintly dirty snow, although not dirty as in grey, but as in pale brown bordering on grey” as described in the Treccani encyclopaedia, useful for identifying icy, and therefore treacherous terrain. We would therefore advise anyone travelling to Greenland to take with them a Pantone colour chart, that apparently (only apparently) universal instrument, invented by the industry for colour encoding, but which really standardises our colour vision which, neuroscientists say, is absolutely individual (and I don’t mean the colour-blind!).

In order to try and understand all this, we need to go back to Goethe’s colour theory and the “colour wheel” he designed in 1810 (it was the inspiration for the Google icon, which we clap eyes on every day). According to Goethe who, as we know, dared refute Newton’s mechanistic ideas on the colour spectrum, there are only six complementary colours – red-green, yellow-violet, blue-orange. More importantly, Goethe was to first to insist on the subjective and historical “sentimental” value of certain colours. Take just one such example, red, which “includes all the other colours […] it conveys an impression of gravity and dignity, and at the same time of grace and attractiveness,” said Goethe, and as the kings, emperors, tyrants and now the cardinals knew only too well, but is it still the same for our children? Or rather, as we no longer have to extract this noble colour from the lowly mollusc known as the murex, has it become just “any old” colour, one of many? Not so very long ago, anyone from the “middle” generation would have known exactly which shade of orange (or yellow) was meant by “service station orange” used in motorway service station toilets during those early, interminable journeys to the sea, but our children? Service station toilets have all been BEIGE for ages and ages! Moreover while Tintoretto, in the mid-sixteenth century, was inordinately fond of caput mortuum (a deep brown created from the ground up heads of Egyptian mummies, useful for highlighting women’s complexions), not even the most wrung-out stylist would dare suggest a caput mortuum-coloured kitchen-dining room (or have I spoken too soon?).

Basically, colour, in architecture, in interiors and in design, is a serious matter! Although we seldom think about it, architecturally-speaking, colour is what builds cities (and makes them unforgettable). Marrakech: red, Seville: yellow, Genoa: grey, Mykonos: white (and blue), Burano: multicolour.

Anybody who claims modern architecture has to be white is peddling fake news, as we call it today: think of Loos’s coloured marbles, the colour schemes at the Unité d’Habitation, Barragan’s incredible palette under the blinding Mexico sun. White is often the refuge of the faint-hearted (as Sottsass said in 1957, it’s as if everything colour can bring to people’s lives is cast aside). But the reverse is also true, especially in interiors, so unless you’re Sir John Soane and don’t live at number 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, please guard against the injudicious use of different colours for every room, from orangey-red to mustard yellow, with a dining room in rotten green, which seems to be the trend this year, making your oblivious guests take on a resultant “Martian” hue! Twenty years ago, industrial manufacturers used to tell architects and designers that they would think about colour later! Now, it’s quite the reverse, they’re crying out for pink sofas! Spare a thought for Goethe, who thought that “blue still brings a principle of darkness with it.” But which blue did he mean? Egyptian blue, cobalt blue, Prussian blue, blue enamel, indigo blue, Klein blue or ultramarine blue?

Designing colour means accepting that we will be judged, permanently mixing subjectivity and objectivity: but, when done skilfully and consciously, it also means trying to restore something that has been expropriated from daily life: “Who’s afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?”

1 Anybody wishing to find out more should turn to Riccardo Falcinelli’s delightful “colour bible,” Cromorama, originally published by Einaudi Stile Libero, in 2017; English language version to be published by Penguin Press.

#colors, #architecture, #design