Friday, May 1, 2009

Drunk On Color

"Imagine, if you will," he said, "that we are not in a dank and mossy crypt, but in a room of gold... that warm rays make the air softer and yellower than butter; that you breathe not this base, black, wet mist, but a sparkling bronze infusion that has been mellowed by its constant reverberation within walls of pure gold." He sucked in his breath. "The light of this room would be just that shade that we are told arises sometmes against the clouds beyond the bay, making the world gold the way it is said happens once in a... every... well... sometimes. My plan, you see," he said in pain, writhing internally, "is to build a golden room in a high place, and post watchmen to watch the clouds. When they turn gold, and the light sprays upon the city, the room will be open. The light will stuff the chamber. Then the doors will seal shut. And the goldenness will be trapped forever...

"You can bathe in the light, drink in the air, run your hands along the smooth walls. Even in the pit and trough of night, the golden room will be brightly boiling. And it will be ours."

- Mark Helprin, Winter's Tale

My writing group has a term for that period every writer goes through in phases: the "I Suck" phase, where you can't imagine anyone would ever want to read what you've written. It's difficult to get anything done during this phase because you are so self-critical; it's hard to edit things when you can't see the merit in it.

During these phases I retreat into making things. I find that a certain amount of physical creativity keeps me alive, keeps me full of interest in the world around me, and makes me more able to write. I come back to the keyboard refreshed, with new stimulus to inspire my descriptions. And my favorite kind of making things pretty much always involves the mixing, blending, and juxtaposition of color.

Knitting, for example. I must stay away from yarn stores, because the intensity of all that color makes me lose some portion of my reason, and I find myself buying hundreds of dollars worth of yarn. And, though I love knitting - capturing all that color into something I or my loved ones can wear, it's never quite as beautiful as the raw yarn. The transformation removes some random quality of the way the colors overlap and interact, and I'm left with some nice item which is merely an echo of that original glowing dream.

Similarly, the pastels section in the art store grabs me. I want to have it, to dive in it and swim through it the way Scrooge McDuck swims through his money. Color, to me, is riches. I want to surround myself with it, lay it next to itself, play in it. It is a gastronomic experience of the eyes, like eating. It has flavor and timbre; each color is a note in a riotous and elegant orchestra of beauty.

So when I make something, color is a big part of the making. But, similarly, I am caught by it in the everyday world. In the grocery store, for example, I buy tangerines when they are in season not only because I love their flavor, but because they are presented in big, shining orange heaps, sometimes with wonderfully crackly dark green leaves mixed in. And the heritage tomato booth at the Farmer's Market draws me like an addict to her dealer. Somehow, the color and the flavor become mixed in my perception so that the depth of the fragrance mingles with the richness of color and incites me to salivation, both physically and mentally.

Another place I absorb color's juicy goodness is fabric stores, especially really good stores with imported fabrics. Tweeds, especially, get me, with their subtle flecks of color; or the deep intensity of the velvets. Iridescent fabrics and deep, changing furs and the liquid brilliance of good satin. And the trim: thin strips of fluttering color to edge your sewing, bobbling tassels and piping and the thin, gauzy brilliance of translucent ribbon.

Color has always been symbolic, and very culturally driven: from the Victorian construct of the meaning of roses, to the colors people have been allowed to wear (as in the Sumptuary Laws of Elizabethan England and earlier), to the colors worn traditionally for rituals such as marriage and mourning. In Western culture, for example, black symbolizes darkness and the unknown, and death is nowadays associated with the extinguishing of light. In Asia, on the other hand, white is the color for mourning, either to symbolize enlightenment, winding-sheets, bones, the leaching of joy, or perhaps some other point of view I'm not familiar with: but interestingly, there is evidence that until recently, white was a mourning color in Western society, as well.

The sumptuary laws of Rome defined exactly who could wear the Tyrian purple dye, and how much. The Victorians believed that yellow roses symbolized jealousy (though my father gave my mother yellow roses when I was born. I doubt that was the understood symbolism between them). In America, a bride wearing a red dress would traditionally be frowned upon as a hussy; but in China, Japan, and Korea it is a traditional bridal color, symbolizing good luck and auspiciousness. And with this influence entering Western society (along with the decrease in popularity of virginal brides), the red wedding dress has become all the rage.

So the cultural definitions of the meaning of color are constantly changing. Until quite recently, men's clothing was much more on the model of male birds: the more colorful ones were more successfully showing their desirability. And less than eighty years ago, pink was considered a masculine color.

One of the greatest contributions the early Modernist painters made to art was to break with tradition, painting not in the accepted colors of nature but in the colors of feelings, of nuance, and of mood. Who, for example, has a green line down the middle of their face? Or the idea that you can sprinkle together wildly varying colors which have nothing to do with the subject at hand - and still end up with an image that is recognizable, even full of light and beauty. So perhaps my knitter's obsession with flecked yarns is not simply an addiction, but is rooted in a deeper artistic vision: that of the greater beauty of delicately trembling variety.

Everywhere I look, there is something to drink in. The seasons themselves aid me in my color addiction, changing ordinary things subtlely each month so that I cannot stop looking. The oak trees around my house, for example, are covered with a type of fast-acting moss, which interacts with water over the course of minutes to transform from dull, dry-looking brown stuff into glowing green fairy-carpet. When it rains hard, I go outside to look: I can't help it.

Big Sur, one of my favorite places to visit, is largely attractive to me because of the varied carpet of plants which grow on the roadside: sage brush, Indian paintbrush, yellow lupine, yarrow, iceplant reddened by salt, and any number of others which I can't name but which add to the mixture in rich but imperceptible ways.

Similarly, there is an ever-changing panoply of plants along the road where I live - sage, sticky monkey flower, yarrow, succulents and ferns - which has a completely different flavor, a milder, more delicate spice. And both change, depending on when you visit. Right now we are drenched in orange and blue, the color simply licking at your eyeballs, as the pastures explode with purple lupine and California poppies. When this happens, which is not quite as often as I would like - certainly not every year - I try to go and sit, at least once in the season, in the middle of one of these seas of color and just keep my eyes open until I'm full. There are so many things to see around us: the electrical fizz of the California sky against the edges of things; the phosphorescence of the right kinds of geraniums (the Mediterranean kind, not the English kind). And every country has a different light, making the colors wash over you all over again.

Cities, with their muted greys and sombre, sooty brick, hold a peculiar fascination in the romance of the grit, but after living in some very industrial cities I can truly say I don't miss the oppressive lack of color. Although in the east end of London, sometimes, the brilliant green glow of London Fields against the sooty backdrop of the rest of Hackney used to make my mood rise and my eyes dazzle.

Interestingly, the science of color tends to look the same no matter if you are coming at it from biology, computers, or painting; the structures are similar, if the specific results are different. For example, mixing colored light is what's known as additive color: you start with blackness, and add light to get a color. Mixing pigments is subtractive color - you start with a white reflective surface and add things which absorb some of the light (subtract it), changing what is reflected, in order to make color. When you mix all additive colors together (mix light together), you will end up with white; when you mix all subtractive colors together, you get... well, a dull grey - but in theory, you'll end up with black.

Computers use additive color, mixing red, green and blue to create, if not every color in the universe, then at least millions of them (which for our eyes is close enough, most of the time; the human eye can distinguish about 10 million separate colors). By adding no colors, you can get black; by adding red, green, and blue (RGB) in equal amounts, you can begin to approach white. The more of all three colors you add, the more pastel the colors.

Pigment, on the other hand, works quite differently. The traditional color wheel shows red, yellow, and blue as primaries, which, by mixing any two equally, creates the secondary colors orange, green, and violet. But as anyone who has tried mixing fire-engine red with blue can tell you, these colors in actuality don't work that well. So for color printers, the inks are actually cyan (turquoise), Magenta (pinky red), and Yellow (and black, to make things get dark, because the pigments for printers tend to be somewhat transparent and let the light through).

Our nervous system, on the other hand, "derives color by comparing the responses to light from the [three] types of cone photoreceptors in the eye [as opposed to rods, which distinguish only dark and light]. These cone photoreceptors are sensitive to different portions of the visible spectrum. For humans, the visible spectrum ranges approximately from 380 to 740 nm, and there are normally three types of cones. The visible range and number of cone types differ between species." [wiki]

Long ago, before the dinosaurs, our early fish-like ancestors had trichromatic vision (three cone receptors). For some reason, this was lost it in the time of the dinosaurs, and then later, regained by a few primates, in an act of complete Darwinian fluke. This explains why primates are the only mammals who have trichromatic vision - it is a trait mostly found in birds and reptiles (dinosaur descendents). Even then, it's mostly old-world primates who are trichromatic; for new-world monkeys, only some females (depending on individual inheritance rather than species) are trichromatic. All the males of most species, and many of the females, are dichromatic, meaning they only have two kinds of cone cells. This is because two kinds of cone designation are passed down on the X chromosome, so the males can only ever have those two, while females who have a double helping, so to speak, of cone types actually end up able to inherit all three.

Eggs: Green or Red?
For the monkeys, this has been shown to make for an evolutionary advantage, since the color-blind monkeys can't see fruit so well, and so therefore, not being distracted, tend to concentrate on other foods (such as certain kinds of leaves) which are noticeable by their shape; these foods, combined with the fruit found by the color-sighted monkeys, ensure that the group as a whole has a much broader diet than it would otherwise.

There seems to be a very interesting possibility that more cone types actually exist, because most genetic color-blindness is based on a mutation of the X chromosome's color receptor genes. In other words, they shift to a type of cone that doesn't perceive color the way it is supposed to. Theoretically, this could mean that both the monkeys and color-blind people, then, could have a type of cone which perceives something else - something which hasn't been measured.

Perhaps there is, then, some higher purpose, some evolutionary advantage, to those of us who get drunk on color. My children have a book by Leo Lionni called Frederick, about a mouse who doesn't help with the work all summer, harvesting and storing and preparing for winter. When the other mice complain, he says he is storing up all the color, the sounds and smells of the warm weather. When winter comes and all the food they have gathered is running low, he then begins to recite to them his poems, which warm the mice and fill them with the poems' evocation of flowers, sunshine, the color of fresh berries, and so on. So, in a very real sense, he was doing his work as well.

On this basis, I would like to think that my attraction to color is not merely some form of magpie consumerism, but a hoarding of beauty which I can then play back in my writing - bit by bit, during the dark times, the moments of I Suck-ness: those periods when things have gone dull and flavorless. All hail those piled-up tangerines!


Don said...

Wow. Amazingly good post. Thanks for sharing.

Sara said...

our oldest loves color, and has since before she could barely articulate it. the color of everything mattered--her sippy cups (purple milk!) clothes, of course. We got her the book Vincent's Colors for her fifth birthday. It's a wonderful children's book illustrated with paintings by VanGogh. The text is from VanGogh's letters to his brother Theo, talking about those paintings.

DrBobUK said...

Beautiful post. Beautiful pictures.
Thank you.

Denon Wunderk said...

I love that picture with books ordered by different colours! It's fantastic!

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