The hallucination that is colour…
Every-time I see a rainbow in the sky I laugh with cost centre 3 that we must find and secure the gold hidden at the ‘end’ of it by outwitting (or maybe I’ve said physically overpowering) the guardian Leprechaun in some chaotic heist I’ve conjured up (don’t judge!) Such is the awe of a rainbow that she giggles and heartily agrees. Rainbows are the closest thing to magic in our existence. Ethereal but tangibly joyful; a global symbol of hope and togetherness.
Recently in the intersection of a sudden downpour pierced by dazzling sunlight, I gazed upon one of these sensations and it struck me that I wasn’t sure how many colours I was able to observe. The science establishes that when light touches an object, some of the light is absorbed and the rest is reflected off the object within which certain wavelengths will dominate. For example a green grape will cast out primarily green wavelengths and a lemon will bounce mostly yellow. The human eye perceives colour through decoding these wavelengths; processing information wielding the rods and cones that sit on the retina of our eye. If all the light striking an object is absorbed then we will see black. If all wavelengths are reflected to our eye then we will see white.
Our eyes can only detect a small portion of wavelengths on this spectrum of wavelengths we call the electromagnetic spectrum. These that we can see we call the visible light spectrum. There is a line of thought that believes when humans first evolved we could only see black and white. As time moved on we were able to ‘view’ red, yellow, green and finally blue. But did you know that there are many other ‘colours’ that exist but on wavelengths that are not visible to our eye. More specifically on the infra-red and ultra-violet spectrum. Bees distinguish ultra violet because flowers attract them with frequencies that we are not capable of seeing.
I could go as far to say there are no colours in nature; just frequencies of wavelengths interpreted by our brain. That colour is a concept. It only exists when we are able to discern it. That colour is a natural hallucination; a trickery of the brain. Acknowledging that the yellow we recognise is not actually in the lemon is surreal. Does anyone else feel slightly off kilter thinking about this. That perhaps this surreptitious manipulation implies that The Matrix movies are not as far fetched as we think?
Aristotle believed that colours were rays sent by God; made from darkness and light with each colour appearing at different times of the day. Apparently his theory remained in place for c2000 years until Newton arrived. Newton believed colours were formed by refracting white light into constituent wavelengths. He decided that there were 7 colours because at the time it was not known that light was a continuum of wavelengths. 7 was also felt to be an auspicious number. This is why we sometimes believe there are 7 colours in the rainbow. But we now know this number does not have a solid basis because light is continuous, encompassing hues and tones that foster perception of a good many more ‘colours’. How many is still an arbitrary number as what is discerned is very individual based on our physical and mental set up — with each of us able to identify a diverging range of colours; not recognising the same. In sighting the same object; the green of a grape I appraise is not the green you do. You might not even be seeing ‘green’ at all — but red or blue….now my head is spinning….Taking it further, could it be that this variance of insight has and is more important to our judgement and decisions made than we have ever realised? After all how we contemplate colour can have a significant emotional impact and encourage us to actions we would never have come to before. What I’m asking is have these subtleties of difference in how we each view colour influenced the charting of history? We will never know.
Thousands of years ago we took it upon ourselves to utilise the bounties of nature to create colour we can apply. Man’s ability to succeed in this before the advancements of physics and pixels is truly ingenious. You can’t help but feel that the invention of man made colour may have been for something practical like communication but really, like the rainbow, it has lifted our souls — mainly through its use in art. Artists invented the first pigments c40,000 years ago creating black, white, red, yellow and brown. They did this by combining animal fat, soil, chalk and burnt charcoal. Paint was initially stored in pig bladders to preserve the colours. In 1841, John Goffe Rand invented a more portable tin to carry paints increasing the scope and type of paintings possible as well as enhancing the capability to mix colours.
We have advanced significantly since then in how we are able to create applicable colours. As I look around me although I know we would never be bereft of colour, it is one of those facets of our world it is hard to imagine having an enjoyable existence without (and I truly feel for those individuals who have lost the ability to do so). So no matter how off-balance the idea of colour is, cost centre 3 and I will keep on enjoying the enchantment of the rainbow although hopefully one day we will be able to trick the little Leprechaun into parting with some of that extraordinary magic….in a nice way obviously!
For nerdy interest :
I could move into discussing colour theory, additive and subtractive colours but instead I looked at how man first made colours or to be more exact — pigments, because I can’t think of anything bad that has come from such creativity and to be honest it’s a little weird!
I have taken much from Artsy.com to write the below.
in the Old Masters, black was called ‘bone black’ and was made by burning animal bones in an air-free chamber. Black was previously made in Europe from Gall nuts (tumours that grow on trees) and before that charcoal. Later it was made from coal, lampblack or burned ivory — mixed with gum arabic or linseed oil which produced a black that could be painted with.
Apparently red was one of the easiest colours to find in nature, hence it was used very early on. Red Ochre, first thought to be used in cave drawings is a pigment still in use today. It is generally found in iron rich soil. In the 16th and 17th century, Cochineal red came from white insects that were only found on prickly pear cacti in Mexico. After gold and silver, these insects became the greatest import from the ‘New world’.
Supposedly the world’s favourite colour but scarce in nature. Ultramarine blue comes from Lapis Lazuli, a gemstone that for many centuries was only found in the mountain range of Afghanistan. Artists incorporated this blue as a demonstration as to the wealth of their patron. For a while, lapis lazuli cost more than gold. In the 1950’s Yves Klein worked with a paint company to create a synthetic version of this blue. Interestingly the ancient world did not have a name for blue, thinking it a version of green.
William turner was well known for his use of the colour yellow in his landscapes. He used fluorescent yellow derived form the urine of cows that were fed on mangos (apparently this practice was later banned as it was seen as inflicting cruelty on animals!) He also used synthetic chrome which was high in lead and so caused delirium.
A Swedish chemist created a green (Scheele’s green) that was cheap to produce but was laced with arsenic. It is thought that Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom wall paper featured this green and so contributed to his death in 1821. By the end of the 19th century. Paris green was created from copper and arsenic but although it was widely employed by painters, it was also used as a rodenticide and insecticide. It is thought to have caused Cezanne’s diabetes and Monet’s blindness.
Lead white which was eventually banned was produced by layering cow and horse manure over lead and vinegar in a sealed room. After three months of reacting, this combination would produce white flakes.