Colour me entertained

Appearing in the Australian/Review – September 2021

The Colour Code: why we see red, feel blue and go green
By Paul Simpson
Profile, $28, 352 pages, ISBN 9781781256268

If journalist Simpson is to be believed, the idea for this book began when he went to work wearing a yellow suit – and was firmly told not to do it again. It started him thinking about where the social conventions surrounding colours came from, and prompted him to take a deep dive into the meaning and mechanics of colours. The result is a compendium of hundreds of stories, opinions and scientific snippets, arranged in eleven colour-coded chapters. It answers questions such as why the sky is blue (a phenomenon known as ‘scattering’, connected to the refractive wavelength of atmosphere, apparently) to where the colouring in lipstick comes from (bugs, mainly) to why white paint often contains a touch of blue (which, paradoxically, makes it appear whiter).

Simpson emphasises that the meaning of a given colour varies across cultures and contexts. In many Asian countries, for example, red is associated with money, luck and prestige. In the West, it often signifies anger, violence and evil. But not always: it is also used to highlight female attractiveness. An academic study (conducted by researchers with too much time on their hands, presumably) found that waitresses who wore red received more tips than those who did not.

Most red dye is based on cochineal, which comes from a parasitic insect found in central and South America. It is used in food, medicine – red painkillers are seen as more effective than blandly-coloured ones – and cosmetics. Simpson notes: “The fact that cochineal beetles aren’t particularly photogenic has helped prolong the trade. Imagine the outcry if pandas had to die to make lipstick.”

Green is now tied to the natural environment but that was not always the case. In the past it was associated with financial failure, and in seventeenth century France bankrupts had to wear a green bonnet. Green boats are widely believed to be ill-fated, although the reason for the superstition is unclear. In the Middle Ages, Lucifer was often depicted as green-skinned, as were aliens in  1960s sci-fi movies. The US currency, the ‘greenback’, was originally printed in green because the colour was thought to denote stability, and because green ink was cheap.

Most pigments originally came from plants, minerals or natural oxides. The first artificial pigment was Prussian Blue, discovered accidentally in 1702. The dark richness of it had a huge impact on the development of art, and Simpson tracks it from European painting to Japanese prints. A variety of other vivid pigments followed, although some had the disadvantage of being toxic.

Blue is the colour that more people name as their favourite than any other, although they usually mean the sky-ish variety. There is disagreement among colour theorists as to why, but everyone accepts that it usually makes people feel good. It is widely used in corporate branding, and the artist Wassily Kandinsky likened blue tones to the notes produced by a cello or double bass.

But strangely there is also the reference of ‘feeling blue’. Simpson thinks this might be connected to the idea of ‘blue devils’ seen during alcohol withdrawal. Blue also has an association with pornography, perhaps because smutty books were sometimes printed on blue paper in the nineteenth century.

Purple, on the other hand, is the colour of royalty, and there are many paintings of kings, emperors, and pretentious princelings in dark purple drapery. But the colour’s insipid cousin, mauve, is a different story. It was once decried as the colour of choice for women trying to look younger than their age, and Oscar Wilde quipped that a woman who wears mauve should not be trusted.

Another variety of purple, lavender, was associated with homosexuality, as a combination of girl-pink and boy-blue. Once used derisively, it was later adopted by the gay community as an ironic badge of honour.

At the other end of the preference scale, few people like brown, although artists such as Rembrandt and Rubens made good use of it. This general antipathy was utilised by the Australian government in 2012 when it decreed that cigarette packaging had to use a drab brown known as Pantone 448 C. Research suggested that it made people think of death, dirt and tar, so it was probably an appropriate choice for an anti-smoking campaign. There is not much evidence that it was successful but the affair underlines the evocative nature of colours.

The Colour Code adds up to an entertaining, surprisingly informative piece of work that might even change the way we see the things around us. And we have Simpson’s yellow suit to thank. But hopefully that garment will stay in the closet, forever. There are some things that the world simply does not need to see.

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