Living colours

 January 16, 2020

The Secrets Lives of Colour book by Kassia St Clair
The Secrets Lives of Colour book by Kassia St Clair

One does not have to be an artist or to have artistic talents in order to notice the variety of colours and shades that surround us. Many of us do not give much importance to colours, we hardly even notice they form our moods, they are part of the ever changing nature, they have symbolical meanings, they are sources of inspiration, feelings, thoughts, memories, choices. In her book, “The Secret Lives of Colour”, Kassia St Claire takes us on a trip in time from past to present, through many centuries ranging from different cultures and societies, to make us see colours more colourfully, bringing life to them.

Kassia St Claire is a writer, speaker and advocate of all that is related to colours, design and culture. When I first saw her book “The Secret Lives of Colour”, I thought it would be a description of the variety of colours with some historical background and other basic information. As I started reading it, I realized how much I was fascinated and could not put the book down.

Each colour appeared livelier and with a life story of its own. They were not anymore just colours with long, hardly pronounceable names but were personified with the story of their birth and deaths, through their transformations.

I also began to understand more about the way classical artworks have been created and why their colours were so different than the ones we see in contemporary artworks. Through the pages I started to see how the different colours have influenced what artists created, and how it formed the way people dressed and saw each other.

I was so fascinated by the book, that I wondered about how the author got involved into researching colours and what motivated her to go so much in depth. St Claire chose the path of colours influenced mainly by her childhood.

My mother was a florist, so some of my earliest memories are of being surrounded by lots of outrageous colour combinations (it was the 1980s after all!) in her flower shop” she remembers back.

Later, she studied History at Bristol and Oxford, and became interested in the way the language of colour had shifted over time from the 18th century to today. Her fascination for colours and its deeper meanings is an eye opener, since it makes us realize how, over the centuries, colours have formed our beliefs, traditions, culture.

Today, the selection and range of colours, shades and hues not only for artists, is so wide that it is often taken for granted. Based on St Claire’s experience, the main motivators behind the choices of colours that people make is the source of much debate, but she believes so much of our preferences are cultural and contextual.

We all help to create, and then draw upon, broad stories about different hues, shades and tints, which then inform our choices. Shades that are fashionable, for example, or associated with a political movement, or royalty, and so on. A classic recent illustration of this was the move by the British government to force cigarette manufacturers to make their packaging “ugly” so consumers would be less likely to buy them. To do this they did research to try and find the “ugliest” colour, a dull green as it turned out. But this shade can be beautiful in a different context, as a rich wool coat, for example or maybe as a velvet. In fact, olive colours are often used in other contexts to signal good taste” she explains.

Kassia St Clair
Kassia St Clair
The Secrets Lives of Colour book by Kassia St Clair
The Secrets Lives of Colour book by Kassia St Clair

Colours define our perceptions in our every day life and they give us emotions, feelings, thoughts, memories, they uplift and inspire us. They change as our beliefs change too through our lives. Newborns do not see yet, they still live in the ‘angel universe’ but later children start having a favourite colour, which define their clothes, toys they have and their world evolves around these preferences.

Teenagers are often associated with dark, black colours when they start discovering their souls’ depth, seeking their true selves.

Later, colours become important again but they are more subtle. Some colours are of course symbols too.

They can mean very different things in different cultures, like for example the colour of grief in our western societies is dark, in the Far East it is white or even colourful since it is associated with transformation, the eternal cycle of life rather than of loss and sadness.

We do not have to be artists to see more colourfully in our every day lives. According to St Claire, we already see very colourfully, so much more than our ancestors.

We see adverts, colourful images on screens, on Instagram and so on. I think a greater challenge is to help people appreciate the colour around them, perhaps by rationing colour in our surroundings in some way so that we stop to appreciate the newness and excitement of a colour when we see one, rather than being bombarded and overwhelmed” describes St Claire more about this subject.

It is worthwhile thinking about how colours are part of our lives. The colours that we choose for our life surroundings, like our clothes, cars, walls in our living areas, etc., all define and mirror our inner selves. It is the way we assert ourselves and “communicate” to the world.

Authenticity is about owning the way we feel and reflecting the way we truly are, without wanting to blend in with everyone else and wanting to be the same as everyone.

In the western cultures it is often believed that one is “free” in expressing him or herself through the way we dress, our choices of colours that we surround ourselves with, the thoughts we attach to them, etc.

But how much is this freedom coming from outside through external influencing factors, collective “pressures” to conform and how much is it a true inner expression, coming from who we really are, without being scared of what others will say or think of us?

There is much to take in and be motivated by artists in this respect. Many artists choose colours intuitively, knowing inherently which one to use and work with.

There are plenty of ways to get friendly with colours and one can also learn the “correct” way from various books about which colours are to be used together and which not, which ones complement each other while others do not.

Nevertheless, the most striking and magical colourful combinations are those that happen spontaneously in nature, in the phenomenal world.

The colours of our universe are full of creativity, imagination and uniqueness, not following certain pre-defined patterns, but a way of their own.

We only need to imagine the rainbow with its beautiful, glowing colours or the rosy cheeks of a laughing child.

St Claire sees the colours as always evolving, just as they have in the past. Especially so, since paint manufacturers are constantly working to make new formulas that will be longer lasting, less toxic and cheaper.

She believes virtual reality will change our and artists’ perceptions of art and the way of creating.

One frontier is in digital colour creation, so people won't be limited by colours that we can actually produce. This is something we're already seeing with the making of virtual clothes in finishes and textures that could never be physically made or worn, but exist only online to be worn by avatars or in social media posts.

I also think, as interest in and concern for environmental issues deepens, we're likely to see this impact our colour choices. We may come to appreciate more mottled or mixed colours, which are more obviously the result of recycling or natural, water-conserving dye processes for example” explains St Claire in depth.

Whether we deliberately choose colours for our appearances or not, by noticing them around us they become alive and can have positive effects within us.

Noticing the shades of colours of the sky as the seasons change, looking into another person’s eyes, discovering a variety of colours in a photo can uplift and encourage us to “colourize” our lives.

Marc Chagall once wrote: “All colours are friends of their neighbours and the lovers of their opposites.

Discovering and opening ourselves more to the world of colours, will make us realize not only the colours themselves, but also how similar and unique we all are.

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