The Chaos of Color Choices

One of my earliest and clearest memories as a child is a moment that likely lasted no more than few seconds. I was looking out the car window on the way home from Ms. Dorris’ kindergarten school. It must have been Spring, because I was struck by what I considered the unfortunate color choices of the flowers in someone’s yard: specifically, orange and yellow marigolds. For years, I considered orange and yellow to be one of the ugliest color combinations imaginable. I had this innate reaction for years.

Colors made big impressions on me early on. My father loves to tell of me as a toddler always asking to wear my “red gress.” I loved red so much as a child that once I helped myself, without permission, to every single red tulip out of the neighbors’ yard!

I loved red so much as a child that the "red gress" was always what I requested to wear.

I loved red so much as a child that the "red gress" was always what I requested to wear.

Yet while red was my toddler self’s color of choice, as an adult… not so much. And now I find the combination of orange and yellow marigolds absolutely gorgeous—a change of heart that may be due to having lived in Louisiana for several years (where mosquitoes are jokingly called the state bird) and I learned that marigolds are a welcome presence for their mosquito-repelling powers.

Color is funny that way: we have such aversion to some colors and fondness for others. These preferences can change in the blink of an eye, or sometimes over many years of our life.

While red is no longer my first color choice, I respect the attention it elicits in marketing. It arguably wins the popularity contest with blue. Practically every fast food restaurant uses red prominently in their brand in some form or fashion. In the U.S., red represents not only hot food, but also Christmas, alarm, a signal to stop, and ironically also temptation and sex appeal. The 2010 Tony award-winning play Red has one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever seen in the theater, in which the actors portraying the artist Marc Rothko and his studio assistant duke it out with a litany of reds: passion, red wine, red roses, red lipstick, rouge, lava, lobster, viscera, traffic lights, Titian hair, Santa Claus, Satan. (See the exchange at 2:19 in this video.) Red vibrates with such energy that it evokes a powerful reaction.

In her book, Color: A Natural History of the Palette, Victoria Finlay gives a scientific explanation of the vibratory power of color:

"The first challenge in writing about colors is that they don’t really exist. Or rather they do exist, but only because our minds create them as an interpretation of vibrations that are happening around us. Everything in the universe—whether it is classified as “solid” or “liquid” or “gas” or even “vacuum”—is shimmering and vibrating and constantly changing. But our brains don’t find that a very useful way of comprehending the world. So we translate what we experience into concepts like “objects” and “smells” and “sounds” and, of course “colors,” which are altogether easier for us to understand.

"The universe is pulsating with an energy that we call electromagnetic waves…. [T]he average human eye can detect only a very small portion of this vast range—only, in fact, the portion with wavelengths between 0.00038 and 0.00075 millimeters…. [Yet] we can distinguish about ten million variations within it."

Ten million variations of color is a lot of color to choose from! As an artist and designer, this may be why I find selecting colors such a chaotic process, but I’ve come to really enjoy and embrace this chaos.

At first it’s a struggle to contain the energy of color. When designing logos, the first phase rarely has any color introduced: everything is black and white to avoid the subjective attractions and aversions color can bring. Once that black and white mark is selected, though, the world is my paint box. The energy behind the process is unmistakable. Even my clients’ energy level gets magnified.

Color affinities are fascinating to me. When I experience a color that I typically dislike in combination with others that I do, it can become less taboo. My clients can often have similar reactions, and I enjoy facilitating that change of heart. In fact, I often try to include a “wild card” in my presentations: a color scheme that was either expressly forbidden or one that isn’t the obvious choice. The visceral responses are what I’ve begun to call the “chaos of color,” even as we try and organize colors with our labels.

And there are endless labels applied to colors. Culturally, colors signify good vs. evil, day vs. night, ceremonies (marriage, funerals, holidays, religious celebrations, etc.), sports teams, political and national affiliations, social movements (environmentally green, black power, etc.), currency (gold, silver, green), and even surrender (white flag). And because of the color wheel (an invention attributed to Isaac Newton), we also label colors as primary, secondary, tertiary, complementary, and analogous. Yet the average person typically doesn’t put much thought into color beyond their own preferences. Whatever reaction may come from observing an individual or combination of colors can be purely instinctual, based on a long-held belief, a cultural influence, and/or completely subjective. Color is such a powerful phenomenon and at times universally appreciated. Rainbows continue to stop people in their tracks, and probably will, ‘til the end of time. Can you imagine someone saying, “I wish there wasn’t yellow in that rainbow. It ruins the whole color scheme”???

Knowing we can perceive ten million variations of color, I find it a personal challenge to continue studying color preferences and aversions and whether a color is appropriate or not in a given situation. A color I may not choose in fashion may prove absolutely necessary for a corporate brochure. A combination I choose to use in my personal artwork might not be appropriate in an ad.

Color choices are arguably the most fun way to express visually as a designer and artist.  It’s what I really love to do!

Now, in honor of this long-awaited Spring, I’m going to plant some orange and yellow marigolds!