The truth about color

What color is Monday? Light yellow of course. What color is the number 4? A warm shade of yellow. 8 is dark brown, 5 sky blue. That is to say, my Monday is light yellow and my 5 is sky blue. In the way that letters have a sound and numbers a value, for me they have a color as well.

I always presumed that everyone has this thing with the colors, numbers and days of the week. Not true as it turns out: 19 out of 20 people don’t have this overactive association that is called synesthesia.
Synesthesia means different senses coming together. This term applies to the cases where color is seen when hearing music, or smell and sound are connected. But the most common form of synesthesia is the association of ideas (numbers, words etc.) with colors. Within this category there is a difference between people literally seeing colors when reading, and people for whom the color is more of a strong association.
This interview with savant Daniel Tammet shows a beautiful example of the association of different ideas that are not objectively connected link. The first part is quite annoying because the interviewer (Letterman) asks stupid questions and treats Tammet like a circus monkey. Watch from minute 5.

Where does synesthesia come from? Science has two theories. One is that every brain starts out with an enormous amount of connections and that as we grow and learn, a lot of these connections disappear, leaving only the useful ones. In the brains of synesthetes connections between parts of the brain for different senses would stay intact.
The other theory is that synesthesia develops during the first years a child goes to school and learns about abstract concepts (telling time, counting etc.). Some children then make connections between concepts that aren’t connected.

The idea that music, character traits, smell or color are in fact connected is as old as the ancient Greeks. Plato even added the movement of the planets.
Kandinsky tried to prove a universal connection between colors and shapes by asking random people (via postcards) what color a triangle, circle and square should have. In his book About the Spiritual in Art (Über das Geistige in der Kunst) he explains his vision on art and the meaning of the colors, without further expanding on provability. According to the book every color has a distinct musical sound and irreproachable effect on the psyche. Purple for example is a sad old spinsterish color which reminds one of the sound of the English horn.

On the contrary Goethe thought the direct connection between music and color nonsense. In his book “Entwurf einer Farbenlehre” he wrote ‘Both are universal, elementary effects, according to the universal law of separating and merging, of swinging up and down, of rocking back and forth, but in totally different directions, in different ways, influencing different intermediate elements, perceptible to different senses.’ (my own translation of the Dutch).
So Goethe had no music-color synesthesia apparently. He did however have the strong conviction that he knew all about colors and their universal effect on man. Newton and his prisms was wrong according to him, and should have trusted more on his eyes and less on math.
Artist should be knowledgeable about the effects of colors and their combinations on the emotions, and they were not to use more than a little blue.
Goethe’s theory of color covers a wide range of subjects: from optical illusions to the colors of worms, fish, and humans. He argued that white people are most beautiful because their color least aspires to something special, somehow “proving” that in those people the inside and the outside are most harmonious. Hairiness and big ears are also a sign of weakness, just so you know.

Rudolf Steiner was inspired by Goethe and designed his own theory of color. He reasoned on according to his own assumptions till green for example had to be a “dead projection of life”, and white a mental projection of the soul”. In his theory there is a distinct role for the special color “peachblossomcolor”, for this is the color of humans. He too was very much convinced of the universal quality of his statements.
Steiners ideas about the influence of color on the mood are still used by anthroposophists, for example by dressing melancholic children in blue clothes.

The little book “Toegepaste kleurenpsychologie”” (Applied color psychology) by Th. Oekema van der Wal, from 1968, also leans heavily on Steiners theory of color. “The archetype theory of color, that is truly not an occult proposition, if even it would be no more than a supposition, explains sufficiently the similarity in color perception of man, the collective, universal sense of color.” (page 18, my translation). The text goes on to argue that: clouds are white and the sky is blue, so white on blue stands for movement and travel, so signs informing traffic should be either white on blue or blue on white.

These men wanted to classify colors and assign them a universal effect to influence mood via man made surroundings, to influence artists, and ultimately to “objectively” pass a judgment. All actually where studying their own personal perception of color. I find it very strange that their theories could find such a following, and can still be found in art, education, public space. Are people too lazy to notice the effect of color on their mood themselves? Is the need for certainty so great that one rather works with an unproven set of rules than not have rules at all? Is it that hard to admit we just don’t know?

The effect of color depends on so many different circumstances: shades, angel and strength of light, material, size of the surface, cultural background of the viewer, personal associations of the viewer, etc. The influence of color by itself is therefore impossible to measure. I think Monday is yellow, a color blind person thinks a tree is perhaps grey, mourning is white in China.
The only thing these theories should inspire is curiosity and a more mindful attitude towards the influence surroundings have on you as an individual. The fact that everyone sees color, and the world, in a slightly different way is a beautiful thing and leads to surprising and unique art, architecture, literature, etc. As K. Schippers wrote “when you look around carefully, you’ll see everything is colored.”


For this blog I read:

“Kleuren: spirituele kleurenleer als basis voor het kunstzinnig scheppingsproces” original title “Das Wesen der Farben” (three lectures from 1921) by Rudolph Steiner. Translated into Dutch by Wyts ten Siethoff. Published by Uitgeverij Pentagon.

“Kleurenleer” by J.W. Goethe, (a compilation from “Entwurf einer Farbenlehre” originally published in 1810). Edited by Bob Siepman van den Berg, translated by Pim Lukkenaer. Published by Uitgeverij Vrij Geestesleven.

“Toegepaste kleurenpsychologie” (Applied color psychology) by Th. Oekema van der Wal, 1968. Published by Uitgeverij Het Spectrum.

The quote by K. Schippers is translated by me.




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