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The Color of Things
By Carl Jennings
“Colors speak all languages.”- Joseph Addison, Essays on the Pleasures of the Imagination (1828)
Sinoper, Falu, Gamboge and Watchet: A strange and alien language perhaps, but one that speaks to the myriad ways in which colors can reveal themselves. Most of us can see these colors quite easily, but we would be hard-pressed to identify or even remember them. The language of color both reveals and conceals. In the sinoper common to Renaissance art, we untangle and perceive a deep rust-red, one that is distinct from the rust-red of falu, a color commonly found on Swedish barns. At the same time, however, our language is but a coarse and blunt tool when it comes to carving up the million or so colors that our eyes can actually perceive.
Language has always had a rich and intertwined history with color and even today has much to say about the how, what and where of the color of things.
One of the longstanding issues in color science and philosophy concerns the where of color, or, in the parlance of philosophy, the ontological status of color. In other words, do colors exist independently? Are they ‘out there’ in the world, or are they subjective experiences that exist inside our minds? Or, are they something else altogether?
The common sense view of color maintains that objects look colored because, quite simply, they are colored. This is our default veridical experience of the world. In this view, color exists as a property of objects: your blue shirt is blue, red wine is red, lemons are yellow, and the grass is green. This position, known as color realism, posits color as a mind-independent property of things in the world. Such a view is supported by the grammatical structure of just about every language, where color is often used adjectively, as a qualifying property of things, as in the examples just mentioned.
A more nuanced version of this maintains that color, in the language of color science, is simply the capacity of surfaces to differentially reflect and absorb various wavelengths of light, or radiant energy. In this view, blue shirts reflect wavelengths of light in the blue part of the spectrum, whereas red tomatoes reflect light from the opposite (red) end of the spectrum. For color realists, colors are reflectance.
One of the difficulties with this position is the capacity for colors to appear different from the wavelengths reflected from surfaces. This has been examined most famously by Edwin Land, the inventor of the instant Polaroid camera, in his Retinex theory of color. Though Land’s theory is too technical to be summarized here, a clear example of how it works can be seen in the example below. In this image, the blue squares on the top of the cube on the left are the same ‘color’ as the yellow squares on the top of the cube on the right.
If the perception of color was simply a matter of extracting information about the surface reflectance of wavelengths, then the illusion would not work. But color is much more than reflected light, and our empirical knowledge of the world (of surfaces, illuminants, and context) leads us to conclude that the colors on the cubes must be different, and as a result, we perceive them that way.
This demonstrates that the perception of color is not as simple as decoding incoming wavelengths. Even Isaac Newton, whose ‘new science of color’ had become the foundation of our modern understanding of color, was careful to distinguish between wavelengths of light (rays) and the ‘appearance’ of color: “For the rays, to speak properly, are not colored. In them there is nothing else but a certain Power and Disposition to stir up a Sensation of this or that Color.”
This approach, known as a type of relationism in philosophy, has come to define the modern conception of color as a perceptual experience, based on the interaction between the world and the mind. A key aspect of perception and experience is that it is always mediated – in other words, we never have direct access to the world ‘as it is’. In this case, our perception of color is subject not only to the physics of light and the hardware of biological variation (animals have different eyes and brains) but also to the vicissitudes of our ‘software’ – namely, our culture, our experiences and even our language. We now know that the colors we can discriminate between and identify are influenced, in part, by the words that we use. For example, some languages, like English, make a distinction between blue and green, whereas others, like Berinmo from Papua New Guinea, have a single term: ‘nol’, for both. As a result, English speakers are better able to discriminate and identify colors in the part of the spectrum where these two categories meet. Other languages, such as Russian and Greek, have two different words for the basic color category of blue, which means that unlike English, they subdivide this region of the visible spectrum, and as a result, are better at discriminating and identifying differences in this part of the spectrum. The more precise the language, the more categories we create and the more colors we can distinguish.
Research on color categories and color language demonstrates that the colors we perceive depend, to varying degrees, on how we think and the words we use to categorize our experience. An extreme version of this view, known as irrealism in philosophy, maintains that colors are fictitious, that they exist entirely in our minds.
An interesting twist on this was recently put forward by the philosopher Mazviita Chirimuuta. Known as color adverbialism, it treats color not as a property of things (adjectives), or as a property of internal construction, but as a property of processes (adverbs), specifically the perceptual process. Here, the process is seen as that point of interaction between the mind and the world. It is a view that seeks to connect the world ‘out there’ and the mind ‘in here’ by redefining the mind as something already and always in-the-world, and not constrained by the cranium. So instead of saying the shirt is blue, we would say that we see it in a blue way, or that we see it blue-ly.
Such considerations raise interesting philosophical puzzles and questions about reality, language and our relation to the world. So, the next time you put your blue shirt in the closet and close the door, ask yourself the following question – if there is no light, no one to perceive it, and no language, is the shirt still blue?
Carl Jennings is an artist, professor of art at Kap’iolani Community College at the University of Hawai’i, and member of the ISCC (Inter-Society Color Council), based in Hawai’i, USA.
Elena Charobay is a multidisciplinary designer based in Moscow.
1. Joseph Addison, Essays on the Pleasures of the Imagination (Antwerp: Dunverger & Co., 1828) 35.2. A Byrne and D Hilbert, “Color Realism and Color Science,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 26 (Mar 2003): 3-21. 3. Edwin H. Land, “The Retinex Theory of Color Vision,” Scientific American 237 (Dec 1977):108-128.4. Dale Purves and Beau Lotto, Why We See What We Do: An Empirical Theory of Vision (Sunderland: Sinauer Associates, 2003).5. Isaac Newton, Opticks: Or, a Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections and Colors of Light. The fourth edition, corrected. (London: Printed for William Innys., 1730).6. Carl Jennings, “There’s a Word For That: What nail polish can teach us about color perception,” Refractions Blog. Published May 6, 2017. https://www.refractionsblog.com/single-post/2017/05/05/There%E2%80%99s-a-Word-for-That-What-nail-polish-can-teach-us-about-color-perception7. Debi Roberson et al., “Color Categories in Himba: Evidence for the cultural relativity hypothesis,” Cognitive Psychology 50 (2005): 378–411.8. C.L. Hardin, Color for Philosophers: Unweaving the Rainbow (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1988).