Living With Color: The Meaning of Color

Experimenting with color can uplift your environment, express your imagination, and speak directly to the numinous qual­ities of your life and longings.

| July/August 2005

Throughout history, scientists, artists, spiritualists, and theorists have been inventing models to understand color. If you’re a scientist, you may consider colors primarily as wavelengths to be studied and manipulated. If you’re a painter, you may relate to them as extensions of the images you perceive. If you practice feng shui, you may see colors as elemental energies with which to harmonize.

“Colors bear the metaphors of entire cultures,” writes Ellen Meloy in The Anthropology of Turquoise (Pantheon, 2002). Consider black. Probably the first color early people were able to reproduce, it’s usually the first color given a word in developing languages, she notes. At first glance, black is black, yet even it takes on subtle variations. Since ancient times, scraps of ivory and bone were packed into clay pots and heated in fire kilns to make “ivory black.” And later, warmer shades of black were made from organic materials such as vines and grape skins.

Prehistoric humans learned to extract muted hues of red, yellow, and brown from naturally occurring iron oxides. From then until the Industrial Revolution, when synthetic pigments were invented, intense colors required the use of rare, costly, and sometimes hazardous materials. Purple has long been associated with royalty, no doubt because the dye extracted from mollusks one drop at a time was so expensive only monarchs could afford it. Since antiquity, lead white has been made from the toxic metal. And deep red was prepared from cinnabar, a principal ore of mercury, as well as from pomegranate peel and certain insects.

Color by culture

The ancient Greeks once believed rays of light emanated from fires burning inside every person and were sent out from behind our eyes to illuminate the world. In India, astronomers once believed that Surya, the sun deity, sent color to the earth through a collection of celestial bodies. It wasn’t until the 1600s, with Isaac Newton’s study of prism beams, that people began to make scientific rather than religious assertions about color. From that time forward, color became more about wavelengths than celestial energies and inner fires.

Colors have long carried the weight of cultural symbolism. In his book Reading Pictures (Random House, 2000), Albert Manguel explains that “we lend colors both a physical and symbolic reality.” Many astrologers make a correlation between colors and zodiac signs; many Buddhists relate colors to specific personality types; and Hindus perceive a relationship between colors and the body’s energy centers, known as chakras. Some musicians report a specific correspondence between colors and musical notes. In short, colors may be some of the most simple and accessible expressions of the unique human spirit.

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