Colours, glorious colours

Are you a fan of magenta, aka fuchsia? It’s a striking purplish/reddish pink, a strong colour that I suspect invokes strong feelings in many of us. But this year, Pantone® Color Systems has named it their Color of the Year.

If you’re not a graphic designer, fashion designer or other kind of artist,  you may wonder who the heck Pantone® is and who are they to arbitrarily designate an official colour. (By the way, my use of two spellings for the same word reflect Canadian ‘colour’ vs. American ‘color’, no typos involved).

So far on this blog we’ve looked at several different colours and the many variations that authors and artists throughout time have used to portray mood, culture and even status. Some of the colours have become historically famous and significant, like Royal Purple and Nile Green. But how were these colours reproduced reliably, and who came up with the names of them in the first place?

People from all walks of life have studied colours, and created colour systems that have defined colour values (the combinations of our primary colours: red, green and blue used to make each colour) much as dictionaries have codified what different words mean so that they’re used consistently and our languages don’t turn into verbal anarchy (or gibberish, as with the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel).

Pantone® is the authoritative colour system of the modern era. It was created in in the 1960s by a chemist, Lawrence Herbert, working for an advertising company, produced a colour-matching system that simplified the process for stocking color pigments. He eventually bought the struggling company and turned his system into its product. Starting with 500 colours in a flipbook of swatches. The flipbook is still used today, but has grown to 2,390 colours in several different formats. I myself still have a Pantone® swatch book from when I was a freelance graphic designer.

Screenshot from the Pantone® website illustrating the colour flipbook;

Graphic designers use Pantone values for both printed and web applications (for the Web, colours are given a “HEX” value to make sure they’ll show properly on a computer screen. (The HEX value for Viva Magenta, i.e. the value entered into the HTML code on a website, is #BE3455.)Today, many of the world’s nations even rely on the Pantone system to display the right colors on their flags. Pretty much anyone who works with colour uses Pantone values.

Why are we so obsessed with colour?

Colour gives our world richness, and conveys anything from great beauty to great horror. We can relate to the bright yellow of spring daffodils and the bronze of fall leaves. If someone mentions a cheeseburger, we’ll immediately picture gooey, delicious orangeness melting down the sides of a beef patty. Grey represents rainy days, thick fog, a river under an overcast sky.

Writers rarely wax poetic about the colours of things in their stories – we don’t want to mire our readers down in descriptions – but we do want to communicate a mental image. A mystery/horror/vampire writer will at some point need to describe a bloody scene, and sci-fi movies often use colours to portray alienness. Picture the lurid crimson of The Blob (1958), the virulent green of the lethal alien microbe in The Andromeda Strain (1971), even a magenta hue used to represent the alien Color Out of Space in the 2019 film with Nicolas Cage.

That movie was an adaptation of the 1927 H. P. Lovecraft short story The Colour Out of Space. In the story, the colour emanated from a strange meteor that had fallen on a small, remote community in the creepy fictional locale of Arkham. Lovecraft described it like this: “The colour, which resembled some of the bands in the meteor’s strange spectrum, was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all.” For the movie, magenta was chosen because of its ‘extra-spectral status’, which means that it’s not a colour created when white light is broken down into its different wavelengths, each of which has a certain colour.

Colours are what we ‘see’ when waves of light pass into our eye and are picked up by specialized cells in our retinas called rod and cone cells. These cells transmit the information through the optic nerve to our brain. You can see all the spectral colours – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, in that order – in a rainbow. All other colours are created by mixing spectral colours together. There’s even a strange category of ‘impossible’ colours that can’t been seen under normal viewings of light – we humans can only see them when we trick our eyes. (More on this subject in a future post.)

A very large and bright rainbow over Santa Fe, New Mexico — photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

So what’s with the Magenta? I have to admit, it’s not one of my personal favourites, but it’s a good colour for Spring – it can be found in all kinds of flowers right from Mother Nature’s paint brush.

But it doesn’t have a wavelength. We see it as a colour because our brain fills in information in spots where it can’t make sense of something (not just with colours, but many other types of information). The space between red and purple needs to look like something, so our brain discusses amongst itself and offers up magenta. While that’s a biological technicality, we can reproduce magenta, as well as all colours not part of the visual spectrum, whenever we want, so in that sense our ingenuity trumps Nature.

And we can thank numerous colour classification systems for that, as well as what to call all the different colours.

Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, was also a polymath – someone whose knowledge base spans a wide variety of subjects – and he covered everything from economics and government to drama, psychology and several sciences. Basically, he was interested in pretty much everything, and developed the first known theory of colour, which he believed came from white and black. Aristotle related colours to the four elements (air, earth, fire and water), and it wasn’t until the mid-1600s when the English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton was able to demonstrate, with prisms and refraction, not only that white light was composed of seven colours, but that those colours could then be combined back into white light once more. His work led to breakthroughs in optics, chemistry and physics, and the study of color in nature.

…if the Sun’s Light consisted of but one sort of Rays, there would be but one Colour in the whole World…

–Sir Isaac Newton, Opticks

Newton’s innovations were challenged by none other than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German poet and writer so famous that he became known by his last name alone (there’s even a statue of him in Vienna, made of bronze and coated in verdigris except for his toe, which remains shiny from all his modern admirers rubbing it). Goethe, quite a prolific thinker and very interesting character himself, was also a scientist, and in 1810 published his Theory of Colours, which he believed, out of all his famous writings, was his most important. Using his gift for poetry, he described colour as “light’s suffering and joy”

Jacob Christoph Le Blon was a painter and engraver from Frankfurt who invented the system of three- and four-colour printing, based on the three primary colours – red, yellow and blue and applied in layers via stippled metal plates (a method called mezzotint) that provided rich tones and great depth. His system eventually evolved into the colour printing technology we use today.

A page from Le Blon’s 1725 Coloritto describing his RYB three-color printing process; By Jacob Christoph Le Blon – The Science of Color, reprint of page of Coloritto, Public Domain,

In 1686, a man named Richard Waller, a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, created one of the earliest known color charts as a tool by which scientists and collectors could describe their animal and plant specimens. Today we rather take for granted botanical gardens and zoos that acquaint us with many of the thousands of species in the world, but in the 17th to 19th centuries all of those species still had to be discovered, identified and catalogued. The intrepid researchers could compare their specimens to Waller’s chart and use the names provided to identify the colors of what they’d collected.

Richard Waller, Tabula colorum physiologica … [Table of physiological colors], Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1686;

It was in the late 1800s and early 1900s that the dedication of men from two very different fields combined to produce the colour-defining system that eventually became the Pantone® powerhouse. Milton Bradley – yes, the famous board-game fellow – learned lithography and set up his own colour printing shop in Massachusetts. He had an idea for a board game that he called The Checkered Game of Life, and after his printing business failed, he decided to try his hand at manufacturing games. His Game of Life was an instant success, and the rest is history. Bradley also manufactured crayons and watercolours, and was determined to find a reliable method for reproducing colours. He developed a ‘color wheel’: a device with overlapping coloured disks that could be spun to mix colours for the viewers. It was able to scientifically match and measure colors, creating a multitude of precise hues.

The color wheel mechanism with two gears in the back and a blue, red, and yellow color wheel on the top. Data Source:
National Museum of American History

Bradley went even further, using his colour wheels, and a book called Elementary Color, as educational tools to teach both children and adults about both making colour and colour psychology, things he’d put to good use in building his extraordinarily successful company.

An ornithologist, Robert Ridgway, was the Smithsonian museum’s first curator of birds, and used colour as a way to help identify the thousands of bird species. Existing colour standards. which he found “vague and, for practical purposes, meaningless, thereby seriously impeding progress in almost every branch of industry and research”, used terminology like ‘zulu,’ ‘new old rose,’ and ‘London smoke,’ which were perhaps evocative but not quantifiable. Instead, Ridgway created his own color dictionary for naturalists in 1886, building on Bradley’s work. His contains 1,115 named colours, no mean feat.

Ridgway published Color Standards and Color Nomenclature himself in 1912, illustrated with 53 plates of painted samples. Great care was taken to maintain the consistency of colour reproduction and prevent fading. As a result, the book became a standard reference used by specialists in fields from ornithology to stamp collecting to food for decades after Ridgway’s death.

Ridgway’s bird diagram from his ‘A nomenclature of colors for naturalists : and compendium of useful knowledge for ornithologists’ (1886) gave precise indications of how to describe a specimen (via Smithsonian Libraries)

Ridgway’s book eventually evolved into the Pantone color chart – and that divisive Magenta colour. Are you a fan of it, or not so much?

You may wonder why Pantone’s Color of the Year matters so much. Well, over the years, as the Pantone Color Institute studied colour trends throughout each year and how they related to all aspects of society – marketing, fashion, social media as it became mainstream, and even politics — the Color of the Year became more and more influential.

Today, hundreds of brands design products around the Color of the Year.

Spoonflower, one of my favourite places to browse cool wallpapers and fabrics for my dream house (for when I become the mega-successful author of my financial dreams), has for the past three years run a competition asking selected artists to create a design featuring the Color of the Year.

For the third year in a row, Spoonflower created a capsule collection with the Pantone color of the Year with contributions from six selected artists in its annual competition, selecting the winner with the most votes based on their designs incorporating Viva Magenta as the main color or central theme. These wallpapers are available for purchase while stocks last for anyone interested in incorporating Viva Magenta into their home decor.

Screenshot of Spoonflower website highlighting designs using Viva Magenta;

For the first time, this year Motorola partnered with Pantone to launch the new Edge 30 Fusion phone in Viva Magenta.

Screenshot of Motorola website highlighting new phone with Viva Magenta casing;

These businesses, as well as many others, are clearly capitalizing on the publicity to maximize their media coverage, but nevertheless the entire event has taken on a life of its own in our modern culture that embraces the ‘new and shiny’ syndrome.

Of course, colour psychology has been employed for years, if not millennia. There’s a reason that Royal Purple, extracted in precious and costly small quantities from Murex sea snails in ancient times, was chosen to symbolize the top tier of society. By the 9th century A.D., a child born to a reigning emperor was labelled as porphyrogenitos, or “born in the purple”. In England, Queen Elizabeth I forbade anyone except close members of the royal family to wear the colour purple. Although methods to synthetically produce the colour were developed in the 1800s, today the British Royal Family and other European royalty still use it as a ceremonial color on special occasions.

This blog has discussed how different colours can portray varying qualities and emotions. Most people find red very stimulating, for example, and it is of course the colour of love (although pink is used almost as much in Valentine’s Day flowers and media these days), but too much red can become unsettling, and some shades of red make us think of blood and horror. Orange is said to be a confident colour and to convey sociability, but once autumn rolls around it’s definitely the colour of that most sensory season. Most shades of orange are not as strident as red can be, and orange lights are easy on the eyes. Green symbolizes healing, freshness – all the qualities of Nature, while blue is supposed to represent trustworthiness and competence (hence the trend of navy blue ‘power’ suits for business dressing). Personally I find most shades of blue too cold-looking inside a house, and it’s not a good colour on me clothing-wise.

Pink, along with other soft colours, like pale yellow, robin’s egg blue, pale green, all signify babyhood, and Spring. They have a freshness that lightens the spirit. Personally I couldn’t live with them on a daily basis, but they’re nice on occasion. I came across this beautiful posting on the Williams Sonoma website the other day, and immediately printed the recipe to file for a future baking spree.

Screenshot from Williams Sonoma home page;

In classrooms, colour can be used to either encourage learning or taking relaxing breaks. Studies have shown that red, green and blue can create a sense of excitement in students, putting them in the right frame of mind for learning something new, while green, purple and certain shades of blue are conducive for rooms to have a nap break.

Colours are critical to how we make sense of the world. People with some form of colour-blindness can really struggle with interpreting their environment. Colours can give us great pleasure, when we look at stunning flowers or evocative paintings and photography. For writers, the psychology of colour is crucial in setting the tone of a character, or a scene, whether it’s a bright day at the beach or the menacing darkness inside a creepy house. We give thanks to the many colour-scientists who’ve created a systematized way for all artists to bring their ideas to life.

Feel free to ignore the Color of the Year if it doesn’t appeal to you. Everything we do in life should be based on our own preferences and lifestyle, not what others tell us we should like. The Pantone phenomenon just highlights how important colour is in our lives. Enjoy it as you prefer!

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