Hue & I: Our Complex Relationship With Color

complex color pattern

Several years ago, during my early adventures as a freelance designer and illustrator, I had an opportunity to land what seemed like a sweet account with a Fortune 500 company. A marketing exec who was drawn to my fine art background asked me to create paintings of office equipment that she then planned to pitch to her team as a new branding/advertising concept.

I was a newbie. I loved painting. I wanted a killer project. Against my better judgment, I spent untold hours creating 3 paintings on spec, with hopes and dreams that they would be brilliant enough to impress the suits who sold the machines and propel my creative career like a rocket.

Alas, the dream was not to be. What killed it? One measly color.

Hold the Mustard!

Yep, mustard yellow did me in. I had managed to create relatively good, lively art featuring an office copier, of all things. It sang! It leapt off the canvas! The exec loved the texture and expressiveness with which I had imbued an inanimate device! But I had chosen a textured background of mustard hues – a color that had, as I was told, "not focus-grouped well" with their customers.

It's water under the bridge now, but when I'm discussing color I always think back to that and shake my head. How do you focus-group a color?? I'm not a fan of focus groups, anyway, but in this case it's particularly nonsensical. Allow me to explain …

Blue Is Not Sad

The Old Guitarist - P. Picasso, c. 1903

The Old Guitarist - P. Picasso, c. 1903

We've all seen posts and memes backed by spectrum pseudo-science that try to simplify color into little digestible bits of meaning. They tell us that certain colors, all by themselves, can make us feel particular emotions or even cause or cure headaches, altering circumstances by their mere existence. You know the drill … Blue is sad. Red is powerful. Green is natural. 

This completely ignores the fact that there are a million different shades and values to be found of each basic hue. Blue not only isn't sad, blue isn't even a thing, really. It's thousands of different things, each with subtle variations and characteristics. Some blue shades may be sad in some contexts (see Picasso), but that is the farthest we can realistically go with any abstract assessment.

If one is inundated by a single color, covering a large visual space, there's no denying it can have a visceral impact. Color does have power. It's almost always subliminal, but it's real. We know, for example, that a place can feel a bit warmer or cooler based on the colors in the environment, and that isn't a made-up thing.

The problem is when we try to explain these effects with no regard to context, color-relation or complexity.

The Music of Color

If we put a color in front of a person and ask them to tell us what they think of it, this will almost certainly fail to mirror the range of various reactions they might have to that color depending on realistic context. Think about it in terms of music. You could not play someone a single note – say, B flat – and ask them what they think of it all by itself. That might be an interesting experiment, but it would do pitifully little to help us understand how that person might experience the same note in various songs, at various volume levels or as expressed by different instruments or voices. Our experience of notes and tones depends on context. Color is exactly the same.

Depending on where and how a color is used, and especially depending on the other colors (or lack of colors) in its proximity, it can come across in an entirely different way. Let's look at some examples.

grayscale with mustard yellow

This single note of mustard yellow doesn't look all that special just sitting there amongst the grayscale. But, in this setting it does at least provide stark highlight and contrast. It's "color sound" is more intense and bright by far than any of the quiet, unassuming notes surrounding it.

muddy hues with mustard yellow

When set in between tones of similar hue but diminished value, our mustard yellow falls extremely flat. I could hardly imagine a worse context. (Poor little lonely, ugly thing.) And yet …

monochrome mustard

Look at all that mustard! Give me a hot dog now!! This dance of related hues draws out subtleties in a stark way. If you look at any of these swatches alone, or in certain other context, they would all mostly appear more yellow, even while in this image some of them come across as green. But in close proximity, the variations cut right to the surface. And notice how happy this example is compared to the ones above!

harmonious color with mustard yellow

Now our little mustard yellow strikes just the right chord within a family of varied tones that combine harmoniously.

What I hope has been made clear here is that working with color is far more complex than most of us stop to realize. Even "mustard yellow" is not a singular, static thing, and we should never attempt to analyze best color choices and application without exploring its dimensional aspects.

Most instrumental musicians will tell you they played for years before they truly began to sink into their instrument such that it became second nature. This is a function of neurology. As we learn and practice, neurological pathways literally thicken and deepen, so that our understanding moves into the primitive parts of our brains. When this happens, things that used to involve analysis before action become much more fluid. My relationship with color has been that way. I was working as an artist and designer for years before it all became a very comfortable, almost automatic instinct. Before then I was able to apply theoretical knowledge and try different things until the right combinations were apparent. Now, my brain is tuned into color, and it no longer requires much thought. It has been like learning a new language, and I so love to explore it.

May we all enjoy a renewed appreciation for the sights and visions in our world and continue to discover harmony in new places.