Three approaches to loving colour

Various articles published online in 2015 8Rosie CIMA (2015), why every movie looks sort of Orange and blue, highlight a recent trend in Hollywood cinema: an increasing number of scenes have the dominant colours blue and orange. One does not notice this until one has been warned, but it becomes obvious once one is made aware of the fact (which is now the case). While little known, this phenomenon has been robustly demonstrated, especially by the figure below by Helmund Helmer, which represents the destiny associated with each colour in Hollywood films for 2013.

Figure by Helmund Helmer

These articles also claim this trend is due to a wish to increase colour contrast when working on trailer colourimetry. In the digital age, its is hardly difficult to improve on the colour tone of any scenes deemed to require it; and blue and orange—two colors at opposite ends of the colour wheel (according the Grassman’s laws)—guarantee optimal contrast, and thus aesthetics. Film poster are no exception to this rule. Indeed, they would seem to carry this excessive focus on blue and orange well beyond the bounds of reality.

Hollywood films
Examples of Hollywood film posters

While this excessive focus on contrast is all that Hollywood requires to promote its productions, any belief that a picture’s aesthetics are a function of nothing more than its degree of contrast would seem to fly in the face of what the history of art teaches us. How, however, can we define what makes a picture chromatically pleasing?

Many theories have been expressed—by scientists as well as artists—on aesthetically appropriate colour combinations. These theories are sometimes contradictory, always dogmatic and never demonstrated. Most authors conclude it is impossible to establish a universal colour harmony rule (despite all of them having tried). After all, ‘there is no accounting for taste.’ I have no intention of providing a response to this ever-recurring question. Instead, I wish to expand on three different ways of approaching the beauty of colours.

Neurology in the Instagram era

Sometimes, my own works could, at first glance, appear more beautiful when photographed and “photoshopped”. This troubled me, but should not destabilise Instagram users, who habitually enhance the contrast of their snapshots. Everyone is familiar with this social network which puts over 70 million aesthetically-improved photos online daily, using colourimetric filters guaranteeing optimal rendering (and rewarding their authors with an ounce of talent).

It must be admitted: on Instagram, everything is beautiful. Colours are effortlessly adjusted and rebalanced, becoming pretty, pleasing, and easily watchable. To the question that painters have asked for centuries, namely what colours they should use, and how they might balance them to achieve visual harmony, could it be that the algorithms of Instagram have found an answer? How is it that, the world over, five hundred million human beings fagree that this or that filter, by adding contrast, enhances their photos?

With the recent progress achieved by neuroscience, some explanations can now be provided—albeit still partial and debatable—to understand why its is that some works of art seduce us with a palette of colors that is as perfect as it is beautiful, while others leave us indifferent—or even repel us. In this regard, the fascinating work of Yves Morvan 9Yves Morvan (2015), La vision et l’harmonie des couleurs, Ex aequo. is well worth perusing.

The brain, when analyzing the signals received from the retina, is particularly focused on identifying contours. This is because these contours allow him to quickly identify what he is currently seeing, and to act accordingly. The speed with which optical signals corresponding to net contours are analysed is far superior to that of gradients, which are more uncertain, and therefore subject to multiple interpretations. Significant contrast, by accentuating the contours and “caricaturing” the observed image, makes it more quickly interpretable and understandable by our visual centre. In other words, it is more simple and stimulating for the brain to analyse a highly contrasted image. From this to say that our brain prefers these images, and that this amounts to defining a form of beauty, is really only one supposition away. But this still requires one to cross the boundary between physiological perception and aesthetic emotion.

Using stripes, or any other type of pattern based on two strongly-contrasted colours, is therefore the best way to make an object visually impacting while ensuring that an impression of formal beauty is achieved.

This “magical recipe” can be considered universal, since it operates even before we understand and interpret what we are seeing. What Instagram offers is based on optical and neural phenomena, which ensures user consensus. These are colours that are bound to please, at the level of visual perception, before any interpretation and intellection of the visual field. In the artistic field, knowledge of these neural phenomena helped to induce the birth of optical art, which is as interesting to understand as it is beautiful to look at.

In the political field, the black-white-red trio, used in a majority of propaganda works of the middle of the twentieth century (both by the Soviets and by the Americans, the Nazis or the 1960s French soixantehuitards) can also be interpreted in this way: these colours, by their formal beauty, catch the gaze and permeate us, before any theorisation (which is precisely what propaganda desires: to convince, rather than to explain).

Frogs coming to Chevreul’s help

These neurological discoveries are in perfect keeping withthe so-called colour harmony model proposed by Chevreul: visual harmony would result from the cohabitation of two dominant colors, that are at opposite ends of the colorimetric spectrum, and whose addition theoretically produces white light 10Michel-Eugène Chevreul, De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs et de l’assortiment des objets colorés, considérés d’après cette loi dans ses rapports avec la peinture, les tapisseries…, Pitois-Levrault, 1839.. Here we are again confronted with the Hollywood blue-and-orange recipe. This model, while met with approval by some theorists and artists, has never been demonstrated other than empirically. It is limited and inaccurate, like all the others, but falls in line with more recent discoveries on the preference of our brain for strong contrasts (in this case Chevreul does not speak of the contrast between light and dark, but between two colours distant from each other on the chromatic spectrum).

Strangely, evidence of the existence of a biological preference for strong contrasts also stems from the emergence of such contrasts in the natural environment. An alternation of two diametrically opposed colours is actually found in a number of natural patterns whose primary function is to have visual impact. The small arboreal frog agalychnis callidryas lives in the forests of Central America. There is no doubt that its green colour allows it to be easily confused with the foliage. Yet it is more difficult to explain the bright red colour of its eyes, and the reasons for the latter’s appearance. One of the most frequent hypotheses 11Glaw and Vences (1997), Anuran eyes colouration: definitions, variation, taxonomic implications and possible functions, Herpetologia Bonnensis is that this bright red, color opposite to the green in the spectrum, ensures maximum contrast and therefore a strong Visual impact (the goal being to keep predators away by scaring them).

Agalychnis callidryas
Agalychnis callidryas

Examples of this type are not lacking in nature. While studying for my Master’s degree, I carried out research on Morpho butterfly eye patches These patterns are used as visual signals and their shapes, colors and sizes vary considerably. Yet they consistently display alternating light and dark concentric rings 12Silvère Jarrosson (2016), Diversification des ailes de papillons Morphos, une approche morphométrique, colorimétrique et phylogénétique, Université Pierre et Marie Curie (Paris). The same rule applies to eye patches for peacock tails, zebra stripes, the eyes of the Goura Victoria dove and many other naturally occurring patterns. While debatable—and sometimes debated—Chevreul’s theory is well supported by natural evidence.

While the contrast-based approach does have limitations (would Monet’s Nymphéas really be made yet prettier just by increasing their contrast?), the reality of neuronal processes—and thus the fact that strong contrast invariably induces a pleasing impression, which is a form of aesthetics—cannot be denied.

Van Gogh’s green eyebrows

Nonetheless, can one reach a more general conclusion that appreciation of colour follows a universal pattern? That would leave the cultural dimension—which shapes an individual’s perception and appreciation of colours—out of the picture. Death is symbolized by black in Western culture, but by white in Asia. Assuming the evocative power of colour is not intrinsical, but culturally acquired, how can colour bear witness and provoke emotion in us beyond what we now and have integrated about it?

The significant each individual colour carries for us, like any other form of culture, has the capacity to become richer and more complex. I believe that this enrichment is in itself a form of beauty. Assuming the colors in a painting are beautiful—in other words, is the carry meaning for us, inspire us, not just optically, but emotionally or, indeed, spiritually—surely that must be because they are meaningful as well as expressions of how we perceive reality. This representation itself is not static. By extracting our thoughts from predefined paths, these colour combinations speak t our emotions and induce us to think differently, giving colour considerable emotional and aesthetic power. In other words, a picture would make an impression on us whenever it widens the concepts and symbols which we associate with each colour concerned.

I discovered this Van Gogh portrait when I was in primary school. A student asked, perfectly seriously, why M Van Gogh had green in his eyebrows. While not implying that the author of the Sunflowers was colour-blind, the teacher went to the trouble of explaining how, during the Impressionist period, painters had freed themselves from reality and attempted to describe optical sensations, ‘impressions’. This was what brought Van Gogh to paint his eyebrows in such a distinctly green tinge.

Van Gogh self-portrait
Vincent van Gogh, self-portrait-1887 (work and detail)

The colour range in this painting is particularly expressive, and its beauty is due to its discrepancy with reality. Here the colours are expressive, because they are unexpected. These touches of green in Vincent’s eyebrows make a distinct contribution to the painting and to the depiction of his facial expression, and towards making this mysterious picture so unusual.

Looking at Van Gogh and at so many other artists, it is beauty that is destabilizing: unexpected colour combinations Build on the symbolic idea associated with each colour, gradually making it more complex. More generally, these new combinations fly in the face of our preconceived ideas about the world and any associated appearances. In this sense, the Impressionist period gives colour a force and an aesthetic appeal it did not have previously.

Oscar Wilde—or colour autonomy

The idea that perception of beauty is due to a form of future goes against the Kantian concept of beauty, defined as a ‘universal, conceptless’ principle 13Immanuel Kant (1790), Critique of Judgment.. Surely, one can consider colour from another perspective than by attributing to it a form of intrinsically beauty underpinned by neither physical nor by culture considerations: the universal beauty of colour, beyond any concept and anything it provokes beyond initial perception?

Conceiving colour beauty in this way amounts to stating beautiful colors are emancipated from any cultural or representative consideration. They evoke nothing beyond themselves, and give us access to pure enjoyment of their perception, beyond, or rather outside of the bounds of, any interpretation. When blue sky is more than th colour of the sky, when red flames bring things to mind beyond the fire, we can enjoy those shades as autonomous colours. This new approach leaves immeasurable scope for abstract expression, effectively plunging the viewer into this state of deep, non-cultural perception of colour, using colors for what they are, rather than for what they represent.

Nevertheless, figurative art can also be observed and appreciated from this perspective. As early as 1890, Oscar Wilde hinted, in a paragraph in A portrait of Dorian Gray, that ” art is always more abstract than we imagine. The form and the colour speak to us about form and colour, and that’s the end of it. This is a way of acknowledging that colour has intrinsically beauty, and of stating that it can be enjoyed in and for itself, even in a figurative work.

William Turner The blue Rigi, Sunrise
William Turner, the blue Rigi, Sunrise-1842 (work and details)

This Turner watercolour is devoid of any excessive contrast. The colours in it are not extravagant in any way. Yet the use of colour in its is masterful. We do not enjoy Turner’s chosen colours because mist is beautiful when it is blue, but because blue possesses intrinsically beauty.

The full splendour of colours is not apparent when when they are strongly contrasted. On the contrary, it comes into its own when they are diluted into countless subtle shades setting one another off. They possess intrinsically beauty. Their multiplicity and delicate grasp is stunning: a festival of coloured surfaces, devoid of any optical saturation.

More recently, the work of Yves Klein on IKB blue follows on from this approach to the design and appreciation of colors (a single colour, in this instance). Klein blue lives and shines in and by itself. Klein explained that he had chosen the colour blue because he believed ‘all colours conjure up actual associations of ideas […] while blue, at the very most, is associated in one’s mind with the sea and the sky, namely that which is most tangible and visible in nature.’ 14Marie Jo, Yves Klein,, 2006.. This is thus a way of moving away from what colour can evoke in us from a cultural perspective, when it reaches its purely abstract form and evokes nothing concrete.

Acknowledging that colour has intrinsically beauty, beyond anything any meaning or significance it can carry, amounts to explaining what makes the beauty of colour. Let us therefore admit that colour is beautiful and that this beauty will remain partly unexplained. Klein’s monochromes fascinate us in a mysterious way—which we would be wiser to seek to appreciate, rather than to explain.

The question of knowing what underpins the beauty of colour remains unanswered from the moment that one calls upon its intrinsical nature. While colour can be beautiful in and of itself, then nothing tells us why it can sometimes be ugly.

Yves Klein Monochrome Blue, Untitled
Yves Klein, Monochrome Blue, Untitled-1959 (detail)

Some people claim that their dreams are devoid of colour. While this is a matter debated by neurologists (with some suggesting that we simply have forgotten about the colors when we wake up), it has also been take up by philosophers: is colour absent from the world of thoughts and passions out of which dreams are conjured up? Are clouds not involved in the expression of fright, anxiety, joy and pleasure experienced when dreaming? The underlying question is clearly knowing whether colour has intrinsical significance, and whether it can convey expression (perhaps on a universal plane). One might wish to meditate on this at sunset.