Chromatic Abstraction: Color as Data, Part 1

As a subject, color is emotional, turbulent, “hot.” (Don’t believe me? Two posts’ worth of hotheaded quotes by famous people about color should help you revise your opinion in a hurry.)

That’s why – paradoxically – it thrills me to consider the flipside of color: its coolly abstracted life as a mere data-point. In addition to all its culturally saturated meanings, the color spectrum is also just a series of intervals, a visually spliced way of expressing gradations. I like to think of this as “color as data” and have somewhat fervidly collected samples of its many manifestations.

The Infinite Jest Project by Corrie Baldauf, an example of literary color as dataThe Infinite Jest Project by Corrie Baldauf, an example of literary color as data

Start with the project that prompted me to write this post: The Infinite Jest Project by artist Corrie Baldauf. Painstaking she’s paged through David Foster Wallace’s doorstopper of a book, Infinite Jest, and tagged each mention of color in the text with a color-coded sticky-note. She’s done this not once but twice (the second time, she pushed herself to get even more precise in labeling the shades). As she told Hyperallergic, she “realized that the part I cared the most about was the color references, and that was going to be my impetus — it was going to be the familiar, intriguing thing that was going to help me focus, to commit.”

I like this project for multiple reasons. First, it makes manifest the tension between colors and words, the nameless shades our eyes can perceive and the hopelessly acculturated words we use to describe those shades. (I explore this in a big way in my book ROY G. BIV, the way the rainbow gets splintered into many surprising color-terms in different languages. Non-English speakers literally do not see the spectrum as we do, because they describe it in fundamentally different terms.) Baldauf takes the most wordful book in modern English and renders it flat, dense, multi-chromatic at a glance. The strobing rainbow both does and doesn’t at all reveal the full complexity of the text; instead it creates a parallel reality.

Literary Paint Chips from The Paris Review - more literary color as dataLiterary Paint Chips from The Paris Review – more literary color as data

I’m a big fan of the Paris Review project, Literary Paint Chips, which the editors describe as “paint samples, suitable for the home, sourced from colors in literature.” Take the shade labeled “Paper Smell” above. Roll over the filthy tobacco-stained square and you’ll get this quote from the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman:

“It used to disturb me at first. I thought seriously of burning the house—to reach the smell. But now I am used to it. The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell.”

Blues from the Color Thesaurus by Ingrid Sundberg - more literary color as dataBlues from the Color Thesaurus by Ingrid Sundberg – more literary color as data

Also marvelous: The Color Thesaurus as rendered by writer Ingrid Sundberg. She pushes her craft by adding shades to the rainbow, then carefully labeling them. Both this and Literary Paint Chips are beguiling for the compression they convey: a tidy square of simple-looking blue can contain oceans of information.

Thinking of colors as numbers wouldn’t faze any designer versed in Pantone, RGB and hex values, all numerically based. And yet, the bloodless assignation of a number to color can pique the imagination. Again, the fascination is one of compression: the thought that a sober numeral can be equivalent to a numinous, almost animate quality like a color is quietly thrilling. time rendered as hexidecimal color. Color and data of a more literal time rendered as hexidecimal color. Color and data of a more literal sort.

A nice manifestation of how hex values work can be found at The site renders the six-digit time as a continually shifting hexidecimal color value. I’d suggest you bookmark this baby – it just lulls you into a color trance while making you feel strangely attuned to the business of color-palette-making.

A similar ditty of a project by Jamie Gallagher pairs numbers with loaded symbolic meaning with their Pantone PMS equivalents. The results are surprising: proving, for instance, The Devil Wears Periwinkle.

Pantone Match by Jamie Gallagher: more color as dataPantone Match by Jamie Gallagher: more color as data

Color shows its data-driven personality most insistently in infographics. Its purpose in those context is differentiation: a gradation of shade reflects a meaningful jump in the underlying data measured.

Infographics abound on the Interwebs today – and, you might well argue, have officially jumped the shark. But still their principles can be applied to communicate surprising evolutions. Take this infographic mapping the increasing proliferation of crayon colors since 1903. It’s the handiwork of Stephen Von Worley, a visualization researcher at Data Pointed:

Color as data: crayon evolution since 1903, by Data PointedColor as data: crayon evolution since 1903, by Data Pointed

I’m really only getting warmed up on this subject. Watch this space for post 2 on color-as-data soon.

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