Color provokes strong opinions. In writing my book ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color, I collected memorable quotes about color from thinkers, artists, designers, scientists and other notables. It was almost laughably easy to amass hotheaded opinions of every kind about color. Today’s post recaps some of my favorites.
I wanted ROY G. BIV to fill readers with a pleasing rush of vertigo, that giddy feeling of getting pushed off balance so you suddenly see something familiar as strange. Cultural theorist Roland Barthes describes this feeling beautifully: “Color is like a closing eyelid, a tiny fainting spell…” His comrade-in-philosophy, C.L. Hardin, opens his book Color for Philosophers: Unweaving the Rainbow with this thought-provoking challenge: “Color is an illusion, but not an unfounded illusion.”
As I waded deeper into this potentially infinite topic, color, I agreed strongly with British artist Rachel Whiteread, who once remarked: “Color confuses me. Every day, when I get up, I have to think about it.” Small wonder, then, that nearly all Whiteread’s work is white or colorless.
You can’t beat manifestos for strongly worded opinions about anything. Here’s the Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich on color:
I have ripped through the blue lampshade of the constraints of color. I have come out into the white. Follow me, comrade aviators!…I have overcome the lining of the colored sky, torn it down and, into the bag thus formed, put color, tying it up with a knot. Swim! The white free abyss, infinity is before you.
Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler crossed swords aesthetically, if unknowingly, in their diametrically opposed feelings about bright color. An avid painter whose works were accepted to the Royal Academy under a pseudonym (Mr. Winter), Churchill remarked: “I cannot pretend to feel impartial about colors. I rejoice with the brilliant ones and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns.”
Hitler, on the other hand, excoriated those artists who played willy-nilly with the facts of color in their works: “If artists do see fields blue they are deranged, and should go to an asylum. If they only pretend to see them blue, they are criminals and should go to prison.”
It’s funny to gather opinions about a single color that hints at that shade’s latent personality. Take green, a notoriously finicky color to match precisely in paint. Artist Wassily Kandinsky bears a thinly disguised grudge against green, writing: “In the hierarchy of colors, green represents the social middle class, self-satisfied, immovable, narrow…” Elsewhere he remarked: “Absolute green is the most restful color, lacking any undertone of joy, grief, or passion. On exhausted men this restfulness has a beneficial effect, but after a time it becomes tedious.”
Picasso gave vent to this mania for the perfect green, too: “They’ll sell you thousands of greens. Veronese green and emerald green and cadmium green and any sort of green you like; but that particular green, never.” Contemporary artist David Reed agrees: “Caravaggio would give his right arm for a tube of Phthalo green.”
I give a big shout-out to Oliver Munday, whose gorgeous illustrations in ROY G. BIV make the book such a satisfying visual treat. His directive for this book couldn’t have been an easy one – I wanted readers to feel like they were seeing the colors themselves, unmediated by any representational crutches. In other words, no white wedding dresses to illustrate an entry about same. Oliver played within these constraints like a champ. I couldn’t be happier with how his illustrations treat the quotes about color. Above and below are a few samples from the book.
Clearly, I’m not done yet with this fertile subject. Watch this space next month for more steam-blowing, hot-blooded opinions about color!