Welcome back to a two-part series of strongly opinionated quotes about color. I amassed many of these in my book ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color, and my collection keeps growing rhizome-like. Here are yet more ways color can get people’s blood up.
Early in my research I found this quote from artist Robert Motherwell, who once remarked:
The “pure” red of which certain abstractionists speak does not exist. Any red is rooted in blood, glass, wine, hunters’ caps and a thousand other concrete phenomena. Otherwise we would have no feeling toward red and its relations.
Blood, glass, wine, hunters’ caps—I kept ruminating on that list, adding new, shiny, red objects. Each complicated the notion of what “red” could mean, stretching the color’s limits without entirely dissolving every possible difference. In the introduction to my book, I transposed this thinking onto another red object, a child’s toy firetruck:
Learning colors as a kid means trading enchantment for knowledge. Each object you can label as red shrinks the vast category of RED down to something tamer. The colors become like a series of buckets, into which we drop successive objects. RED: First in are apples, cherries, fire trucks, stop signs. Later on we add lobsters, little Corvettes, valentines, short wavelengths of light, fire, wrong answers on quizzes, Christ’s salvation, Communists, voting Texans, Chinese celebrations, African funerals, blood, alarms.
As the buckets fill, it gets trickier to answer the question, What does the color red mean? Red daubs the Communist worker, but also the elitist lobster. Red means angry—when it doesn’t mean loving, courageous, vital or dead. Only twenty-six countries (out of 194 total) don’t include red in their national flags; when clashing on a battlefield, two opposing nations each draw their courage to fight from the same color. What doesn’t the color red mean? Calm, chilly, boring, innocent: Only a few ideas spring to mind. If red could mean almost anything, does it simply mean nothing? That idea rankles, too.
Red is unique among colors in tapping into a single, nearly universal concrete association: with blood, with everything blood can connote, from lusty anger to violence to courage in the face of either. Maybe that’s why painter Henri Matisse was moved to remark, “A thimbleful of red is redder than a bucketful.” Or fashion designer Bill Blass gave this pragmatic advice to buck up the looks of fading women: “When in doubt, wear red.”
About commanding the power surge inherent in color, I still love this quote from cosmetics magnate Helena Rubenstein: “All the American women had purple noses and gray lips and their faces were chalk white from terrible powder. I recognized that the United States could be my life’s work.”
I had lots of fun gathering quotes about the quieter colors, like brown or white, the ones you’d hardly expect to raise anyone’s ire or delight. Brown in particular yielded some beautiful quotes, like poet Anne Sexton’s line, “God has a brown voice, as soft and full as beer.” Or this observation by Derek Jarman, author (among many creative pursuits) of the marvelous book Chroma. In one of his final works, written in the English countryside while dying of AIDS-related illnesses in 1994, Jarman ponders brown and its effects: “The smell of damp humus, rich, slow, somnolent. Brown is a slow colour.”
I could go on and on with beautiful, stirring, provoking quotes about color from Chroma. I’ll allow myself one more. Jarman considers how colors in heraldry earn their own terminology. “Blue” is a simple primary color, a floating element in the observed world. “Azure” is a color term encoded into a broader system of meaning; it’s grammar within a visual syntax. Similarly, heraldic patterns aren’t merely decorative but well-labeled and organized so that subtle variations can indicate familial relationships, branching over centuries. Jarman writes:
The long sleep of Aristotle descended on the Middle Ages. Colour went on a Crusade, and came back with strange heraldic names: Sable, Purpure, Tanne, Sanguine, Gules, Azure, Vert, on a host of fluttering flags.
Last but not least, here’s a quote I’ve long loved by artist Sara Genn. When you’ve written this long about color, inevitably you get asked for your favorite color all the time. Usually my answer is highlighter yellow, but Genn’s quote makes an even better rejoinder: “Having a favorite color is like having a favorite lung.”