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A Fraught Moment For Color

From Black Lives Matter to Pride Month, color is having a moment. Categorizing fellow humans by the color of our skin has caused massive personal, social, and economic injustice over the arc of human history. We can do much better. Exploring color in all its guises is the heart of my work as an artist, color theorist, and educator. I was recently quoted in “The Rainbow Connection,” by Jennifer King Lindley, the cover story for the June issue of Real Simple magazine discussing the psychology of color.

A Fraught Moment For Color

*Originally published on LuanneStovall.com



From Black Lives Matter to Pride Month, color is having a moment. Categorizing fellow humans by the color of our skin has caused massive personal, social, and economic injustice over the arc of human history. We can do much better. 2020 is an auspicious year to set our sights on a new vision. By actively working to transform negative stereotypes, we see that, in fact, diversity is a strength.


Exploring color in all its guises is the heart of my work as an artist, color theorist, and educator. I was recently quoted in “The Rainbow Connection,” by Jennifer King Lindley, the cover story for the June issue of Real Simple magazine (on newsstands this month). Lindley interviewed color experts from a range of disciplines, including neuroscience, environmental psychology, design, and architecture. The article introduces color’s psychological dimensions, acknowledging that “for centuries, artists and philosophers have grappled with how to harness its emotional power.” 


While much has been learned about our physiological response to color and light, it is difficult to measure its psychological impact. My personal interest in this subject shifted dramatically about ten years ago when I asked students in a Color Fundamentals course to fill out a survey on the first day of class. I wanted to better understand 1) what they had been taught about color, and 2) what they wanted to learn. 


I learned that color education is mostly nonexistent (even in art school) with little or no instruction beyond the outdated red, yellow, and blue primaries. Responses to the second question were especially enlightening. Overwhelmingly, students wanted to know more about color psychology. Why do colors provoke such strong gut reactions, and why do these responses vary so much from person to person? (Over 1500 surveys later, responses never fail to point toward color’s mysterious emotional dimensions.)


I wondered how to address this vital interest. My background as a painter provided experience manipulating colored surfaces, but my art school training never covered color’s emotional life. I didn’t trust the superficial answers found in basic design books, where a few obligatory pages address color’s role in culture: Why does red mean anger? Why is gray considered to be “dull”? Why is blue such a crowd favorite? 


Colors are emotional triggers, colors evoke all sorts of cultural and symbolic meanings, and color biases are real. There had to be a way to learn more. I realized that we could explore these “color codes” with a thought experiment and a simple research project. 


The thought experiment is: What would we miss if ______ went away? 


I invited my students to imagine what the world would look and feel like if everything in one color was photoshopped out of our lives. Anything with that color, from the lightest tint to the darkest shade, including your favorite foods, drinks, pets, clothes, architecture, cars, street signs, holidays, rocks, trees, lakes, etc. . . . Poof—gone! 


This thought experiment revealed how each color lives in the world. After choosing a color, students researched key points about how that color evolved over time and across cultures. Where do the pigments come from? How were they made? Who wears it? How is it used in our built environment? Why? How are its meanings changing now? 


This is an eye-opening exercise. We’re unfamiliar with how to address the cultural and psychological dimensions of color without oversimplifying things (e.g. “yellow makes you feel cheery”). Yet color is subtle, complex, and impactful, and oversimplifying it is dangerous. Among other things, doing so helps perpetuate destructive stereotypes, from the unfortunate gendering of pink and blue to the negative identification of brown and black with “dirty” and “frightening.” 


We have a lot to learn. Really, we’re just scratching the surface. We need color literacy in order to live together in a world where color is so much more than skin deep.