A colorful return

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

Friends, I’ve missed you! I hope you’ve had a lovely spring. Mine passed in the blink of an eye through the rounded shape of an airplane window (and the haze of Allegra). I’ve been on the road this spring (and allergic to it)! Back now, and trying to unpack the virtual suitcase of inspiration gathered in Tokyo, San Francisco, Miami, and upstate New York. There’s a lot in there, and I’m processing. (In Tokyo alone I took over 2000 photos!) Sit tight – there’s good stuff coming.

In the meantime, let’s have some color. All the talk of the fashion pages this spring has been that color is having a moment. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we are having a moment with color—basking in pure, saturated hues. Have you been into J. Crew lately? You need sunglasses! It’s no cure for our perpetually dismal economic situation or the many geopolitical troubles we find ourselves in, but it does make the city feel brighter, more optimistic. As a prototypical black-clad New Yorker, I can say it’s been a nice change. Walking out in a kelly green sweater with a hot pink scarf feels so abundant and absurd it just gives you something to smile about.

The thing we forget about color is how alive it is, and how dynamic our relationship is to it. Just seeing a color is an energetic act. I’m reminded of Victoria Finlay’s description in her book Color: A Natural History of the Palette:

The best way I’ve found of understanding this is to think not so much of something “being” a color but of it “doing” a color. The atoms in a ripe tomato are busy shivering—or dancing or singing—the metaphors can be as joyful as the colors they describe—in such a way that when the light falls on them they absorb most of the blue and yellow light and reject the red—meaning paradoxically that the “red” tomato is actually one that contains every wavelength except red.

Color is not an entity, but a performance. We see color because of the light from the sun (or other source) that bounces off an object’s surface towards the light-sensitive cone cells in our eyes. As the light’s photons reach a colored surface, they excite the electrons on that surface, which absorb some of the wavelengths, while the others ricochet outward. And when a few photons of those reflected wavelengths reach our eyes, the cone cells in our retinas with the relevant pigments are stimulated. The energy absorbed by the pigment sends a signal up the optic nerve, and our brains register the sensation of color. We’re not detached witnesses to color; rather, we are part of the experience of it. Some molecules of our being are aroused by color, some cells are stirred into an electrical excitation—literally “turned on.”  Putting it simply, when we have seen color, we have absorbed some small transfer of energy from it. Is it any wonder that we feel energized by its vibrance?

The brighter the color, the more light being reflected, and the more energy that is transferred. So our moment of bright color is a moment of exuberant communication between our garments and our eyes. I think it’s plausible for there to be unintended effects. Who knows? Perhaps you need less caffeine when your deskmate is wearing fluorescent yellow. Or that a bright blue desktop background is as good as a breath of fresh air. Color is more powerful than we realize.

Radiolab has a brilliant episode this month pondering color. Highly recommended. My favorite segment ponders the rainbow from the perspective of animals with a far broader range of color vision than us puny humans. (Go mantis shrimp!) Jad and Krul engage a choir to “sing the rainbow” — very synesthetic, and if I know you, it’ll be up your alley.

Some other color links that have been burning a hole in my inbox:

  • The Color Run: 5k race meets Holi festival. Emerge looking like you’ve been through a spin-art machine. At the rate these races have been selling out, you know the organizers are onto something here.
  • Color Forecast: Why read a weather forecast when you can read a color forecast? Measures the color of clothing of passersby and gives you a window into “trending” colors. Available for Paris, Milan, and Antwerp.
  • Nippon Colors: A gorgeously designed site showcasing traditional colors from Japan.


Thanks, RW, for the Radiolab tip!
Images: J Crew, the Color Run

June 13th, 2012


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    Discussion (1 Comment)

  1. Linda on June 14, 2012

    How joyful I am that you are back. Linda


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