21 May 2021

Why there’s no truth when it comes to colour

Colour is pretty important to us at Petalon. It’s something we think about every week when we design the bouquets – you may have noticed we never really have a bouquet that’s just one block colour – we like everything to be tonal and to see colours blend together. This is why we love flowers with two tone petals or maybe with flecks of a different colour – it helps us bring the whole thing together, as opposed to having clashing colours that have no relationship to each other. For the flowers we’re growing ourselves, our focus is to grow more unusual colours (and our personal favourite tones) that are harder to find on the Dutch auction – nude, coffee, caramel, apricot, brown, the subtlest blush – give us all the muted, earthy tones. Then there are colours that we might like ourselves but we know aren’t always popular with our customers – for example we love a fresh, white and green bouquet but these never seem to be as popular. Perhaps this is because white in some cultures has negative connotations. This got us thinking about colour in general and what it means to different people.

Did you know that the way we perceive colour is subjective and prone to personal experience? Language and culture play a huge part in this and the way our brains process colour in to something meaningful is largely dictated by these two factors.

For example, the Himba tribe in Namibia and the Berinmo tribe in Papua New Guinea sort colours in to five categories; dark, light, red, yellow and one term that describes both green and blue together, a ‘grue’, if you will. This was also historically the case for Welsh, Japanese and Chinese, though nowadays this ‘grue’ term applies to just blue in these languages, with green having its own term. By contrast, languages like Russian, Turkish and Greek actually have two terms just for blue – one to describe darker shades and one for lighter shades.

The Japanese actually identify 16 main colour categories, with over 500 official colours when you include traditional and modern colours. In a study by researchers in Tokyo, Kyoto and Ohio, 57 native Japanese speakers were asked to identify the colours on colour cards. 11 of these categories were equivalent to those in the English language – black, white, grey, red, yellow, green, blue, pink, orange, brown, and purple. Others were unique to Japanese, seen as distinct colors in their own right: mizu (meaning ‘water’, a light blue), hada (meaning ‘skin tone’, a peach), kon (meaning ‘indigo’, a dark blue), matcha (a yellow-green named for green tea), enji (maroon), oudo (meaning ‘sand’ or ‘mud’, a colour we’d call mustard), yamabuki (gold, named after a flower), and cream.

It’s also been discovered that the way we perceive colour can change in our lifetime. For example, Greek natives who have two terms to describe darker shades and lighter shades of blue – ‘ghalazio’ and ‘ble’- will, over time, begin to see these as just one blue after living in the UK for long periods of time, where there is only one term for blue. As research in Lancaster University shows, this is ultimately because learning a new language gives us the ability to interpret the world differently, not just in colour, but in all areas of life.

Another fun fact is that the colour orange was named after the fruit, not the other way around. Until then the English speaking world referred to the colour as ‘geoluhread’ which literally translates to ‘yellow-red’. The word ‘orange’ was introduced to the English language from the Spanish ‘naranja’, which came from the Sanskrit word nāraṅga, meaning ‘orange tree’. The English dropped the leading ‘n’ and eventually we got the word ‘orange’.

If you want to get really scientific, we can talk about the fact that according to Henry Reich, the colour pink technically can’t exist (go and join the other 5.31 million subscribers on his fascinating YouTube channel, Minute Physics). You may remember from school that we see colour because wavelengths of light in the spectrum are either reflected or absorbed by millions of cells called cones and rods on our retina. Colours are not inherent in objects, rather, the surface of an object reflects some colours and absorbs the others – the colour reflected most is the colour we see. When we see the yellow of a banana, it’s because every colour except yellow is absorbed. When all colors are absorbed, we see black, and when all colors are reflected, we see white. In the spectrum we have red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet – no pink. Reich explains that pink is a mix of red and blue light – light from either end of the spectrum (infrared and ultraviolet light) – that we perceive as one colour and that it should in fact just be called ‘minus green’ as pink is just the leftovers from white light when the green is removed. Watch his 1 minute video here which explains it beautifully.

This is why studying colour is so tricky, because what we see is so subjective – there is no objective truth when it comes to colour. Fascinating stuff, right?

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