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Flowers to Art: The Language of Color

0 Heart it! Whitney Chandler 72
November 6, 2018
Whitney Chandler
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Artful expression can be accomplished in innumerable ways. Visual arts, in particular, rely heavily on the use of color as a means of communication — as another language that can be universally understood through perception. A study done by MIT found that language used for different colors varies among cultures and identified that industrial languages, such as English and Spanish, have many more words in their language used to name subsets of colors. In the Western world, materialism is thought to have shaped our language involving color by the over presence of synthetic colors. Primitive cultures, such as those found in the far reaches of South America, language revolving around color differs in that they can identify more colors found in nature.

Although all humans may not speak the same language when defining colors, there may be some parallels in how we use color to communicate. For those who witness color differently, such as those who are color blind, how do they see color and how does that impact the world they see around them? Or for those that can only see flowers as blurred shapes of color, such as the case of those with cataracts or glaucoma, do they speak a different language of color?
How We Perceive Color
The science behind how we see color is quite interesting and complex. The average human eye can perceive up to 10 million different colors, many of which we have not named in any culture or language. The colors that our brain interprets are a result of the wavelength and light of an object. Within our eye, we have rods and cones. The rods react to the light, and the wavelength is processed by the cones within our eyes.

In a lit environment, the light reflecting off an object activates cones that then send a signal via the optic nerve to the visual cortex area of our brain. This area of brain then calculates the number of activated cones and processes the color. In a dimmer environment, only the rods are activated, which results in a lack of color but the presence of shadows. This is how some artists utilize light in their art installations to express different images in a single image.
Artists’ Communication
Interestingly, some artist’s feed on our past visual experiences to influence the perception of color. In what is referred to as color constancy, you have the ability to still perceive a common object as the color your memory has catalogued for that object. For example, an orange would be perceived to look the same color under white, red or blue light.

Florist and artist, Caroline Jordan, of Linden Co., uses object and color cognition as a means of evoking a feeling of nostalgia. Her goal in creating floral installations for her clients is to recreate a feeling of comfort and familiarity in such a way that it cannot be named when they witness her work. Jordan’s medium consists of foraged and found objects paired with manicured flowers to create an arrangement that “should commemorate a unique experience, the passage of time, and the natural world beyond your doors.”

Another finding of the study conducted by MIT was that most objects are composed of warm colors, whereas cooler backgrounds shape the background of the objects. Warm colors are considered to be reds, oranges and yellows and cool being blues, greens and purples.  Coincidentally, there are significantly more words for warmer colors in industrial languages than cooler colors. The correlation is that we are much more prone to discussing and describing objects rather than backgrounds.

When Jordan was asked about this phenomenon, she said, “I can totally see the logic in this; if you think of an infrared map, the object or subject of interest is in red and the intensity fades out to greens and blues in the background. I think at times this comes across in my work, but it is less about cool colors versus warm colors because I tend to work with one or the other. Within a warm palette arrangement there will be focus colors, little pockets of color that are richer, the warmest and then transition slowly into whatever the background may be but staying in that monochromatic palette is an easy way to create a very attractive arrangement.”

Another example: It is not often that we talk about the sky, but we will bring to the conversation a recently impactful sunset. When you close your eyes and picture a sunset, what colors do you see? Likely, warm colors made up of oranges and reds with a bit of purple and blue. The focus being on the warmer colors and identified as the object (the sunset), as opposed to the background in which it is setting (the sky).
Color Association
In our Western world, where so many products are synthetically colored (as opposed to colors found in the natural world) materialism is thought to have shaped our language involving color. What appears to remain consistent across many cultures are the associations made with certain colors.

Artist and painter Carol McIntyre chooses the color schemes for her paintings by trying to answer the “why” of her painting. She attempts to convey messages and emotions by her choice of color scheme before she even begins painting. The following are the positive and negative associations with the main colors of the spectrum:  
Positive associations: Excitement, spontaneity, passion, love and excitement

Negative associations: Anger, aggression, rebellion, violence and fear
Positive associations: Enthusiasm, cheerfulness, adventure, informality and creativity

Negative associations: Insincere, unsociable, prideful, indulgent and superficial
Positive associations: Optimism, fun, wisdom, originality and confidence

Negative associations: Overly analytical, impatience, egotism, deceit and cowardice
Positive associations: Growth, renewal, balance, calm and adaptability

Negative associations: Greed, possessiveness, materialistic, envious and selfish
Positive associations: Trust, reliability, idealism, caring and authority

Negative associations: Deceitful, sadness, weakness, passive and superstition
Positive associations: Integrity, idealism, intuitiveness, faithful and obedient

Negative associations: Judgmental, impractical, addictive, fearful and conformity
Positive associations: Individualistic, humanitarianism, fantasy, futuristic and unusual

Negative associations: Delusions of grandeur, pompous, immaturity, corruption and cynicism

The use of color in artistic expression can be a powerful tool. Jordan recognizes that working in outdoor settings such as the Colorado Rocky Mountains that her floral arrangements will likely never out-compete their backdrop. She instead integrates her work into the scene with the use of not only color but shape and texture. She compares her work to other art forms and shares, “When looking at a painting, you see the sky but you don’t see all the different colors that the artist used to make up that sky.”

Colors are meant to meld and speak a different language to our subliminal selves —  how we feel and react, these effects are subject to personal, cultural, and situational factors. Color is an artist’s playground that empowers them to speak to each individual differently without ever speaking a word.

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