The Language of Color

There are infinite shadings of light and shadows and colors… it’s an extraordinarily subtle language. Figuring out how to speak that language is a lifetime job.

Conard Hall

Color with its archetypical symbology and significance communicates in a higher dimension, and perhaps even before language evolved enough to express the more subtle and abstract ideas, colors were communicating them and being perceived effectively. This remains true even today as Georgia O’Keefe acknowledges that she could express with colors and shapes ideas that defied verbal expression.

Barring certain regional and cultural deviations, those broad associations between color and meaning linger in our collective consciousness and evoke universal responses: yellows and gold embody fertility and abundance; shades of blue, peace and harmony; white, purity and spirituality; red, passion and the ensuing tensions; and black, power, mystery, and wisdom.

Enter Asian, African, or South American regions, and vibrant colorful dress and decor explode in one’s face. This resplendent color is no doubt an expression of moods, identities, associations, convictions, and cultures. Batik, bandhani, ajrakh, and embroidery patterns infused with colors and the concordant symbolism boldly voice humanity’s perpetual yearning for life and abundance.

Perhaps recognizing this significance of color, the Puritans shunned robust and lively colors embracing instead simple dress and “sadd”—serious or subdued– colors whose popularity continues to persist in the region. For them, even black was “not plain enough” and generally reserved for people of rank and solemn occasions. Their preference for feuillemorte—the colors of dying leaves—was not seeking invisibility, rather it was an exhibition of their virtue, modesty, simplicity, and piety, an act of rebellion against excess and decadence.

We live in different times; still, the tension between rebellion and preservation that existed then tugs at our preferences, and tastes now. No doubt, as fashion inches towards modernity and homogeneity, and western trends gain popularity globally, one might presume that Asian, African, and South American cultures might lose their preference for bright vibrant clothing and eventually embrace the more subdued tones favored in the West or vice versa. However, that need not be the case. In our relatively liberated milieu, to an extent, the choice to resist impositions of larger trends and to be guided by our own subjectivities remains with us as individuals. So, wear fuchsia, or lavender, or tawny, or coral, or white if it is as Coco Chanel puts it “the color that looks good on you,” or the one that reflects your mood, or the one that conveys your identity, or the one that represents some primal inclination. Let the color speak.