The Importance of Color


I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for. – Georgia OKeefe

No this isn’t about race – it is about COLOR. There has been substantial research in the field of color and how it affects us. There are color consultants who help businesses choose the best colors to market their products. There are even international color expos that highlight the importance of colors in all aspects of our lives. Colors can calm, stimulate, encourage and inspire us. Colors pervade our conversation. He’s as green as grass. She’s red hot. I’m black and blue. We associate colors with emotion. We are green with envy. We see red when we are angry. We get blue when we’re sad.

About this time every year, when I get fatigued with the long, long northern Maine winter, I get an almost fanatical desire to wear bright yellow. Yellow is the color of the sun and daffodils, my favorite flower. Even on gray, snowy days I sport blinding yellow clothing so bright it is guaranteed to knock your eyes out.

Recently a certain dress caused heated arguments around the world over whether it was blue and black or white and gold. (It’s white and gold.) Not since a White House intern wore a blue dress has a garment caused such controversy. Experts explained the reason people can’t agree on the color of the dress is about primal biology and the way human eyes and brains have evolved to see color in the world. Light enters the eyes through the lens and hits the retina. The retina reacts with the different wavelengths and transmits the signals to the brain’s visual cortex. On the retina there are rods and cones. The cones see color and the rods see shades like black, white and grey and are used for night and peripheral vision. So I see the fabric as white and gold because my cones aren’t responding to the dim lighting. My eyes see it as a shade (white). So if you see blue and black your cones are more high functioning.

This makes sense to me. I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, aptly called SAD, which causes “winter depression”. Another receptor on the retina that was discovered in 2001 tells your brain whether it is light or dark outside. Interestingly, this receptor is tuned to only sense blue light. These receptors connect to the biological clock. Plain old light can be used to treat this depression but in many northern areas light is hard to come by in the winter. So researchers developed “light therapy” which entails sitting in front of a bank of lights for 30-60 minutes a day.

When I first moved to Maine from South Georgia I expected that my biggest adjustment would be to the cold weather, but in fact it was the marked difference in daylight and dark. Around the second week of September my energy level would start to go down, steadily decreasing throughout the winter months until I entered a dark depression. All I wanted to do was sleep and eat–hibernate. Every winter I would gain 20 pounds and the things I should have been doing to counteract the depression—exercising, eating properly, social interaction—just seemed to take too much effort. Around mid-April I would begin to perk up. Like a squirrel I started to feel frisky and anxious to be outside and active. After the second year my doctor diagnosed me with SAD and I got a light box to sit in front of every day. Although I was skeptical at first I was amazed at how much better I felt. I wasn’t as depressed, I slept better, my energy level never dropped to the level of a sloth every winter and I have been a believer ever since. It hasn’t eliminated 100% of my symptoms but it makes life manageable.

The controversy of “the dress” made me think of the reality of what we see every day. If I say “look at that blue sky” to my husband is he seeing the same sky I see? (He sees the dress as black and blue.) I guess colors are like truth, only accurate from one’s individual point of view.

I love color, especially bright primary colors. They lift me up and keep me alert. There is nothing as exciting as seeing the bright yellow dandelions spring up from the remains of the melting snow in northern Maine. And the beautiful green of newly emerging leaves, a green that is not seen again all year, fills me with the anticipation of a warm, albeit brief, summer. I love artists who flaunt colors across their canvases in defiance of the mundane like Georgia O’Keefe and Andy Warhol. So right now I am wearing a banana yellow blouse in defiance of the drab, snow-laden day outside my window. And I’ll continue to wear yellow until the day I see those matching dandelions burst out of the thawing ground, hopefully in May, but maybe June.


2 thoughts on “The Importance of Color

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