The Mysteries of the Rainbow
Making and interpreting the colours around us
I go through most days acting as if I understand colour. I dress myself, stop for red lights and go for green, I pick the brightest berries at the supermarket and point to the yellow tree and say, “It’s fall!” or “It’s dying,” depending on the season. But using and understanding are not the same thing. Humans have three colour receptors in their eyes. Mantis shrimp have twelve. Humans, so long as they’re not colour blind, can see somewhere on the order of a million different colours. And the shrimp? Red and yellow and green aren’t as important for them; their complex eyes are trained on the UV spectrum, on light that humans can’t see. So, do they see less colour than we do, or more? Do they see colour at all?
The ontological confusion of colour—what it is, where it is, and what matters about how we see it—is the point of departure for On Color, in which David Scott Kastan, a Shakespeare scholar, and Stephen Farthing, a painter, guide the reader along the spectrum, through red and green to purple, ending finally in the ambiguity of a world rendered in shades of grey. From the intricacies of language, through famous epithets such as Homer’s expression “wine-dark sea” to Sir Isaac Newton’s optical experiments with prisms, they use the uncertain number and nature of colour to examine not so much what it is as how it behaves, from politics to fashion, though art is their main concern. Chapters for each of Newton’s seven parts of the rainbow, plus black, white, and grey, divide the book by section, but the hues don’t limit the content. The chapter entitled “Roses Are Red” starts with our assumptions about the inherent colour of things and quickly moves on to ontology and perception, questioning those assumptions and reminding us how much perception and projection are involved in determining the colours that surround us. The chapter “Mixed Greens” takes on ideology, from environmentalism to revolution. It examines the Green party and Iranian politics before moving to the U.S. political spectrum, flip-flopping its polarities in television reports of election results until the colours that Canadians, the British, and the French think of as liberal (red) and conservative (blue) end up, for the Democrats and Republicans at least, on opposite sides. And it addresses the religious gulf that separates Irish Protestant Orangemen from St. Patrick’s Catholic green. The book’s final chapter, “Gray Areas,” dwells on nostalgia, oscillating between Technicolor and delicate shade.
Dense with references, the chapters move rapidly through incidents and ideas. The account is anchored in a Western framework where colours appear through passes carved by modernity’s tectonic shifts, from Renaissance trade networks to colonial expansion. All the while Kastan and Farthing remain attentive to the language that signals colour to a reader or a listener, or that we lay on in our attempts to understand it. As they work their way through the rainbow, we watch orange become a part of the English language. They trace a fruit through time and space and watch its name come with it as a kind of perfection, and they analyze the history of indigo in the slave trade and the standardization of military uniforms. From chapter to chapter, they mingle cultural touchstones with literary texts and visual art, each one adding a shade or, more often, a contradiction that challenges what we might think of as an obvious or stable system of colour-coded significance.
Kastan and Farthing mix their history with the meanings of colours and come out skeptical that colours have meanings at all. They are attentive to the way colour can be dismissed—as frivolous or distracting, like melodrama layered on to colour the truth—or overdetermined. “Colours don’t mean,” they insist, as they’re winding towards the book’s end, “colour doesn’t tell us what meaning is. We tell the colour; and whatever we say it means, we make it mean, and we make it mean without much help from our visual system.” And yet they find, again and again, that the meanings we make for it compel us, whether we’re bathing in Monet’s violet light or clothing ourselves in the colours of a revolution.
The seductive side of colour is where Jason Logan and Make Ink: A Forager’s Guide to Natural Inkmaking finds its way as an itinerant how-to. Whereas Kastan and Farthing are fascinated by the way we make colour mean things in spite of itself, by the possibilities it provides in its expressive -ambiguities and the consequences of the material histories that go along with it, Logan uses the process of making colour to change his relationship with the world. He shapes a creative persona that guides his reader through recipes that are both familiarly precise (tools including a large pot, potato masher, fine-mesh strainer and glass container with a tight-fitting lid are listed for each one) and intentionally ambiguous. Tempered by a variable quantity of rusty nails, the silvery acorn cap ink oxidizes as it dries; “Give it time,” says Logan. “Lay it on thick at night and see what it looks like the next day.”
The invitations and imperfections that multiply as the book moves from recipe to recipe cultivate an evocative aura around the process of extracting and distilling colour from matter. Logan combines intimacy and distance. He borrows the life-in-the-kitchen approach of a character-driven cookbook—his kids inspire his first natural ink, he finds new materials on walks with his dog, he hosts workshops and children’s birthday parties—but he also weaves mysteries into the domestic, calling Newton “the last of the wizards,” seeing the “ancient oak savannah” in a city park. In a brief foreword, Michael Ondaatje, who’s used Logan’s inks and spent time in his kitchen, alludes to a lingering sense of caution around the soup he’s served on every visit. Between the poisonous plants (pokeberry for red inks) and copper oxide (for blue) that go into some of the other recipes, I wouldn’t necessarily trust it, either.
Make Ink reaches backwards for its processes, and the brief introductions that precede each recipe draw on the histories of colours in briefer and more imagistic ways than the political and contextual details of On Color. Instead, we get incidences of wonder and storytelling that lend meaning rather than abstract hue to the material. There are no references to brown moods or nostalgic truths in the entry on brown, for example, but there is a story of a fossilized cephalopod, a Dutch artist, and an ancient ink. As Logan describes it, the process of the book’s readers making a brown of their own brings them closer to Leonardo da Vinci, who was fond of squid or cuttlefish ink for his drawings, even if the source Logan offers is the more readily available black walnut. There’s a connection to the past that’s opened up by a simple process: grind, boil, wait. Other colours mean things because of where they were found—-letters from Civil War soldiers roaming New England woods, Neolithic tattoos—rather than because of what they symbolize, or are made to symbolize.
A divide opens up between the alchemists who inspire Logan and the chemists who, in the nineteenth century, took the principles of reaction that draw green from black buckthorn berries and turn tannins blacker than black and used them to create synthetic equivalents, from mauveine to Klein blue. Where before pigments had to be sourced and acquired, now they could be created; trademarked formulas replaced practice and trade secrets. Logan’s loyalties are firmly on the side of the alchemists. He describes participatory exercises in which the city he’s in undergoes an alchemical transformation, drawing out its secret hues. There’s a conceit embedded in the process, that making offers something that seeing doesn’t, that origins matter more than appearances.
Both On Color and Make Ink are concerned with the production of colour, and both treat it as something that exists within something else. For Kastan and Farthing, language and history give us the meaning and emotion that artists and writers question and deploy. For Logan, this meaning is within the substances and objects that surround us, waiting to release pigments that reveal in the environment an alternative palette to the one we see. And yet something of colour’s nature remains forever out of reach. Logan takes his materials and transforms them into colour, turning grapes into purple, safflower into pink, charcoal into black. But because of the variables involved—
because you need to balance the pH, bind the charcoal, or make the decision to go grape hunting instead of just picking up a head of red cabbage (another purple source) at the supermarket—
the only definite aspect is the material. This is, not incidentally, how Toronto Ink Company, Logan’s commercial enterprise, markets the inks it makes from similar recipes: black walnut ink and wild grape ink, not brown and purple. A gap remains between their clear sources and variable hues.
Neither book attempts a fully rendered picture. If we look elsewhere, we’ll find further nuances. In his manual on colour theory, Interaction of Color, Josef Albers insists on “relativity and the instability of colour,” noting the difference between what is (“physical fact”) and what we see (“psychic effect”). He begins a book full of effects and illusions that depend on the structure of the eye and the way we process light by insisting on the imaginative and not the optic part of seeing. He proceeds, optically and imaginatively, by insisting on colour in conditions of relation—of tone and hue, light and shadow, fact and effect.
As for the feelings that colours inspire, while Kastan and Farthing chart their movements from one work of art to another, in fiction especially, and in film, we often see changes in the meaning and emotion associated with a single hue. Jeffrey Eugenides’s Virgin Suicides includes a colourful community response to its first death: a dark green pamphlet released by the Chamber of Commerce. “ ‘We thought green was cheerful, but not too cheerful,’ said Mr. Babson, who was president, ‘green is also serious. So we went with it.’ ” In Sofia Coppola’s film version, the green of the pamphlets eventually overtakes the screen, projecting a sickly haze on a chemical disaster party towards the end, after all the girls have died. The fact of the green, the chromatic similarity between the serious, not-too-cheerful pamphlet and the party’s toxic haze, bridges the distance between the two desired effects, bringing them into an ironic relation that defines the mood of both the movie and the book.
Colour can be a point of connection, as Logan’s book suggests, to histories of use and making, and to a granular understanding of the potentials of the material world. But it is a risky and volatile connection, between unstable appearance and contradictory meanings. The names we give to colours in English emphasize hues, abstract concepts that are only one element that describes colour’s behaviour. But that’s only English. As the authors of On Color point out, the colour vocabularies of different languages push the spectrum in different directions, to encompass the difference between two feelings of red, for example, as Hungarian does with piros and vörös. Before he became the British prime minister, William Gladstone famously got himself caught up trying to parse Homer’s colour vocabulary. There was a wine-dark sea, but nothing, or at least no word, for anything that would name it as blue.
Gladstone stumbled in wanting the translation to be exact, insisting that to see colour and to understand it were the same: if the Greeks didn’t name colours along what he, writing in the nineteenth century, thought of as the spectrum, then it was plausible that they didn’t see the colours that he saw, that they simply didn’t understand the chromatic world. This reading, of Homer and of colour, persists—the popular NPR program Radiolab devoted a show to the premise in 2012—but it’s not the only way of picturing the problem. As Maria Michela Sassi, who teaches ancient philosophy at the University of Pisa, points out in a 2017 essay for Aeon, the Greeks had not only different terms for colour, but a different philosophy, a subjective aesthetics that emphasized the experience of colour over the abstractions of Newton’s version of the rainbow. They had ample experience of blue; even as a pigment, its history is thousands of years long—the Egyptians used it to make writing ink. Ancient Greece saw, and felt, and understood colour as luminosity rather than hue, Kastan and Farthing remind us, so when Homer’s Iliad begins by describing the sea, it’s the darkness that the poem notes. The sea is always blue. The language gives you the part that’s worth describing. It’s deep. It’s dark. It’s wine-like. That’s what kind of blue it is—a blue that changes with the light, and the scene, and the atmosphere. As the American artist Robert Smithson noted, “Real colour is risky, not like the tame stuff that comes out of tubes.”