The Sum of All Colours

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“Women think of all colors except the absence of color. I have said that black has it all. White too. Their beauty is absolute. It is the perfect harmony.” 
Coco Chanel

White

White is both the absence of any colour and the sum of all colours in concert. White, like the colour black, brings contrast to our lives.  Symbolizing purity, innocence, honesty, death and rebirth, beginning and end, this is the colour that brings us cold milk, fluffy cumulus clouds, polished alabaster, and freshly fallen snow.

The priests and priestesses of Ancient Egypt dressed in white linen in reverence to the goddess Isis.   Ancient Greece associated white with mother’s milk; Roman citizens over a certain age wore a white toga for ceremonial occasions. Medieval and Renaissance tapestries, manuscripts and paintings highlighted the white unicorn as a symbol of purity and grace. Even today, white is reserved for our extraordinary moments – weddings, births, and in some cultures, funerals.

As a contrast colour, white brings a sense of the dramatic.  Whether it is the red and white of the Canadian Maple Leaf flag, white chalk against a blackboard, or the twinkling stars against the black sky, we pay attention. Pablo Picasso once asked, “Why do two colours, put one next to the other, sing? Can one really explain this? No. Just as one can never learn how to paint.”

Colours are a cultural reflection of our lives and the society that we create.  We draw from the world around us for insight and affirmation. John Ruskin, the leading English art critic of the Victorian era, once said that “The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most.”  Colour inspires us to express ourselves beyond words, to imagine a kinder, gentler lifestyle.

“White is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. God paints in many colours; but He never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white.” 
G.K. Chesterton

The Life Force – Red

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“I love bright red drinks, don’t you? They taste twice as good as any other colour.” 
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Red

Everything about red is passionate, strong and vital.  It is the colour of the spectrum that demands our full attention, knowing that we can feel the life force of red blood flowing through our bodies.  Red is the first colour that we recognize as babies; it continues to grab our attention into old age.  For centuries, red has been associated with protection.  Amulets made from garnets and rubies, bestowed invincibility on the wearer.

Kermes, a red dye, was first made in the Neolithic Period, by crushing the female bodies of a tiny scale insect (Kermes genus).  It seems that the sap these insects lived on, primarily from the Kermes oak, produced the red. Assyrians and Persians used a different variety that lived on roots and stems, called Kermes of Armenia. The people in early North America made dye from the Cochineal, an insect from the same family as the Kermes.

Ancient Egyptians associated red with life, health and victory. Ancient Romans used red to colour the skins of their gladiators as well as the murals that decorated their luxurious villas.  Over the centuries, red became known as the colour for celebration, pageantry and ceremony. Robes of scarlet have been worn by clergy and academics alike.  The red velvet seats of opera houses and theatres enhanced the cultural experience.

On the opposite extreme, red is the colour of war, aggression and danger.  In ancient times, it was the colour given to Mars, the god of War.  Today, we hold the red poppy flower as our tribute to those who served their country. If I were the colour red, I would prefer being known for joyousness, rather than anger.  As Eleanor Roosevelt said so eloquently, “No one won the last war, and no one will win the next war.” 

 “Red lips are not so red as the stained stones kissed by the English dead.” 
 Wilfred Owen, The Poems Of Wilfred Owen

Green – The Promise of New Life

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“When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy, and the dimpling stream runs laughing by; when the air does laugh with our merry wit, and the green hill laughs with the noise of it.”

Lord Byron

Green

The primary colours of blue and yellow unite to create green. Green is the symbolic meaning for new life, resurrection, hope, fertility and environmental awareness.  In ancient Egypt, green was associated with the Nile, the source of regeneration and rebirth. In neighbouring Greece, Aristotle believed that green was placed somewhere between black, the symbol for earth and white, the symbol for water.  The Romans had special reverence for green as it was the colour  belonging to Venus, the goddess of gardens, vegetables and vineyards.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the neolitic people in northern Europe used the leaves of the birch tree to make inferior quality dyes. Archaeology, however, has not shed any light on how the ancient Mesopotamians were able to create their vibrant green costumes. Indeed, the production of green dyes remained illusive even in the middle ages.  It was not for want of trying.  They used ferns, plantains. Buckthorn berries, the juice of nettles and leeks, and the digitalis plant to name just a few, to produce a dye that was resistant to washing and sunlight.  A breakthrough came in the 16th century.  It was a two-step process, where cloth was first dyed blue with Woad, and then yellow with Yellow-weed.

The Green Knight was one of the most renowned characters in the King Arthur narratives. Legend portrays fairies, dragons and monsters as green. Beau Brummel, the famed British fashion icon, wore a green suit.  The Suffragettes used the colour green to symbolize hope.

Today, our earth is in need of hope.  Decades ago, Theodore Roosevelt said, “Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.” 

May we heed his warning…

“The world has changed.

I see it in the water.

I feel it in the Earth.

I smell it in the air.

Much that once was is lost,

For none now live who remember it.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

Reach for the Sky

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“There is one spectacle grander than the sea, that is the sky; there is one spectacle grander than the sky, that is the interior of the soul.”
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Listening

We look to the soaring blue of the heavens to experience a moment of respite, even imagining that we have wings to dance with the clouds. Traditionally worn by the Virgin Mary in Renaissance paintings, the colour blue has come to mean truth, wisdom, loyalty, peace, piety, spirituality and eternity.  Blue sets a high standard, resting serenely between violet and green on the visible spectrum, embracing the many shades and tints that come under its umbrella.

Blue dyes, exceedingly difficult to produce, were not used in art and decoration until long after the introduction of colours such as red, ochre, pink and purple.  The most primitive dyes came from plants, Woad and Indigo.  Europe relied on Woad, which became a staple in their dyeing industry.  Indigo from Asia and Africa, was supplied via India, believed to be the oldest centre of indigo dying in ancient times. Blue pigments come from the minerals Lapis Lazuli or Azurite.

Afghanistan was the mining and exporting power for Lapis Lazuli.  The exorbitant costs associated with caravan transport throughout the ancient world did not weaken demand, but it did prompt enterprising Egyptians to produce the first synthetic pigment, and change the dynamics of trade. “Egyptian Blue” combined silica, lime, copper and alkali, heating the mixture to 800 or 900 degrees. This was good news for the Egyptians who believed that blue protected them from evil. The Greeks chose Egyptian blue for the wall painting of Knossos. Romans, on the other hand, considered blue the colour of mourning and the symbol for barbarians.

From Pablo Picasso’s “Blue Period,” to the creation of “The Blues” music, to the discovery of blue jeans, our love affair with blue throughout the centuries has not diminished. We search the heavens and depths of our oceans to understand infinity.  Perhaps all we need to do it reach for it…

“The sky, I thought, is not so grand;
I ‘most could touch it with my hand!
And reaching up my hand to try,
I screamed to feel it touch the sky.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay, The Selected Poetry

 

Black – The Queen of Colours

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“I’ve been 40 years discovering that the queen of all colours was black.” 
Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Black Contrast

Black is the colour of night, of ebony and outer space.  Its power to envelop our world gives it a secretive, mysterious and enigmatic appeal.  Technically speaking, however it is not considered a colour at all; rather, it is the absence of or complete absorption of light.   Black achieved massive iconic appeal over the centuries and has come to symbolize night, sobriety, denial, authority, perfection and purity, wisdom and maturity.

Black was one of the first colours used by Neolithic artists on their cave drawings, a tradition carried on, but refined,  by the ancient Greeks.  Egyptians connected the colour black with the fertile black soil of the Nile Valley and their potent god of the underworld, Anubis, who took the form of a black jackal. Nótt, the goddess of the night for German and Scandinavian peoples, traversed the sky in a chariot drawn by a black horse.

Creating the colour black brought out the creative talents of our ancestors. Romans produced “Vine black” by burning cut branches of grapevines; they also burned and dried crushed grapes. On the other side of the world, the Polynesians burned coconuts to achieve the same results.  Soot collected from oil lamps produced what was appropriately named “Lamp black.”  Then there was “Ivory black” that was a concoction of charcoal power, oil and ivory.  “Mars black” was named for the god of war and patron of iron because of its content of synthetic iron oxides.

Black stands apart from the spectrum of the rainbow.  It serves as the contrast that enhances the beauty of all the other colours in nature. Perhaps that is why we are drawn to it singleness of purpose, its implacable statement of solidarity.

“I wore black because I liked it. I still do, and wearing it still means something to me. It’s still my symbol of rebellion — against a stagnant status quo, against our hypocritical houses of God, against people whose minds are closed to others’ ideas.” 

Johnny Cash, The Man in Black

 

 

Imperial Purple of Rome

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There is no evil that does not promise inducements. Avarice promises money, luxury, a varied assortment of pleasures, ambition, a purple robe and applause.  Vices tempt you by the rewards they offer.”

Seneca

Purple

Our ancestors shared our love for colour and would sacrifice great amounts of wealth to obtain the plants and substances that could be made into dyes. You had to be exceedingly rich to afford Tyrian purple, named after Tyre, the city that manufactured this exclusive dye.  Prized above silver or gold, its colour would never fade; only grow vividly brighter under the nurturing warmth of the sun.   Purple, from the beginning, assumed the symbol for royalty, pomp, power, wealthy and majesty.

The ancients believed that Tryian purple was discovered by Heracles, or rather his dog, which had a fondness for dining on the tender snails he found along the coastline of the Levant. It was only a matter of time before Heracles put two and two together to establish the cause of the purple stain around the mouth of his dog. It was truly a gift from the sea, for there was only one source for this brilliant colour – the secretions of a specific gland of the unfortunate sea snail called the Murex brandaris.  Whether the discovery was Hercules’s dog or the Minoans as archaeological evidence suggests, it was an immediate success with the power elite of emperors, kings, and clergy.  And if the Minoan theory is correct, Tryian purple has been around for at least 3500 years.  Purple has never gone out of style, gracing the toga wear of the Roman Republic, the mosaics of the Emperor Justinian in Ravenna, and the haute contour designs on the runways of Paris.

Purple includes a range of hues that occur between red and blue. We experience purple through our senses – the heady juice of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, the pleasantly bitter taste of eggplants, and the sweetness of ripe plums. We admire the delicate majesty of amethyst and linger over gardens filled with fuchsia and azaleas. Nature, with her infinite generosity, continues to bring colour to our world.  As John Keats, once wrote, “The poetry of the earth is never dead.” 

“If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees.” 
 Rainer Maria Rilke, Rainer Maria Rilke’s the Book of Hours: A New Translation with Commentary