Color Recollection—visual memory


Early on in my fine arts education I read the book Interaction of Color by Josef Albers. This book shaped much of what I think about color and how I use it in my professional practice as an artist and craftsman. The main lesson that I learned was that use of color shouldn't be technically prescribed by a set of rules but rather through regular practice and trial and error one can develop an "eye for color". That subjectivity makes it an art practice.  I also learned as Albers puts it, "In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually". (Albers, introduction)

I titled this post the same title of the first chapter of Interaction of Color.   More out of self-indulgence than public education am I using this platform to remark on Albers's seminal work. And perhaps as I read through the book again I will, from time to time, digest the chapters that I think will prove both relevant and interesting to those interested in color for their home or in art or in general. But I don't think I'll hold myself to it, just in an effort to keep things organic. 

The first thing you need to know about color recollection is that there is no use even trying. Our memory of color is terrible. If I were to tell any number of people to think of the color coca-cola red they would all readily imagine the color. However, each hue of red would be most likely distinguishably different from one imagination to the next. This is the example Albers uses to convince us that we are incapable of perfectly remembering a specific color. It would be nice if, like our auditory memory of picking up a tune and getting it lodged firmly in our minds all day long, that we could do this with color; it would make picking out curtains easier. But instead, it would be wiser to have the sample handy when decorating. 

The secondary problem in retaining color is that the categories and classes are both too broad and too narrow. "Though there are innumerable colors —shades and tones— in daily vocabulary, there are only about 30 color names", Albers says. (Albers, I)  "Bride to Be" and "Crocodile Tears" hardly describe or evoke any thought of a particular shade of white or green and do more to increase the subjectivity and confusion than do they clarify. Their use case is that they make matching to a computerized code and formula more or less easy to retreve and remember. Case in point, "bride to be" and "crocodile tears" were two of the earliest colors I painted in my career. To one in which the home owner exclaimed, "I don't care if it looks pink! It looks good!" Who comes up with these color names? A question I get asked, every time I say the name of a paint color outloud. 

Nomenclature could be the culprit. The Hembe tribe in Southern Africa sees color differently than western cultures according to a BBC Horizon expose entitled "Do You See What I See?". In the clip there is a computerized clip where we see green squares arranged in a circle. 


The circle pattern on the right shows a clearly discernible blue square amidst the green squares. However, in the test the Hembe people had a very difficult time identifying which was the out-of-place square. Conversely, on the left, there is also an out-of-place square. Can you tell which? The Hembe people can. In fact they can tell outlier as readily and as easily as you or I can identify the blue square on the right. The theory is that the language of the Hembe people classify this type of blue as the same name given to the other green squares. And because they have always given them the same name and are not distinguished, they cannot notice the difference. However, the same theory is to be applied to the circle on the left with us. There is a quality in one of the squares on the left that our language apparently does not distinguish. 

Interesting, but why is this important? To go back to Albers's point, we must first "recognize that color deceives us continually."  Just for a moment, look at the color of two adjacent walls in your home. Perhaps one where the daylight is casting it's shine and the other is in shade. They are the same paint and therefor the same color, but in this moment, are the two colors the same? No they are not. Lighting is the primary driver of color perception. Change the light source and you will perceive the color differently. I've noticed this in homes where there are older bulbs and newer bulbs. You may be switching to florecent which produce a white light but still have several incandecent lights which cast more of a yellow or orange hue. Even if your paint color is the same the two different lights may cause your one color to clash with itself. Or perhaps you are trying an accent wall by going just one step up on the color swatch. The result could be the appearance of one wall in shade and the other in light totally nullifying your accent wall. Are you getting nervous about the color you picked because your painters have only gotten through painting the borders around the room and it doesn't look like it did on the swatch? Be patient, your old color is literally influencing the appearance of the new color.

What we'll learn in Albers's book is that colors interacting with each other influence heavily the way they are perceived. And with practice or with the help of a Color Theory color consultant you can pick colors with confidence understanding how they will reacted with one another.