All about colors


In studying the story behind colors, journalist Caroline Buijs discovered that knowing more about color can enrich your world and encourage you to pay more attention to everything around you.

What is color, actually? Apart from being a natural phenomenon (see box below), colors are also connected to culture. You can, for example, divide color into two categories: warm and cool. We classify red and yellow as warm, and green and blue are cool. This classification hasn’t even been around that long, and only dates back to the 18th century. There are actually signs that blue was viewed as being the warmest of all colors during the Middle Ages.


British design journalist Kassia St Clair wrote the book The Secret Lives of Colour, which is full of stories about the 75 most common shades and hues. In an email interview, she tells me about her love of colors, which started when she was young. ‘My mother was a florist, so as a child I always looked at how she combined different colors in her bouquets, and she even let me try to create a few,’ she writes. ‘Later on, surrounded by the mahogany wainscoting in the archives of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK, I did research on 18th-century English fashion and was fascinated by the colors that were all the rage back then, such as pea green.’ Sometimes, St Clair says, the descriptions were accompanied by colored illustrations so that she could see what certain colors were supposed to look like, but this often wasn’t the case. ‘It was as if I was listening to a conversation in a language I could only half understand. I couldn’t get enough of it!’

In her book, St Clair also writes about the history of colors, among other things. In the chapter entitled ‘Egyptian Blue’, I read how the Egyptians were ‘uncommon in valuing blue: most Western cultures didn’t even possess a separate word for the slice of spectrum between green and violet. For 
the ancient Egyptians, though, the color represented the sky, the Nile River, creation and divinity.’ St Clair goes on to write, ‘The color was thougt to dispel evil and bring prosperity, and was much sought after in the form of beads, which in themselves were believed to possess magical protective qualities.’

  • Curious what blue and other colors symbolize around the world? You can read it in Issue 27.

Text Caroline Buijs Photography Paulusma