A vividly coloured image of Times Square, New York city by Francesco DiezA jumble of adverts and artificial colours. 'Times Square, New York', Francisco Diez.

Are We Desensitised to Colour?

We are all too used to the superabundance of industrial goods in our daily lives, to shelf-loads and cupboard-fulls of foodstuffs, magazines, toiletries and endless other products of a colourful nature. But colour itself, and more specifically synthetic colour, is, perhaps, more than any single object of mass production, the most widely produced, most proliferated thing in all industry. It belongs to every commodity, coating the sides of cereal boxes and forming the words on road signs; it covers the clothes we wear and paints every inch of our cars, trains, planes and prams. Yet for all its usefulness, the chemical colours of industry have subverted our traditional and natural attitudes to colour. In our modern, synthetically coloured society, the colour green now signals money as often as it does grass. Similarly, an internet search for ‘khaki’ will reveal images of fashion items meant to attract rather than disguise, as was the typical function of the dusty camouflage colour from which the word came.

Of course, the idea that pure colour, unmixed and without form, once had the power to captivate, profoundly affect one’s emotions or dramatically symbolise something is just that: an idea, and one which can never be proved, whose evidence relies on ancient testimony and a world-view unattainable today. Nor do I propose that even in prehistory ‘purer’ presentations of colour affected the mind more intensely than the synthesised dyes of today.

Yet our connection with the past is largely in nature, and in the natural world colour seems almost universally to function as a vital signifier. In his book on colour theory the German poet and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe claimed that ‘Men in a state of nature[…]have a great fondness for colours in their utmost brightness’, and in nature we find that bright colours often indicate signs of health or safety; a bright fire for instance, or the reflective light of water. Likewise, whilst naturally grown food generally has a darker appearance, a purple carrot or a red berry will still always stand out against a green background, and alert any keen-eyed foragers. Contrast this with the world of nature today, never completely separate from the artificial world and in which animals seeking overt foods will often, by accident, sink their teeth into metal waste and bright-coloured plastic. Our familiarity with artificial products prevents us from making that same mistake, but so too does it confuse our ideas of what a colour is meant to signify.

This confusion comes with the result that a single colour, with its multiplicity of possible significations, can never be wholly attractive or repulsive to us. That is not, however, to say that the effects of colour have been lost to us completely. For instance, marketing agencies employ colours as a subtle science in the wider art of advertising, and company logos will often be coloured with a particular motive in mind. Many fast food restaurants follow a red-and-yellow colour scheme since red evokes a sense of hunger (think meat, berries etc.) while yellow is the warm, friendly colour of daffodils and sunlight. Twitter and Facebook are embedded in fonts of bold blue because marketing agencies perceive that blue gives off the impression of credibility given its associations with science and artifice, or more generally modernity.

Blue is able to hold this regard because of its recent addition to the palette of man-made colours. Before synthetic colouring blue was the colour of the sea, the sky and little in between, and remained for the longest time an intangible, universally exotic element. So rarely did blue feature in life that the ancient Greeks had no word for it; the Japanese still do not, while the Italians resort to a loanword, ‘blu’. Throughout history blue’s rarity has often afforded it a luxurious status. In Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia we can observe how turquoise and lapis lazuli respectively became some of the most precious minerals, and even more recently in history one can understand blue’s exoticness by the names given to its dyes: ultramarine, indigo (literally ‘from India’), Prussian blue, etc. The anthropologist Michael Taussig traces the decline of blue’s status as a rich, exotic colour in the western world to the popularity of Levi jeans more than anything else, stating that its status as ‘valuable’ was what rendered it such a popular fashion item. But when everyone has access to something valuable, it becomes, within a short while, much less impressive, much more ‘natural’. So here we are, one-hundred-and-fifty years later, utterly apathetic to the fact that we are wearing the colour of the sky along our legs.

'Collar'. Unforth
‘Collar’, Unforth. Turquoise features in much Ancient Egyptian jewellery.

Perhaps, therefore, to find the colour-effects which seem to have been lost to us, we must turn towards those shades which are not so commonplace, not exhausted by their universality and drained of their value. Even today certain shades are rarely found in advertising, in plastic or wall paint, due to their ugliness or their chromatic distance from the definitive shade of a colour. (By which I mean, for example, that teal is hardly ever used in products because it is neither plain blue nor plain green, but inhabits the tricky realm in between the two.) Pantone 448C (pictured below) rarely ventures outside of the sewers, and with good reason. But if we imagine a society where clothes, cars and logos were decked out in this vile brown-green pigment, would the colour, isolated as it is below, have the same effect on us? Or would its disgustingness be mollified by our being used to it?

Pantone 448c
Pantone 448c

The same might be said for more attractive, yet equally rare, shades such as malachite or amaranth. If these colours switched places with the more commonplace colours in our society, would we come to think nothing of them, while finding plain red and Facebook blue as attractive as the rarer shades are today?




Of course, these aren’t questions we can answer for certain. Society is already too steeped in the thousands of various synthetic colours to understand how their natural counterparts might affect us on viewing their original state. We are, so to speak, at the point of no return. Yet, at the same time, we seem to be discovering new ways of being affected by colour, through new modes of artistic expression. Modern art, which often prioritises either harmony or dissonance but almost always colour combination, is valued by its ability to affect the viewer more than by its ability to depict anything in particular. Furthermore, digital art has no limitations whatsoever as to which colours, and how much or many of them, the artist wishes to use. Perhaps the future of our appreciation of colour lies in in the infinity of colour combinations yet to be explored, and later exploited by advertisers.

A painting in the style of Pollock, mixing colours not often seen together.
‘Untitled’, Circe Denyer. A painting in the style of Pollock, mixing colours not often seen together.

Josh Allan is a second-year student studying English Literature with Creative Writing at the University of Manchester.

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2 thoughts on “Are We Desensitised to Colour?

  1. I’m amazed, I must say. Seldom do I encounter a blog that’s both educative and
    engaging, and let me tell you, you have hit the nail on the
    head. The issue is something not enough people are speaking intelligently about.
    Now i’m very happy that I came across this during my hunt for something regarding this.

  2. Great article! There’s been a lot of articles in the New York Times about trying to cut back phone usage, and apparently turning the screens grayscale is a way of doing this.

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