The Mystery of Color Identification

Recently, I have been reading a curious book entitled, Through the Looking Glass, Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages by Guy Deutscher. The book looks at a premise developed by the anthropologist, Lazarus Geiger, which states that various cultures in the world identify only certain colors in the spectrum and fail to identify others. By identify, I mean that the organ of sight can recognize colors visually but that particular culture has yet to name certain colors as independent from other colors. Certain tribes living in the polar region above Siberia, for example, recognize or identify specifically only three colors- White, Black and Red. There are no words for blue or green. Those colors are lumped together under the color black. And although they can recognize a color like blue, they fail to recognize its independence from the color black. Geiger goes further and states that man comes to identify colors in a certain order( Geiger’s sequence (1853) as it is commonly known) beginning with White- Black-Red-Green- Yellow-Blue. White being the first color a culture identifies and Blue being the last or sometimes never recognized color. This premise, thought at the beginning of this century to be considered a westerners myopic view of more primitive cultures, has turned out to have some validity.

It is hard for us, as westerners, to believe that one cannot look at the sky on a clear summer day and not see blue. It seems so obvious to us. But almost all of these cultures, when asked to identify the color of the sky, refer to it as white ( this is the same for people native to tropical islands as well as those native to polar regions). Rather than seeing the sky as a surface color they observe it as a depth, a vastness, with spacial relationships. The same was observed when these natives referred to the sea. They described it as black. A vast depth like the sky but also an impenetrable void. What I find intriguing about this is that meaning overtakes the surface appearance of things. Black and white are elemental forces that exist in conflict or peace with one another. There is a unity of vision and meaning. And consequently, there is a oneness  in one’s experience of the world. There is no division between the color something is and what it means.

Western culture long ago lost this unity of experience. The surface appearance of things we consider a priority. It is really our first impression of any object that we observe. What color is it? Not, what is its meaning? Were we always this way? Duetscher looks back to an example that a westerner could identify with and he finds this same experience of limited observation in regard to color with Homer. According to an analysis of Homer by Gladstone ( Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age,1858), whom Duetscher quotes,

“crude conceptions of color were derived from the elements…Colors were for Homer not facts but images: his words describing them are figurative words, borrowed from natural objects. There was no fixed terminology of color; and it laid with the genius of each true poet to choose a vocabulary for himself.” ( Deutscher, Through the Language Glass, p.93)

Living in an age of plastic, color seems obvious to us. Everything has that contrived coloring. But imagine a time when the subtle coloring of the world, the rarity of blue objects, the neutrals and grays of clouds, the gentle, natural color of fauna is where we focused our eyes. And not only that, we felt the world to be whole. Our sensitivity to color as image might have been more acute.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

One thought on “The Mystery of Color Identification”

  1. This reminds me of my son’s first words, because each meant so much. He would look at a whole host of things that he could call “door”. It was so exciting to him that he could name the things in his world with the words he had. They were poetry! He called the first fountain he saw a “tower water”.

    Because of that, it’s easy for me thrill at the depth with which developing humanity relates to color names, and to identify with the sense of loss as their names not only have become pinpointed, but fixed.

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