Hues of Our Own Hues of Our Own

Hues of Our Own

How We Perceive Colour
Szymon Drobniak
time 11 minutes

Each of us lives in our own multi-coloured universe. And there’s scientific proof of it.

I’m basking inside the sun. It’s hot and stuffy – and that’s putting it lightly. Everything around me is bathed in a storm of UV- and X-rays, masses of plasma roll all around, white-hot from nuclear fusion. The temperature is two million degrees Celsius, but the gas is almost a proper gas by now, its density has dropped to bearable fractions of a kilo per millilitre – not like deeper inside, on the edge of the solar core, where a millilitre of gas compressed in the gravitational vice weighs over 50 kilograms and spits gamma rays in all directions.

My photon (more on why it’s mine later) has spent about 100,000 years arduously crawling through the sun’s radiation zone. For millennia it would disappear, having collided with atoms of scorching gas, only to be reborn again a second later – and so on, over and over again. Now it’s close to the photosphere, the external layer of the sun, the one that appears like the blinding surface of the star when it’s seen from Earth. Ah, here it comes, just squeezing through that border now. After its thousands-of-years journey through the inside of the star, it breaks away from the sun. It flies off from the surface at a dizzying speed of almost 300,000 km/s. Alongside it go the billion trillion trillion trillion other photons produced every second by the sun. There’s no point even trying to imagine that kind of number, our brains aren’t used to conceiving of so many powers of ten. And besides, what I’m interested in is that single specific photon and what it will do for me. In eight minutes time, having crossed the 150 million


You’ve reached your free article’s limit this month. You can get unlimited access to all our articles and audio content with our digital subscription. If you have an active subscription, please log in.


Also read:

What Do Colours Tell Us? What Do Colours Tell Us?
Experiences, Fiction

What Do Colours Tell Us?

A History of Colour in Art
Anna Arno

It seems that art can’t exist without them. They allow for the imitation of reality, draw the eyes, carry hidden meanings. The history of colour is a fascinating story of the changeability of human tastes and the power of our convictions, associations and… stereotypes.  

“When we are asked ‘What do the words “red”, “blue”, “black”, “white” mean? We can, of course, immediately point to things which have these colours, but our ability to explain the meanings of these words goes no further!” 
Ludwig Wittgenstein
Stendhal’s most famous novel was supposed to be entitled “Julien”, after the main protagonist. Later on the writer decided to go with The Red and the Black. “It’s a uniform and a cassock,” Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński explained. “It’s the two Frances: Napoleon’s France and the Bourbons’ France.” Such is the most common interpretation of this enigmatic title. However, the red’s link to the army is not clear-cut, as Napoleonic uniforms were blue. That aside, red and black evoke numerous other associations. Love and death. The colours betted on in roulette. Julien Sorel also speaks of “black ambition”, which could be counterbalanced by passionate red… Stendhal surely liked the ambivalence of his colouristic title – right after The Red and the Black, he started working on a book called The Pink and the Green.
A man turns purple with fury, goes white with fear, or falls into black despair. But there are also days when he is feeling blue or looks at the world through rose-coloured spectacles. Colours rouse strong emotional associations and carry symbolic meanings. However these – depending on the historical time and place – can differ, and even be contradictory. Colours, which in some periods were associated with savagery, the Devil or crime, in other periods won back their prestige as royal or even divine.

The Greek tetrad of colours

Up until the 19th century, it was thought that the ancient Greeks didn’t hold colours in high esteem. “There are four colours, in accordance with the number of the elements: white, black, red and yellow,” wrote Empedocles, followed by Plato in Timaeus. But what about the blue of the sky and the green plants of spring? Homer compared the colour of the sky to copper and iron, and that of the sea to wine. For us these are strange associations, but the poet was supposedly blind. Some even speculated that the eye structure developed after the ancient times, and that the Greeks couldn’t distinguish all shades. The Roman architect Vitruvius praised the ascetic approach of Greek painters: “The fact is that the artistic excellence which the ancients endeavoured to attain by working hard and taking pains, is now attempted by the use of colours and the brave show which they make, and expenditure by the employer prevents people from missing the artistic refinements that once lent authority to works.” But it is not true that the Greeks couldn’t tell colours apart or kept them in disdain. First, they preferred the colours of civilization over the colours of nature. Second, they distinguished between ‘painting proper’ and architectural decoration. And, at least since the end of the 18th century, we have known that Greek statues were not snow white. They were indeed painted, quite vividly too, and what’s more – not at all realistically (for example, hair was ‘dyed’ blue).

Nonetheless, the false image of naked marble has proven particularly lasting. The entirety of neoclassical aesthetics was based on it – from Canova’s Amor and Psyche, to the White House. According to these criteria, whiteness was a synonym of beauty and good taste, while colour was barbarity, debauchery and vulgarity. There is even an erotic subtext: male, distinct whiteness was juxtaposed with sensual, blurry colours. Johann Winckelmann, known as the father of German art history, declared that the whiter the body, the more beautiful it was. While examining works of art excavated in Pompeii and Herculaneum, he noticed the remnants of pigments. He could not come to terms with this; he came to the conclusion that the ginger-haired Artemis in red sandals must have been created by the Etruscans. Even Goethe insisted that only barbarians, simpletons and children had a weakness for colour. Sophisticated people avoided garish-coloured clothes and on an everyday basis surrounded themselves with toned-down shades.

Continue reading