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Today we feature an obscure color which used to be well known and frequently written about.  Isabelline, also known as “isabella,” is a pale, silvery yellowish-gray.  The name for the color is older than most color names in English and dates back to the Elizabethan era (circa 1600).  There are several compelling (but non-definitive) explanations of the etymology of the word.  My favorite explanation is that Infanta Isabella, a Spanish noblewoman vowed never to change her snow white garb until her husband,  Archduke Albert of Austria, was victorious in conquering Ostend, a Protestant stronghold in Flanders.  A hasty victory was expected, however, the city’s Dutch defenders were reinforced and supplied from the sea by the English and the siege lasted for three brutal years, by which time the Infanta’s gown was a very organic yellow-gray.  The story is probably apocryphal but it is nearly old as the color itself (and it draws our attention to the Siege of Ostend, which was as brutal and bloody as it was historically interesting).

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This Spanish connection of the name hints at why the English of the early 17th century were so excited by yellow-gray to begin with.  Isabella is a color of horses, an unparalleled fascination for people of that time! In modern horse terms, such steeds are pale palomino or cremello, but the hue isn’t too far off from ancestral grullo (these horse color names all seem to have a late medieval Spanish flair don’t they?).  At any rate, even though isabella is a common color for living things, it is perhaps not of not of paramount beauty to the jaded modern eye and the word has been gradually fading from usage.  This strikes me as a pity, since it is a much better word for that organic yellow-gray than uh, “yellow-gray.”

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The Peasant and the Birdnester (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1568) oil on panel

Ferrebeekeeper has blogged a great deal about fancy modern colors like follyMountbatten pink, mauve, and greenery.  The names and high-falutin’ synthetic chemistry underlying the pigmentation of these faddish vogue colors really is quite recent (in the grand scheme of things I mean).  Today though, to celebrate autumn, we have a very beautiful color which has an ancient name (which goes back to at least Middle English).  According to color theorists, russet is a tertiary color–the result of combining purple and orange.  What this means in practice is that russet is a medium dark reddish-brown which looks like the floor of a forest or the unswept corners of a poultry yard. We know the word was around at least in 1363, because an English statute of that year required poor people to wear russet (although it may have been referring to a coarse woolen cloth dyed with woad and madder which, for a time was synonymous with the color).

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Despite its associations with the hempen homespun smallfolk (or perhaps because of it), russet has an astonishing literary history.  The first scene of the first act of Hamlet ends when “the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.”  Russet, being a somber earthen color, was associated with autumn, death, and mourning (which is perhaps why we find it in the haunted scene in Hamlet).  Cromwell also referred to the color when he preferred a disciplined and seasoned captain in russet (e.g. a commoner with a commission) to a noble soldier “which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.”

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A Bearded Old Man, Wearing a Brown Coat and Russet Hat(Rembrandt van Rijn, 1651) Oil on Canvas

There is also an artistic truth behind the color which is painful for the excitable young artist to grasp.  Drawings made in medium and dark browns have a way of coming out far more beautifully than drawings made with brighter and more fashionable colors.   When I was young I kept making drawings with violet or blood red.  Why didn’t I listen to Shakespeare and Cromwell and use russet.  Courtiers of the 14th century may have sneered at it (and brown is perhaps still not the most chic color on the catwalk) but it is beautiful and it suits living things very well…which is good, for here in the temperate northern world we are about to embark upon an entire season of russet.

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Ok, I’ll admit it, maybe I still have some “panda-monium” in my system from Tuesday’s announcement about the 2022 Olympic mascot, Bing Dwen Dwen, an adorable panda wearing some sort of ice hauberk.  To follow up on that post, here is a picture of a baby panda in China which was just born with white and gray fur.  What’s the story here?

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Now everyone knows that pandas are black and white (except for the red panda, which is really a whole different sort of animal), however it turns out there are a couple of mysterious off-color giant panda clans out there in the bamboo forests. Apparently a family from Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding sometimes has gray and white cubs.  Pandas from the so-called Gray family look wise beyond their years at first but then turn to normal white and black as they grow into adulthood.  Here is Chengshi, another gray-and-white cub born a few years ago who matured into a lovely black-and -white goofball.

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However, the Gray family of color-changing gray pandas is not the most dramatic clan of differently colored giant pandas.

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This is Qi Zai, the world’s only captive brown and white panda.  Qi Zai is from the distant Qinling Mountains in Shaanxi, where a subspecies of brown and white pandas appropriately known as Qinling pandas are known to reside.  Qinling pandas are rarely spotted in the forest fastnesses of their remote home.  The pandas are reputedly somewhat smaller (and more sensitive) than their black-and-white relatives.  Zoologists are still arguing about how to classify the brown and white pandas (are they a true sub-species, or just an unusual family), but it seems like they are certainly the rarest of the rare.  It is is estimated that only 200-300 exist in the whole world.

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Hey remember last week when NASA’s robot spacecraft visited a remote double snowball in the farthest reaches of the solar system?  Well that was amazing, but there was an attendant nomenclature problem.  Internet space enthusiasts and NASA worked together to choose a proposed name for the flying space snowman, and they came up with “Ultima Thule”, which was the Roman name for the inaccessible frozen lands of the farthest north (inaccessible to Romans anyway).  This name, however, doesn’t become official until sanctioned by the International Astronomical Union, which faces a conundrum, since apparently Nazis stupidly believed (or stupidly claimed to believe) that the Aryan race came from a mythical wonderland called Thule.

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This is clearly one of those stories that illustrate the dizzying heights of grandeur and terrifying depths of folly which accompany the human condition.  It is also an opportunity for a Ferrebeekeeper post about color since Thulian is also the English name for pink. “Thulian pink” is a striking pale pink with lavender highlights which will be instantly familiar to anyone who has gone down the girl’s toy aisle at a big box store.  Apparently the first recorded usage of this color name was in 1912, which was before the terrible events of the twenties and thirties swept a white nationalist autocracy to power in Germany.  Thulian pink doesn’t seem to have any white nationalist undertones that I can fathom (although I guess ruddy complexioned Caucasian people like me could theoretically turn the color of a Barbie Dream house if we received esoteric radiation burns or drank something toxic). Words are funny…(also I wonder if we sometimes invest them with too much power as we try to protect people from the ignorance and meanness of other people).  Anyway Thulian pink is also named after the fantastic lands to the far north, which makes me wonder what the association was for the people who first coined the name?  Is this the pink of the northern lands under the midnight sun at high summer or is it just regarded as an otherworldly color or ARE there unknown horrible racist associations? What is going on?

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Anyway, apparently this hue was rechristened as “First Lady” in 1948 as the interior decorators of the 50s started using it for everything.  I have always called in “Pepto-Bismol” pink.  Whatever it is called, I have always like the color, although it gets a trifle overused in the gendered marketing scheme of today’s toy world.

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Primates evolved in a forest habitat of many complex colors and shapes where a failure to properly judge depth perception meant painful injury or death.  Vision is therefore a paramount sense for monkeys, apes, tarsiers, lemurs, and lorises.  Primates are social animals.  After evolving highly acute sight and keen color vision, they then evolved to be the most colorful order of mammals.  As with cuttlefish and birds of paradise, primate colors carry all sorts of social cues.

 

We will talk about all of this more (although, to be frank, we have always been talking about it), but today we are concentrating on the color red, which is of enormous importance to most primates because it is involved in status relations and thus in mating. Red is an important color for primates!  For example, among mandrills, red coloration of the face correlates directly with a male’s alpha status: the redder the face the more exalted the mandrill.  Primatologists have found this pattern vividly true in many species of monkey (and to other very different creatures like octopuses and cardinals, where red holds similar dominance significance).  To quote a particularly eye-opening line from Wikipedia, “Red can also affect the perception of dominance by others, leading to significant differences in mortality, reproductive success and parental investment between individuals displaying red and those not.”

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Humans beings are primates.  I suspect that it is not news to you that red is heavily involved in our own status and sexual selection preferences (for the sake of chivalric euphemism I will hereafter say “romantic” preferences).  Although this is readily evident in the red dresses of supermodels, the flashy Ferraris of celebrities, and the power ties of senators, the subconscious sway it holds over our lives is more pervasive than you might realize.

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In studies where men rated the general attractiveness of photographs of women, the women wearing red were rated as more desirable, even when the experimenters stacked the deck with pictures of the same women in different colors.  The same sort so f experiments revealed similar preferences among women looking at pictures of men.  It might be speculated that this has something to do with blushing, blood flow and suchlike visible markers of fertility/interest (although when asked, men said that women in red were more attractive, and women said that men in red were more “dominant”).

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Wearing red uniforms has been linked with increased performance in competitions (particularly physical competitions such as sports). Controlled tests revealed that red conferred no physical advantage during non-competitive exercise, so the effect is purely one of perception among opponents, teammates, and referees. Referees and judges seemed to be a particular focus of the psychological effects we are discussing here, rating red-garbed performers much more highly/favorably than similar peers in other outfits.

One needs to pause and think of how much more frequently the hateful Boston Red Sox and the despicable Atlanta Falcons would be justly drubbed if they wore dun uniforms.

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All of this might seem like bad news for people without a great deal of red in their wardrobe or in their clubhouse lockers, but there is a counterposing effect too.  In studies which involved paying attention and focusing on achievement-type events like the SATs or IQ tests (or essay questions about the Byzantine empire), red proved to be a nuisance and a hindrance.  Exposure to red decreased performance during such events (although my source does not say what this constitutes…maybe the experimenters had a huge red flashing light or a ringing red phone or some such gimmick that would unequivocally mess up one’s GREs).

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If all of this sounds wrong or suspicious to you, I guess it is the middle of the 2018 World Cup.  According to primatologists, Russia, England, Belgium, and Serbia should all win in the quarterfinals (so as long as they are not wearing their white or yellow “beta” uniforms).  If that test seems too nonsensical for you, you could always put on a British naval uniform and walk down to the local bar.  I would be very curious to learn how your experiment goes, and I will tally up the results as soon as I finish ordering a few new shirts…

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 Portrait of the Hon. Mrs Ernest Guinness (Frank Dicksee, 1912) oil on canvas

Of all the colors in my paintbox I am most dissatisfied with blue.  There are a lot of strong greens and there are vivid cadmium yellows, oranges, and reds.  There is ivory black which as dark as the depths of the void and dioxazine violet which is a great purple, but blue is a difficult color.  The brightest blues of the sky are from sunlight which has been scattered by the atmosphere.  The blues of bird feathers and butterfly wings are from careful refraction of light from reflective structures in the wings: if you ground peacock feathers fine enough there is no more blue….

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The main blue pigments in the painter’s palette are cobalt blue (which is ancient and robust but a trifle subdued) ultramarine blue (a sulfur-containing sodium-silicate) which inclines toward purple, and cerulean blue a sky blue cobalt stannate which is painfully expensive.  Oh! there is a manganese blue out there in the paint stores, but I never used it until I bought a little tube a month ago,  so we’ll see how it turns out: it is sort of a tropical powder blue.  They are each beautiful but they each have their problems and none is the pure royal blue in the center of the spectrum which is bright, non-toxic, and lightfast (although the poisonous cobalts and…ultramarine too… last through the long ages).  This is why I was excited when my old painter friend Brendan (a raven painting specialist) sent me a link to an article about a new blue pigment.

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YInMn blue

The new blue is called YInMn blue.  Discovered a couple of years ago by Robin Young, the new blue is lightfast, stable, and seemingly nontoxic (although sometimes in the past problems have taken a while to become evident).  The new blue is made of yttrium oxide, indium oxide, and manganese oxide.  It seems to be extremely lasting, and best of all it is very very blue.  Unfortunately, right now it is expensive (and the paint companies are still testing it out), but I have a feeling it might hit the market soon, and whatever its faults it can’t be worse for one’s health than carcinogenic cobalt.

Kudos to Robin Young for the new color.  I can’t wait to get a tube and paint some truly blue flounders…speaking of which, i better head back to the easel.

 

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When it comes to colors, our understanding has cultural and historical connotations.  The names of colors change over time as points of cultural relevance change and as the language evolves.  Many colors we are familiar with today (thanks to the miracles of synthetic chemistry and industrialization) were extremely esoteric to Europeans of the ancient and medieval world.  The old Latin and Greek words for exotic colors were influenced by rare jewels and unusual birds (which might be the only shared terrestrial examples of hues which were only seen in sunsets and other mutable natural phenomena).  We have already written about the ponderous word “icterine” an old Greco-Roman term for the beautiful pale yellow of various birds and insects. Today we take on an even more dissonant word which entered Middle-English in the 14th century from ancient Greek (possibly by way of France).  “Smaragdine” is the bright blue-green color of emeralds. It was a color which was rare and precious in the 14th century world.  The word has lingered in the corners of English and is still on the books today (although, if you ask your colleague to hand you the smaragdine mousepad you might not get the green one…or anything other than an angry stare or sharp words).  Even if the word smaragdine is not euphonic to modern ears, the color is exquisite and rich.  The chief conclusion of this etymological diversion is that Ferrebeekeeper needs to write more about emeralds.

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Today we’re blatantly ripping off some work from one of the Economist’s throw-away graphs.  Here is a somewhat peculiar little chart which shows the correlation between the color of new cars sold and the national mood of Great Britain.  The teal line correlates with the number of voters who are most concerned about the economy while the sea blue line correlates with voters who are most worried about Britain’s relationship with the EU (and/or the “Brexit”).  The real takeaway would seem to be that car color veers back to conservative black when people are anxious or worried about anything.

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I wonder though how the car-color graph would look against a long term graph.  I saw another chart (lost to time and circumstance) which charted the top-selling car color in the United States by decade.  In the seventies people bought brown/orange carr.  In the 80s they bought blue cars.  In the 90s the top color was green, and in the ‘aughts it was silver or white.  Probably in the ghastly teens the top color here has been black too.  I don’t know if this data is true, since I don’t have a methodology (or even a chart).  But it stacks up well against my parents car buying habits: they had a maroon station wagon in the seventies, a navy Jetta in the 80s, a teal pontiac in the nineties, a bronze Subaru in the aughts, and a black volt for the teens (although let’s not talk about the trucks–which were pea-soup, goblin’s gold, almond, dark red, sage green, navy, and deep brown).

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Here in New York, I have noticed that when the market is roaring, men’s dress shirts are pretty colors like french blue, lavender, and salmon, but when the market tanks they become gray, white, and pale blue (this may have stopped being a useful index when men stopped wearing dress shirts–polo shirts tell us nothing).  the larger point is that I suspect a meta-analysis of color would tell us all sorts of things about other indices and statistics…but i wonder whether the color choices come from consumers or if they come from marketers and advertisers who decide that everyone will want black or silver and create inventory accordingly.

 

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Hold everything! Today is the day when Pantone announces their trademarked “Color of the Year” for 2018. To quickly recap, Pantone is a private color-consulting company which helps consumer-facing firms select yearly color palates which work together at the store.  When you go to a mall (kids, this was a large building containing many individual different retail stores) and see that all of the clothes and gadgets are the same colors, Pantone is behind the convergence. They chose a real winner last year—a magnificent mid-tone green that looked like it came straight from the idealized cabbage patches of some fantasy “old country” (but also simultaneously seemed to reference money and environmentalism).  Can this year continue the trend or will we face another perplexing chicken-liver year (or the wishy-washy dichotomy of election year 2016 when we were presented with two opposite gendered tones)?  Without further ado, the Pantone Color of 2018 is…“Ultra violet” a bold rich purple! (maybe you already guessed based on the bar of pure purple above).

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I love this color.  Purple is one of my favorite colors (it might be my favorite) and this tone evokes the best things about purple!  It reminds me of a medieval king’s tunic or a spooky Queen Anne house in a Halloween poster.  Kudos to Pantone for the solid choice.  We will say nothing of Grimace and the shadow his amorphous purple form has cast over a generation of culture mavens and style moguls.

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For its part, Pantone seems to be making a quiet and uncontroversial political statement with its selection. The executive director of the Pantone color institute spells this out in her pronouncement: “It’s also the most complex of all colors, because it takes two shades that are seemingly diametrically opposed — blue and red — and brings them together to create something new.”  The company’s literature further emphasizes purple’s mystical and cosmic connotations…and how dear it was to beloved yet lost entertainment icons like David Bowie and Prince.

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Pantone also claims that “ultraviolet” evokes an idealized future (which makes me wonder if they have read “A Clockwork Orange”).  Maybe they are subconsciously projecting the preferences of a highly networked consulting company of global influence since  Ultraviolet is a purple which definitely leans towards blue. It’s fun to reminisce about all of the beloved icons and styles from the past and to make metaphors out of color, yet the colors of the year really do reflect larger patterns and trends. When the economy is doing well, Pantone executives and art-directors feel free to choose more bold and colorful choices.  These become increasingly extravagant until a recession comes along—when they all get reset to monotones, dust-colors, and similarly basic palate choices.  Ultraviolet is clearly leaning towards the more flamboyant side (I seem to recall a similar dot-com purlple back in the nineties just before the bubble burst.  This bold purple reminds us to look towards a brighter future and to enjoy the sugar rush, but it makes me wonder if there aren’t some grays and beiges in the immediate future.

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The whimsical names which paint companies give various designer shades and hues are a big part (well…at least a part) of the fun of painting. It has always made me happy to go into a Home Depot and peruse the rainbow arrays of eye-popping paint chips and look at the weird names. Imagine the thought process that lead to “Peppermint Penguin,” “Rutebaga Parade,” “Clontarf,” “Curlicue,” or “Bitter Gravy” (indeed my friend’s Arastu’s house is this last color, for some reason).

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But now, in an attempt to steal this joy from broke poets and stoned marketers, computer scientist (?) Janelle Shane has created a rudimentary algorithm to design colors and name them. Looking at the experiment as described on Ars Technica makes me think that either Ms. Shane is a poor computer scientist, there are aspects of the “experiment” which were not described, or this was a publicity stunt (or maybe all of the above).

But who cares? Even if the computer made a lot of boring gray and beige colors and did not seem to learn anything, it produced some amazingly poetic and hilarious names like “Stargoon,” Dorkwood, “Gray Pubic,” and Burble Simp *which is actually an ok color—if you are a crustacean living in 1978. Maybe Ms. Shane was asking the wrong questions. Perhaps her experiment did not determine if machines can be aesthetes (the results are uncertain unless you are an empty souled entity designing a new ecru for cubicles). The real question is whether machines can be hilarious and the answer is a definite yes. It’s even better if they don’t get the joke, but just sit there in their “Snowbonk” colored housing wondering why everyone is laughing.
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