Image: Goethe’s symmetric colour wheel with associated symbolic qualities (1809) Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Colour is one of the most delightful aspects of how we sense the world around us. ‘Light of a particular wavelength’ is a simple enough way to explain colour. But, our experience of it is anything but simple. In the fraction of a second that it takes for our brain to identify light of seven hundred nanometers as the colour red, it would grow into a complex, many-layered idea. To some of us, it will become a symbol of love or desire; to another, it would come with associations to anger. One may find that their idea of the colour red is shaped by the memory of dear someone, immortalised within a treasured moment. It would translate as the heroic passion to one culture, while to another it will come uncomfortably close to a force of oppression.
At Rithihi, we’ve often seen how textiles are particularly good at pulling out the emotions and associations underlying colour. It seems to us that people regard and perceive colours differently when considering them for the purpose of covering the human body. The moment you consider that saree on a body, it goes from being an insentient surface to a colour and all its emotions brought to life.
Philosophers, scientists, artists and mystics alike have explored colour throughout history, trying to make sense of it. With colours being so central to Rithihi’s pursuit of beauty, and how people connect with textiles, we’ve always been intrigued by their symbolism, memories, cultural undertones, and emotional associations. One of the most interesting early analogies of colour and how we experience its beauty came from the German poet, playwright, novelist, scientist, and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in his ‘Theory of Colour’.
The beautiful 1809 colour wheel pictured here is where Goethe mapped out symbolic qualities of colour. Red, purple, and magenta were connected to pleasure, while orange was linked to an expression of nobility; Yellow to good, and green to usefulness; Blue was associated with familiarity and violet with what lies beyond rational function. Although vastly different to what science is uncovering today about colour, this early work by Goethe has gone on to shape our collective understanding of colours and their meaning— particularly in the arts and in our ideas connecting to the appreciation of beauty.
Tell us, what do you associate with different colours?