Tiring Colors

Here’s something that may interest all you visual artists. I’d heard that there was a different aesthetic sense of color in America and Japan. I mean, I’d noticed some intriguing things over the years: for one, when kids in the States draw the sun, what color crayon do they reach for? It’s almost invariably yellow, right? Possibly orange. From what I’ve seen in Japan, kids almost always perceive the sun as red. Are they getting that from the flag? Or is dawn the default aesthetic over here? Most of us in the States, unless we’re given reason to do otherwise, think of “sun” as the midday sun, don’t we?–a big yellow ball directly overhead. But . . . is it yellow? Isn’t it more of a blinding white? Why don’t kids reach for the blinding white crayon, and then finish off with the invisible but dangerous ultraviolet crayon?

When I was a kid, if I drew a lizard, a dinosaur, or Godzilla, I used a green crayon. Most kids I’ve seen drawing those things here color them brown. (I know there are exceptions on both sides; I’m talking general tendencies here.)

And then there’s the famous issue of traffic signals: though the colors look pretty much the same, in Japan, traffic lights are red, yellow, and blue. When the light turns blue, you can go. Also, a person who is “blue” is inexperienced, a rookie — like one who is “green” in the U.S.

In Japan, white is the color of death and the supernatural. In the world of manga, if a character has white hair, you can about figure that he’s a demon or a ghost or something not quite human.

So anyway, I did an experiment. This was back in the days when I used a 35mm camera that took pictures on film — remember that stuff? So I shot up a roll of film, and I had it developed, and I had prints made from the negatives, first in one country, then in the other. The photos came from the very same set of negatives. And what do you suppose I observed?

The photos printed by an American developer used distinctly warmer tones: oranges, yellows, reds. . . . The ones printed in Japan used cooler shades: blues, greens, etc. Granted, this was just one set of data — not enough to base a research paper on or anything. But I would contend that the same phenomenon is evident in paintings and graphically-designed items in the two countries. Interesting, huh?

Anyway, wrapping up this little rant on colors, and circling back to the title of the post: I often amuse myself by jotting down phrases that I think would make great titles. Tiring Colors is one such. I think I scribbled it on a napkin — “Tiring Colors — a novel.”

So here’s the point of discussion I toss out to you: imagine that Tiring Colors is an acclaimed new novel, hovering at the top of the bestseller lists. Write a few lines telling us what it’s about. Is it a literary work or a genre story? Is it for adults, children, or something in between? You don’t have to write an elaborate book report, but in a sentence or two, give us an idea of the setting and the plot. If you want, you might even tell us who the author is (a real writer who just might write such a work, or an author you just dreamed up on the spot).

Tiring Colors: A Novel. What do you think?

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10 Responses to “Tiring Colors”

  1. Julie Says:

    Sounds like a J.M. Coetzee novel to me. Possibly about a middle aged person stuck in a life situation with which they have grown dissatisfied. Their one escape is through painting. Hm, that sounds more like something by Tracy Chevalier, with the painting aspect.

    Hi Fred!

  2. Chris Says:

    Oh my! This is absolutely fascinating and, believe it or not, something we in print media industry apparently have to deal with. (Although I have not personally had to deal with this).

    I started life as a geochemist but over the years ended up doing more work in print media chemistry. One of the things I’ve had to learn is a strange field called “Colorimetry” (not ‘calorimetry’, but COLORimetry). This is a strange science that measures color but has as an integral part of it the impact of visual perception (psychophysical factors). Hence you can’t just say “red” is some unique “spectral power density” of light (I like the “invisible but dangerous UV crayon”, btw).

    There are a number of “color space measurements” that have been developed over the years.

    Some of the folks around here who have to try selling print media and ink in other parts of the world have to deal not just with preferences in color (although I haven’t read a real study that follows on your experiment, it wouldn’t surprise me if there are really strong cultural differences in color preferences), but also what kind of “photo feel” people want (glossy, matte, stiff, floppy, etc.)

    Before I worked for an international company selling printing equipment overseas I would never have guessed this stuff was a real issue. But hearing stuff like your experiment and hearing how “psychophysics” labs around here set up “print preference studies” is an amazing field.

    I once read a book on color perception that, after reading it, made me kind of doubt the ability of anyone to communicate any perception. The book read more like a philosophy text than a “science” text. Weird.

    Thanks for posting this really neat “study”!

  3. Lizzie_Borden Says:

    It’s about someone who restores old films, tirelessly, living their entire lives in the past. Someone, who after a lifetime of making everything bolder, fresher, reviving it and making it more beautiful than life… snaps. They are finally pushed over the edge because their vision of what the world should be, and what the world really are two very different things.
    Definitely for adults.

    The fun part would be in that they might reconstruct the various murders into scenes from little known old films.. Of course, it’s a tired theme in this day and age, but anything written with suspense and imagination can be unique, even if it’s been done 5000 times before.

  4. I love Taco Gringo Says:

    How do you REALLY describe a color? After having visited it, I can safely say that even my best photographs do not convey the GREEN of the Irish countryside. It is a green you smell, you sense on your skin, a green you must EXPERIENCE.

    “Tiring Colors” is a brilliant addition to the discussion of race relations in America from Jack Lenihan, Phd.
    In his newest masterpiece, Lenihan delves into the incendiary issue of Hispanic immigration, both legal and illegal, and the impact of what he calls “the Browning of the United States.”
    Lenihan uses governmental and university studies to support his theory that “Black America will soon join with a diminishing White America in a coming backlash against the tidal wave of Latin immigration in a test of civil rights and tolerance not seen since the days of reconstruction.”
    Fearing what he calls “the Balkanization” of the American Southwest, Lenihan interviews dozens of figures on all sides of the issue of inter-racial discourse in pursuit of national harmony and of a society no longer plagued by “Tiring Colors.”

    Holder of the Terrence Davis Chair of Sociology at Georgetown University, Dr. Lenihan also serves as vice-president of the Heritage Foundation and is formerly the honoray chairman of the Federalist Society. His former works include the best sellers “The Lessons of Sarajevo” and “McAmerica: How the American consumer — and not the American government — is changing the world.

  5. Marquee Movies Says:

    Fascinating post as usual, Fred! I’m reminded of the Ambrose Bierce story you told me about, where a creature was invisible simply because its color was beyond our typical rainbow scheme of colors. As you once said, pretty advanced science fiction writing for his time! I must say, I really like Lizzie Borden’s idea – of course, anything to do with restoring old films sounds fascinating to me.

  6. fsdthreshold Says:

    Thank you to everyone so far — Julie, Chris, Lizzie, Taco Gringo, and Marquee Movies! Every one of your comments is right on the money and most appreciated! Addressing a few specifics: Hi back, Julie!–I’m glad you’re here–didn’t know you were!
    Holy Cow, Taco Gringo! Your Tiring Colors is so convincing, you almost had me running for Google/Amazon to see if I’d accidentally stumbled onto the title of an actual book!
    Marquee–Ah, yes! That Ambrose Bierce story is titled “The Damned Thing,” which is also way up there on my list of favorite titles! Isn’t it great? It just lays it out, like H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Terrible Old Man.”
    Taco–I’d forgotten you’d been to Ireland! How long ago was that?

  7. Nicholas Says:

    These are some fascinating observations.

    It calls to mind something I read somewhere, that our color perception has actually evolved over the past two or three thousand years. Ancient Greeks, when they described a “wine-dark sea,” were actually describing the color they perceived the ocean’s water to be, not possessing as broad a palette of blues and purples as we do.

    If color perception is truly evolving, as some anthropologists contend, then surely those perceptions would evolve along slightly different lines among different groups of people in different landscapes. So, two people of different branches of the human race could potentially look out on the exact same landscape and see something subtly different. This makes sense that it would be reflected even in how we develop our film.

    Aye, I think you’re on to something!

  8. fsdthreshold Says:

    Wow! So it’s like how little kids, before they know about many animals, call any four-legged creature a “doggie,” whether it be a dog, a horse, or a cow.

    But more seriously, what a fascinating concept you introduce here! Think about what was said higher on this page about the Ambrose Bierce story “The Damned Thing.” The Thing is of a color we can’t now perceive. But maybe someday human eyesight will catch up to it. Hmm.

    Think of the potential for a speculative fiction story! Two different branches of the human race, as you say, being able to see subtly different things in the same landscape. . . .

    And think of that in the context of my The Fires of the Deep — you may have just unlocked a plot element I’ve been struggling with for ten years! Namely, I was trying to write about a civilization dwelling entirely in the dark. I found that to be extremely problematic when trying to describe scenes and settings that human readers could relate to. (Also, Gabe asked the vexing question: “Why do these people who live without sunlight have hair?”) But let’s say there IS light in the Hurlim world — just not SUNlight — but still a form of radiated light. But the Hurlim and the Vin have been separated for so long, deep beneath the ground and on the surface, that their color perceptions have diverged. I can still have Loft, of mixed parentage, standing with one foot in each world, being able to see ALL the colors . . . whoa! Memo! Memo! I may be on my way to having a title for the book at last! Thanks!

    [The dust clears. Blog whirlwind survivor: "What just happened?" Other blog whirlwind survivor: "I ain't rightly sure."]

  9. I love Taco Gringo Says:

    RE: Nicholas. You are absolutely correct in asserting different branches of the human family see colors differently, and often along societal lines.
    Think of the African slave trade. It was almost exclusively the pattern that coastal tribes brought captives from the interior to trade with the English and Dutch. Why? Because they were “darker” and, thus, enemies to be subdued. The traders, meanwhile, saw then all as Negroes and made no such distinction.
    Even today there is intra-African racism along these lines and such views still very much exist in America among those of African descent.
    Us whities are guilty too. Think of the superiority complex of the Northwestern Europeans over the Slavs, who, while “white” are not exactly the same.
    I once read a magazine article that suggested the Neanderthals were colorblind or able to see few distinctions, and that their long-winter or permanent-winter environment caused this to happen.
    Would group of humans living in the tropics, where sunlight is more direct and the variety of colors much wider, have BETTER eyesight, or just different? Hmmm… we could go on and on …

  10. fsdthreshold Says:

    Thank you for that, Taco Gringo! Very, very interesting. Though this has nothing to do with color per se, I’m reminded of how American Indians didn’t/don’t typically have a word for “Indians”–as I understand it (please correct me if I’m wrong), each native American people saw itself as just as different from other native Americans as from the white man. But the white man didn’t see it that way.

    To most American eyes, Asian is Asian. But the Japanese see themselves as much fairer than other Asians. Many Japanese women take pains to avoid direct sunlight. They use parasols and elbow-length gloves to avoid getting too dark. At the same time, there’s a movement among some younger women and girls to get as darkly tanned as possible. These are referred to as “Gan-guro” — “Black-faces” — which sounds like Vaudeville to me! :-)

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