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The language of colour.

Earth is a very colourful planet. Try looking at a photo of it from outer space. With swirling clouds and deep blue seas it exudes life, energy and interest. Scientists, psychologists and anthropologists have all found the phenomenom of colour a fascinating focus for study. Why is the world so bright and beautiful; would it matter to its inhabitants if it was not?

Scientists, at least, have been able to make some sense of it. They can define colour pigments chemically and in physics have identified light (colour) waves as part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Biologists see colour as a vital communicator in the plant and animal world. Colour attracts. Tropical humming birds are drawn to the brilliantly coloured flowers of the region, feeding from their nectar. Birds, particularly, use colour as part of the mating ritual, (males are more beautiful than females because it is the males who need to attract the females!). Colour warns too. Amphibeans like the arrow-poison frog of Colombia have markings so luminous and 'un-natural' that despite being physically rather vulnerable, its off-putting appearance deters enemies. On a more humdrum scale most people fear wasps and bees and know of the possible dangers of eating brightly coloured berries. Consequently signs in yellow or red instantly communicate the message 'danger' 'beware'. Finally colour is used as a sort of anti-communication device. Camouflage protects species from dangerous predators and helps them to hunt their own prey more effectively.

As members of the animal kingdom humans display the same sort of practical uses of colour. Grey-suited men are in a sort of camouflage. In order to keep their jobs and get on, they need to conform rather than draw attention to themselves. Teenagers use colour to attract partners. They dance in brightly coloured clothing in beams of brightly coloured light. Conversely women wearing plain, colourless clothing are warning men off.

An early Christian edict rationalised its ban on coloured clothes for women by explaining "God would have sheep purple if He wished the woollen clothes to be purple". Not surprisingly that argument fell by the wayside. Humans have a quite intense desire for colour which goes far beyond using it as an instinctive mechanism for survival, and it is this that so interests behavioural specialists.

From the earliest times man has not just admired colour in nature, but strived to make his own pigments, for decoration, for dyeing and for painting. At its most basic this meant mixing coloured earth with water, but despite the fact that many diseases had no cure, that people lived in constant fear of crop failures, and life was really very hard, men put extraordinary effort into experimenting with and using colour. The Egyptians introduced a rich lemon yellow pigment - made from the lethally toxic sulphide of arsenic - a substance not even found in that country. During the Renaissance a brilliant ultramarine was extracted from lapis lazuli. The stones were shipped in from Afghanistan, ground into a waxy paste, kneaded and washed to release the pigment. Fabric dyeing was a complex craft in itself. In order to absorb any dyes fabric had to be washed in special 'mordants' evolved from medieval dyers experiments with river water, fungi, mosses and fruit peels.

The fact that all cultures seem to have gone to such lengths to work with colour really proves its essential importance to us. Colour literally brightens our lives.

We often only realise how important something is to us when it has been taken away. The hostages in Beirut had to endure 'life' in a colourless world. "the walls were plastered over with the same dull grey cement. There was no paint. There was no colour - just the constant monotony of rough grey concrete". When the guards finally brought Brian Keenan a bowl of fruit he writes "My eyes are almost burned by what I see.... I am entranced by colour". His friend John McCarthy felt the same and more. "They brought us a bowl of cherries. It seemed a shame to eat them. Their rich warm colour was a powerful reminder of a world that was lost to us and I suddenly felt sure we would see it again".

The shot of colour helped lift his deppression and think forward positively. Different colours do express different moods. Green calms. Red excites. Colours seem to have an innate symbolism used by artists and craftsmen in all cultures to add meaning to their work. The saffron orange robes of the Buddhist monks are symbolic of humility. White in western art symbolises purity and goodness, 'seeing the light'.

Jennifer Saunders' award-winning series Absolutely Fabulous concerned the life of an outrageously shallow and gimmicky fashion P.R. She was into Buddhism, colonic irrigation and she was into colour. She could not get dressed until she had rung her exhorbitantly expensive colour guru and gleaned her auspicious colour of the day. The audience enjoyed the joke. She had got more money than sense. Her 'guru' was onto a good thing.

However, out of realms of situation comedy colour really is big business now and there are genuine gurus who do far more than pluck colours out of the air. They devote their lives to studying individual and group psychology in relation to colour and colour trends. Industry needs to know how people respond to colour in order to produce saleable goods, and in a competitive market, with 10 million recogniseable 'hues' to select from, expert advice is vital.

The food industry is no exception. Colour plays an essential role in people's appreciation of food. Again there is probably a partly scientific reason for this. A colourful platter indicates a nutritional balance - lots of the same makes a poor diet. Secondly colour shows freshness, ripe but not too ripe. Even more importantly, what we see actually helps our taste buds taste. Tests on sweets, drinks, fruit yoghurts and so on, all show people's tendency to judge by colour. An orange flavoured drink coloured green will be categorised as lime-tasting. An apricot flavoured yoghurt coloured pink will be thought to be strawberry.

Food should be far more than a sustaining dose of calories, protein and vitamins. It is there for us to enjoy, preferably in good company, and colour is part of the enjoyment. Famous food writer Elizabeth David only became interested in the subject when she saw Mediterranean markets crammed full of vibrantly coloured fruit and vegetables. Top chef Raymond Blanc enthuses about the colours of the seasons. Spring is "all shades of pastel", summer colours are "vivid" and autumn is "more powerful... rustic tastes.. sauces with a hint of richness and deeper colours and flavours". 18th century French philosopher Brillat Savarin even described the experience of eating in terms of colour "...the colouring is heightened the eyes grow brighter and a pleasant warmth pervades the limbs".

He describes the feeling perfectly, and when it comes to feeding the family we do not have to be gourmets or philosophers to know that Smarties, jellies, baked beans and ketchup make children sit up, eyes sparkling, smile and tuck in.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Food Trade Press Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:color of food
Publication:Food Trade Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Words:1180
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