Light and color

Updated: Mar 28

A sunshiny shower

Won't last half an hour.

-Goose, Mother (1916)

"Under polarized light, liquid crystals resemble shattered rainbows, swirling seas of dye, dazzling jewels come to life. These threads, steps, terraces, planes, droplets are as if alive, for they move, under their own power. They meet and coalesce. They copulate, forming new shapes and colours. They seem to be little life forms."

-Esther Leslie, Liquid Crystals: The Science and Art of a Fluid Form (2016)

Light is presumably more exciting than the absence of light, for animals, and likely heats up sensory systems and brains more than darkness for obvious physical reasons. Thus it seems reasonable to expect that humans, by default, relate light to excitement, heat, fluidity, disorder, upwardness, outwardness, length, desire and anger. This is captured, perhaps, in expressions such as “a light at the end of the tunnel” (excitement), “delighted” (excited), “brighten up my day” (increase excitement), “lost its luster” (less bright and less exciting), “bright and breezy” (bright—fluid—fun), “daybreak” (bright—disorder), “take a shine to” (bright—desire), “sunbathing” (bright—fluid), “soak up the sun” (fluid—bright), “light of my life” (bright—desire), “love light” (bright—desire) and “knight in shining armor” (bright—desire). The similarity between the words “lust” and “luster” is suspicious. “All’s fair in love and war” could be taken as a connection between brightness (fair), disorder/aggression (war) and romantic excitement (love).

Excitement, anger, sexuality and bright coloration seem related in “seeing red,” “red hot,” “like a red-headed stepchild,” “like a red flag to a bull,” “see red mist,” “red meat,” “beyond the pale,” “red scare,” “cheesed off,” “go bananas,” “take a shine to,” and “red light district.” An exception to this is the British expression “have a blue fit,” although “have a pink fit” is also popular. We use bright lights, and red, yellow and orange coloration in practical matters to draw attention and warn of danger. Other animals do the same.

Phrases of interest regarding color and excitement include “raise a red flag,” “raise a yellow flag,” and “raise a white flag.” These also refer to upwardness and fluidity—that in the deliberate fluidity of real flags—for purposes of making them more noticable and exciting as expressions. It's notable that none of the flag expressions we use to convey a state of higher alert involve the darker colors black, blue or purple. “Red alert,” and “draw a red line” also reflect that redder colors are more exciting. That blue and darkness are less exciting than red is observable in the expressions “have the blues,” “singing the blues,” “cry the blues,” “feeling blue,” “winter blues,” “gloom,” “dark days,” “dark clouds gathering,” and “it's always darkest just before the dawn.” Unites States defence readiness condition colors follow the rainbow from blue through green, yellow, red and white with increasing levels of severity.

Dewitt H. Parker (1920) addresses color and feeling in Principles of Aesthetics:

“Nevertheless, it is possible to find rough verbal equivalents for the simpler colors. Thus every one would probably agree with Lipps and call a pure yellow happy, a deep blue quiet and earnest, red passionate, violet wistful; would perhaps feel that orange partakes at once of the happiness of yellow and the passion of red, while green partakes of the happiness of yellow and the quiet of blue; and in general that the brighter and warmer tones are joyful and exciting, the darker and colder, more inward and restful.”

Red, yellow and white colors are commonly used by other animals and plants for purposes of imparting excitement. The recurrence of these colors in aposematic and sexually selected signals, and that they are apparently effective against multiple types of predators, or in flowers for attracting multiple types of pollinators, seems to reinforce the concept of universal feelings about color.

It doesn’t follow from brightness being exciting that animals are generally more intrigued by or interested in red over blue, white over black or light over darkness. Instead we appear to be more intrigued by mixtures of opposites made out of red and blue together, black and white, or green and yellow, for example, than we are by monotonous coloration, and by moderate light or mixtures of light and darkness than one or the other alone. Many popular expressions with references to colors, or light and darkness, consist of mixtures across thermal categories: “it's not black and white” (dark—bright), “red meat” (bright—solid), “dark clouds gathering” (dark—fluid—in), "when the stars align" (bright—order), “out of the clear blue sky” (out—order—dark—up). These are hypothetically a product of cultural aesthetic selection. They appear to be analogous to certain general patterns which might be discerned from sexually selected shapes and coloration in animals. It seems true, for instance, that on average sexual selection leads to darker coloration, such as black, blue and purple at the extremities, or in the parts of animal bodies that undergo the most dynamic movement, and bright, shinier colors such as white, red, and yellow more centrally. Birds with dark dynamic body parts and bright static parts are probably chosen as mates more often than those not displaying the pattern because it intrigues birds in the same what it intrigues us.

Some other interesting expressions which relate to light, color, fluidity and disorder: “a splash of color,” “my white knight,” “knight on a white charger,” “paint the town red,” “red in the face,” “scarlet fever,” “red rover,” “red mist,” “red wave,” “red face test,” “red blooded,” “paint a rosy picture,” “rose-colored glasses,” “yellow fever,” “yellow bellied,” “a green thumb,” “green as a gooseberry,” “green in the gills,” “in a pickle,” “green with envy,” “blue in the face,” “baby blue,” blue blood,” “true blue,” “blue moon,” “out of the blue,” “blue wall of silence,” “black and blue,” “blue chamber,” “blue movie,” “blue sky thinking,” “like a blue arsed fly,” “out of the clear blue sky,” “black balled,” “black and white,” “a shadowy figure,” and “nightfall.”

Liquid crystals are extremely colorful. At times they exhibit the colors in the exact sequence of the rainbow. This, together with the fact that the brain is fundamentally liquid crystalline suggests that the sequence of colors in the rainbow is a feature of brains, one that doesn't need to be learned, and this could explain the origin of an apparent preference for rainbows and rainbow coloration in animals, evident by way of cases in species where a coloration pattern with colors in the order of the rainbow has been selected for through sexual selection. Soap bubbles, which are liquid crystalline, also exhibit all the colors of the rainbow. The Fechner Color Effect, in which lines of color can be seen on the surface of a spinning, colorless disk with a black and white pattern, also demonstrates that colors can be observed from within the sensory system and brain which don’t exist in the outside world. Depending on the direction of spin, and the black and white pattern on the disks surface, the colored lines occur in different patterns. Most commonly, though, they seem to be arranged in the sequence of the visible spectrum:

“If a disc composed of black and white sectors is rotated with a moderate degree of rapidity, colors appear upon the anterior and posterior edges of the sectors. In other words, when ex- citation by black and excitation by white precede or follow each other at certain distances, whether these distances are determined by width of sector or by rate of rotation, there does not result a gray, as one might suppose, but color” (Bagley 1902).

Bird colors

Works cited

Bagley, Florence Winger. "An investigation of Fechner's colors." The American Journal of Psychology 13.4 (1902): 488-525.

The American Journal of Psychology , Oct., 1902, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Oct., 1902), pp. 488-525

Goose, Mother, and Blanche Fisher Wright. “The Real Mother Goose.” Apple Books. 1916.

Leslie, Esther. Liquid Crystals: The Science and Art of a Fluid Form. Reaktion Books, 2016.

Parker, De Witt Henry. The Principles of Aesthetics. United States, Silver, Burdett, 1920.

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