Living Color

Revelers during the festival of Holi, when colors mark the triumph of good over evil. (Credit: Image by Herri Bizia via Flickr)

As I write this, people are gathering wood for the bonfire. When it whooshes alight, they will sing and dance and pray away the evil inside them, and tomorrow, the festival of Holi will begin. Of all the rituals in the world, this is the one I would most love to appropriate. Colors mist the air, people hurl balloons aslosh with colored water, and colored powders paint CEOs and janitors and celebrities a new skin. Children smear even the wrinkled, grave faces of dignitaries with psychedelic pastels. Then everybody cleans up and visits, sharing food and wine.

The Hindu backstory of Holi is not one I can do justice to, but I do know that this rainbow marks the triumph of good over evil, the forgiving warmth of spring, the blossoming of love. Of course it is held in spring, when color returns to the world. Flowers are not stupid; they know what they need to do to seduce their pollinators. And sunlight shines down all colors at once, lifting our mood.

The absence of color is the absence of hope. It signals grief, depression, imprisonment.

We “raise colors” when we hoist a flag, showing our loyalty. We speak of patriotism as red-white-and-blue; of stark facts, drained of emotion, as black-and-white; of troubling ambiguity as a gray area. Environmentalists not only love what is green but wind up being green. Marketers use orange to sell fast food; interior designers use neutrals to suggest sophisticated restraint. Blues music may have been named for its “blue notes”: Slightly off pitch and blurring toward the minor key, they are also called “worried” notes, and the sound is moody, haunting, melancholy.

Military and religious groups require members to wear the same color, a unified visual representation that reminds us they are all bound by the same precepts. (Imagine a West Point ceremony with the graduates in motley colors, or a funeral procession with the priests in mufti.)

We perceive color faster than we perceive textures or complicated shapes. (I can rarely remember on what side of the garage I parked my car, but I can always remember that I was on the Orange Level.) Like the Holi powders, color sticks; it affects us before we even realize it, in ways we cannot always understand. Because it has such power, color has been treated as symbolic for thousands of years, carrying ancient meanings, shading our impressions, tinting our memories. “The story of color is almost the story of civilization itself,” wrote color theorist Faber Birren.

The miracle? Our eyes have only three types of visual receptors, yet we can combine their messages into somewhere between 2.3 and 7.5 million colors. We have gathered up dyes wherever we could: from indigo, crushed beetles, sea snail secretions, lapis lazuli, amber. Physiologically, color whets various appetites, and it can sicken or soothe us. Some of our colors outright killed us—the opaque white made from lead, the arsenic in Paris green. Today’s electronic blue light just causes a little insomnia, halting melanin production, and strains our eyes. Pink light, on the other hand, calms us. Prisons in Switzerland paint jail cells pink to quiet aggressive prisoners.

It is not surprising that psychoanalyst Felix Deutsch, who had an artist’s eye for color, noted changes in his patients’ blood pressure and pulse rate when he put them in rooms of different hues. Like plants, our bodies’ inner clocks are set by light; light of various colors stimulates or soothes us. For thousands of years, healers have insisted that our bodies are made of color. It is light, after all, and light is energy, and different colors vibrate at different frequencies. A lot of nonsense has flowed from that basic truth. In the 1920s, Dinshah Ghadiali—later dubbed the kingpin of fakers—“discovered” that “there is a unique color or energy vibration that either sedates or stimulates the stream of energy through a specific organ, causing a natural biochemical reaction.” He is still cited in alternative medicine journals, even though his Spectro-Chrome machine was the equivalent of a séance with a rigged table. Yet today, we do use color to heal. We have learned, for example, that photosensitive chemicals—activated by red light, whose longer wavelength penetrates tissue more deeply—can kill cancer cells. The new trend is red light therapy, said to reduce inflammation.

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Baby Suggs—nurturing earth mother, preacher, informal therapist—spends her last years immersing herself in color. It “took her a long time to finish with blue, then yellow, then green,” we are told. Released from slavery, Baby Suggs is finally free to savor the world’s colors. “Bring a little lavender in, if you got any,” she asks. “Pink, if you not.”

I understand her hunger. Color changes everything, and we use it too sparingly. I am thoroughly sick of black clothing and silver cars and beige and gray interiors. When my husband’s office needed painting, I whirled through the possibilities, soaking up vermilion, verdigris, titian, damask, cattleya blue, jasper.

He was adamant. “White.”

I sighed. “Okay. Ivory or alabaster? A hint of blue, or creamy, with a drop of amber?”

He glared at me. “White.”

I brought home a fan of swatches, several hundred shades of white, and grinned at him. “Color’s never simple.”