09 Sep 2017

The truth about colour. This is stuff every film-maker should know about.

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Artisan Colour

In the nineteenth century, an enormous effort was made to investigate and understand language by philologists, ethnographers, phoneticists and many other academic specialists, creating a huge pool of knowledge about the history, development and use of language, including oral and written literature around the world.

The same level of attention has never been given to colour and its place in human experience or cultural identity, although the branding and advertising industries now pay close attention to colour and medicine has applied fine colour distinctions in illustrations to diagnose and follow the progress of diseases for centuries. But colour science is a success based on precise analysis and technical innovation, rather than a cultural field of enquiry. Systems defining colour space have a fairly short history, from Munsell or the CIE . Their predecessors are attempts to order colour as pigments and their mixtures for artists (Ostwald, Windsor and Newton) and printers (eventually Pantone ) or highly personalised colour explorations by people like Goethe in the eighteenth century.

This fragmented history of colour scholarship means there is still no comprehensive, well systemised atlas of colour terms across the world's cultures, referring to specific constructs of colour presentations and relationships between colours in comparable terms of reference. This may seem surprising when we take into account the importance of colour for heraldry, flags and uniforms, which originated at the dawn of civilisation. For many cultures, there is no real record at all. The linguists can identify thousands of specific colour names across the world's cultures, some of which seem odd to modern viewers. Many colour names are based on variations in proportional mixes of colour pairs, say red and blue, leading to a mass of purpley associations. For a modern European, a pairing based on black and yellow seems difficult to imagine, but it arises in several languages, including Ancient Greek.

At a time when people's hunger for artisan produce is making headway against mass produced food, is it worth thinking about artisan colour in the same light? After all, movie-making is a 'motion picture art', not just mass media. High end perfectionism is expensive and not always possible. If the technology is embedding limitations to the reproduction of colour, perhaps minimising colour aberrations during production could mean a come-back for artisan tools like light meters, tape measures and pots of paint in low end production.

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