The Colour Purple Symbolism

Before the concept for ‘blue’ existed, Homer wrote famously in The Odyssey of the “wine-dark sea.” Sure, it might’ve looked purple even to a contemporary audience, but we know from other writings around the world that the concept of ‘blue’ was late to enter human consciousness. “The Odyssey” suggests that blue was included the concept of purple.

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Symbolism of Blue

Henry Scott Tuke - August Blue 1894

In the “Odyssey”, Homer famously describes the “wine-dark sea.” Well, that’s poetic, isn’t it? But there’s a reason he didn’t just call the ocean blue. There was no term for ‘blue’ in Ancient Greece. People from antiquity didn’t consider blue a separate colour significant enough to name. It’s difficult to find a word that meant ‘blue’ way back in time. Black and white are mentioned a lot. Red, a little, next green and yellow. But no blue! Blue is one of the primary colours. In Japan there’s ‘midori’, which today means green (think of the liquor) but which is traditionally a sort of bluish-green colour, somewhere in the middle. Midori is traditionally ‘the colour of nature’, and describes the color of shoots, young leaves, or whole plants. There is a Japanese word for blue (ao). But educational materials distinguishing green and blue only came into use after World War II.

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Yellow and Black in Illustration

Yellow and black is a fairly common palette in illustration. Hildilid’s Night, Mo’s Moustache, The Happy Day, My Heart and Float are a few picture book examples utilising a greyscale palette with the addition of yellow.

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Symbolism of Black and The Night

Across the globe, black has negative connotations. This is probably because night-time is black, and historically night-time is the scariest, most dangerous time for humans. Our eyes have evolved for daylight. That’s why I’m combining ‘night’ and ‘black’ when delving into symbolism.

Black is not technically a colour, rather an absence of colour. Artists are often advised against using black out of the tube. Instead we are to mix a dark hue from other colours. More interesting blacks are achieved if they are red black or blue black, say. This is debatable advice.

Black Tree 1903 Joan Gonz?lez 1868-1908 Presented by Mme Roberta Gonzalez-Richard, the artist’s niece 1972
The Flower Shop Fairy by Margaret Clark 1901-2001 black
The Flower Shop Fairy by Margaret Clark 1901-2001 with excellent use of black

Other associations with darkness and black:

  • evil and general badness
  • mourning and funerals (especially in the West)
  • anything taboo
  • depression (e.g. Black Dog)
  • witchcraft (e.g. black cats, black cloaks, cauldrons)
  • goths
  • secrets/cloaking/mystery

There are cultural variations on black. For example:

  • In Japan, black is one of the four important colours. Black indicates wisdom, maturity and high accomplishment, hence black belts in martial arts. In Japan black is also the opposite of the colour purple, associated with the armoury of samurai, and in ancient times geisha used black to colour their teeth.
  • The Cathars were a dualist medieval religious sect of Southern France. Like Japan, the Cathars also used black to mean perfection and purity. (Today purity is most often symbolised using white.)
  • Though black is generally considered bad, black cats are lucky in the United Kingdom and in many parts of the world. Black contains layers of flipped symbolism.

Associations With Night-time

  • In English we say night ‘falls’ but actually it rises, emerging first in the valleys. 
  • Fading rays are known as ‘sun suckers’
  • Eventide is an archaic term — Irish people have a saying that bushes and men look alike. Italians say hounds look like wolves.
  • Night feels palpable, like some sort of dark mist. The Old Testament talks about darkness that befell Pharoah’s Egypt. 
  • Night Vapours: Noxious fumes are widely thought to descend from the sky. “Night fogges” and “noysom vapours
  • Shakespeare — “the daylight sick”. “Make haste, the vaporous night approaches.”
  • Noctivagator was a Latin term used to refer to people who walked around at night causing trouble in the Middle Ages. It was later replaced by nightwalker in England in around 1500. 
  • Linkboys were orphans and urchins, paid to carry lights for pedestrians. They were not well trusted, sometimes leading customers straight to pick-pockets.
Queen of the Night,  Mila von Luttich (Austria, 1872-1929)
Queen of the Night, Mila von Luttich (Austria, 1872-1929)

Ancient Times Of Day

Before the industrial era nightfall was known as ‘shutting in’. Watchdogs have been let out by nightfall, so it is time to lock yourself in for the night.

  • Gloaming (twilight, dusk)
  • Cock-shut/cockshut — twilight
  • Crow-time — evening
  • Daylight’s gate — The period of the evening when daylight fades; twilight. From the early 17th century.
  • Owl-leet — perhaps Lancashire dialect for ‘owl light’, when owls come out
Barney Sheppard Sings in the Gloaming circa 1889-90 Phil May 1864-1903

Darkness and Fear

All humans seem to fear the dark, probably an instinctive thing after many generations of learning to fear things which emerge in the dark. But not all cultures fear dark equally. Fear levels depend on the cultural narratives around night-time.

We don’t just fear the dark because we can’t see through it. We fear it because we can’t be recognised as ourselves. This is especially scary for children, who fear their parents may not recognise them in the darkness. In ancient stories, the coal man who covers children’s faces with coal is a terrifying bogeyman.

Deinos melas means ‘scary black’ and describes the ghost of one of Odysseus’ sailors.

Also, cultures change across time. Modern cultures fear dark less than earlier cultures — in this modern era there is no true darkness in populated areas anyway.

People weren’t really afraid of the dark until the END of the middle ages. Before then the dark was considered a peaceful time. Then we got vampires, werewolves, witches and all sorts of horrible night creatures and people actually believed these things existed, outside a few analytic mindsets. A great number of people sat on the fence, agnostic about the existence of such things. Others were absolutely terrified by their own supernatural beliefs, sometimes to the detriment of others:

On a winter night in 1725, a drunken man stumbled into a London well, only to die from his injuries after a neighbour ignored his creeds for help, fearing instead a demon.

At Day’s Close: Night in times past by A. Roger Ekirch

Since people were so scared of the night, this was excellent for pickpockets and thieves, who were able to utilise that and almost always used the cover of darkness to commit their crimes. It even became a separate crime. Housebreakers worked in the daytime, burglars by night between 1660 and 1800.

Curtains

Curtains weren’t a thing until the 18th century. When people first got them, neighbours assumed the worst regarding what was going on behind them. At that time everyone knew everyone else’s business. That’s not to say people hadn’t wanted privacy. The reason privacy became paramount then and not at any earlier time is because that’s when people started to accumulate personal possessions of their own. The words ‘privacy’ and ‘private’ didn’t exist in English until the 1400s. But by the time of Shakespeare these words were known and used by everyone. 

Edward Moran (American,1829 - 1901) Moonlight Sonata
Edward Moran (American, 1829 – 1901) Moonlight Sonata

Devil’s Work

In earlier eras across Europe, there were laws about what jobs were allowed to be done at night. Basically, working at night was considered very suspicious because night was for the devil’s work. People were even beaten to death for working after dark. However, you were allowed to work if it was in service to a noble family. You were also allowed to work if you were preparing for a carnival or fair. Depending on the culture, exemptions were made for overnight working. In Sweden and Amsterdam for instance workers were allowed to make beer overnight because beer was very important. 

Although work was generally not allowed at night, ‘day-labour’ really did mean from dawn until dusk, until modern labour laws came in. Just as well for the superstitions, I suppose, or the working class would never have been afforded sleep.

According to some belief systems, prayer, piety and church attendance can protect you from sin (darkness) because your body emulates light. Take the following from a Pentecostal churchgoer in Papua New Guinea:

When witches confess, they say things like: “When we encounter people who follow Jesus, when we would like to get close to them, there is a light! A strong light! It reflects against our vision, and we can’t get close to them.”

Becoming Witches

See Also

Header painting: Past and Present, No. 2 1858 Augustus Leopold Egg 1816-1863

Picturebook Study: Grey

Gray, the color we attach to characterless people, often suggests bleakness, lack of intensity, a cool detachment. The oppressively predominating gray of the stone walls surrounding Snow White’s mother in Burkert’s picture of her demands our detachment from her but also contrasts with the vibrantly colored patterns we see surrounding her as we look through her window into her room; perhaps as a foreshadowing of her daughter’s fate, she is a small spot of lively beauty in an otherwise bleak and forbidding world. In Inter-city, the wordless story of a train trip, Charles Keeping creates a similar relationship between what can be seen around a window and what can be seen through it. The feeling of boring detachment in the predominantly brownish grey pictures of passengers on a train contrasts with the vibrant colors of the world outside the train’s windows, which the passengers ignore. The contrast between the monochrome of the passenger pictures and the rich colours of the window pictures supports the central theme of the book: we see the passengers as they themselves see the world, and we see the richness of the world they miss because they do not bother to look at it.

Words About Pictures, Perry Nodelman

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j1s5PilVZn8

Inter-City Charles Keeping

and below is an interior image from Inter-City.

from Inter-City

Most of these greys have a hue to them. Yellow greys, orange greys… Then there is completely desaturated grey.

Daniel Miyares
Daniel Miyares

The Boy and the Airplane

Forest green makes an interesting accent colour against grey — it’s more often something bright like yellow.

girl-and-the-bicycle-9781442483194_hr

 

the farmer and the clown

 

Gaston

 

The Invisible Boy

 

Oliver

 

morris

 

Little Elliot Big City

Critics love Maurice Sendak. For a lot of academic stuff about Where The Wild Things Are see here.

Where_The_Wild_Things_Are_(book)_cover

 

Frederick-754x1024

 

wombatdiary

For a post on The Picturebooks of Chris Van Allsburgh see here.

Jumanji

For a full analysis of Blackdog see here.

Black Dog by Levi Pinfold, book jacket

 

 

Related

Do you know the word eigengrau?

Wenge: The best name for a colour never

Yet for some strange reason I haven’t heard the name of this colour used in advertisements much. I guess when it comes to the multifarious shades of brown, ‘coffee’, ‘cocoa’ and ‘chocolate’ variants win hands down.

See 10 more colours you’ve probably never heard of, and learn the colour of the year for 2013 (what, already?) at Mental Floss.