In Living Color 

Thursday, Jul 24 2003

My back yard recently inherited an aging tree that straddled the property line between me and my neighbors. The tree had been hidden all these years by a faded redwood trellis. I’d always considered the tree theirs, but that changed when they sold the place to a yuppie chick who immediately erected a cheap fence that created a weird strip of land that was fenced in on all sides with the tree in it. I huffed and puffed and tore down the old redwood trellis facing my side, dreaming about a new, bigger back yard, only to discover a very large, old, gray, sad-looking trunk in front of the glaring white fence. A bucket of midtoned dusty-green paint later, and the white was gone. That dreary tree came so alive you’d have thought Walt Disney had passed by and pissed on it.

A few hundred years ago, Sir Isaac Newton passed light through a pair of prisms and discovered that white is a mixture of all colors of the visible spectrum, and consequently reflects the most light. This is why my old tree trunk came to life when I replaced the white with a dusty green. The white had been reflecting so much light it was impossible for the human eye to perceive the beautiful subtleties of the old gray bark.

Thank God for color, an effect produced when light strikes an object and reflects back in your eyes. When you control light, you control color. Finesse the two, and you can control reality. We spend so much time considering the right colors to be seen in or drive around in, but for many people, not nearly as much thought goes into choosing the colors to live in. The perception of color creates phenomena that affect all living things in some way, shape or form. Flowers use color to attract insects in order to spread their pollen. Chameleons change color to be invisible in front of their enemies. Squid not only change color, but when things get tense, they eject huge sprays of dark ink to create a smoke screen.

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Different colors do different things. Ancient doctors used colored gems for healing purposes, and in the 1800s, color therapists started using waters exposed to colored light as cures (modern New Agers use both). For thousands of years, intense color was a luxury of the rich — the ingredients to make dyes were very scarce. Purple was pricey and worn only by royalty: When Alexander conquered Persia, his best booty was some purple robes said to be worth $6 million by today’s standards. In A.D. 273, Emperor Aurelian refused to let his wife buy a purple silk garment because it cost its weight in gold.

Colors go in and out of fashion. In Celtic myths the Green Man was the god of fertility. Early Christians banned green because it had been used in pagan ceremonies. But by the 15th century, the color green was the best choice for a wedding gown because of its earlier symbolism. Anyone who chooses a green M&M is sending a somewhat similar message. Green was reinterpreted by late-20th-century American culture to signify a state of heightened sexuality. Green is reported to have healing powers — namely, soothing pain. The rate of suicide from London’s Blackfriars Bridge dropped 34 percent after it was painted green.

The first really great reds were perfected by the Mayans, who distilled a dye by gathering millions of cochineal insects. When they were conquered by Montezuma in the 15th century, every Mayan city was required to pay the Aztecs an annual tribute of 40 sacks of cochineal. Thanks to Pizarro and Cortez, cochineal was shipped back to Europe, where, like purple before, it became quite the raging commodity, with popes and painters getting first dibs. Red is the color of love, the color of blood, a great color for all blonds, and the perfect color to liven up an otherwise dreary beige apartment. Dining rooms love it.

Blue was in ancient times considered barbaric thanks to the Picts of northern Britain, who dyed their skin with indigo in an effort to scare off Roman invaders. The stigma was brought back to Rome, where having blue eyes was deemed a deformity, and men with blue eyes were considered effeminate. In the 1300s, the Protestant Reformation pushed blue as a moral, dignified color to replace the raucous reds that had been the color du mode of religious royalty. By the 19th century, blue had become the fashion favorite of Western culture, and in World War I, French soldiers, who had historically worn bright-red pants to battle, quickly switched to blue after 10,000 of them were easily massacred. By the end of the 20th century, blue jeans were worn worldwide, and today blue is internationally considered our most popular color — and it’s the most peaceful color to sleep and wake up in.

For too many years now, white rooms have been a cop-out to color commitment. Why are so many people afraid of color, especially now that it’s gone from being an elitist luxury to the cheapest, easiest way to renew and transform our lives? A bed of beautiful white linen is far more exciting in a bedroom of cool blue walls than in a stark white room where the bed all but disappears and the slightest bit of light will end up in your face when you’re trying to sleep or do other things. Enlightened museums and galleries have finally realized that most art looks better on midtoned walls that aren’t brighter than the art. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam recently re-hung all its Rembrandts amid huge floating panels of textured red, blue and deep aqua — and the paintings have never looked better.

Exploring color is so simple, and one of the most universal ways we have to explore ourselves. In spite of what trendy shelter magazines tell you, there are no rules: Any combination of colors is right if it pleases your eye and makes sense in your world. The range of available color, as we know it, has been around for less than a hundred years. In 1903, there were eight colors in the first box of Crayola crayons. By 1998, there were 120.

Technology applied to the production of fabrics, paints and modern media has re-colored the world. A new wall color can restore life to your old bathroom tiles or faded furniture. A dusty bentwood chair will sit up and take notice if you sand it down and over-stain it with some colorful aniline dyes that tickle the beauty of the wood. A windowless interior hallway can take on a point of view with the right color, and make walking down it an adventure. Your computer is the coloring book of the 21st century. Take snapshots of your space and download them into a graphics software program where you can re-color any- and everything until you find the right mix of magic. You’ll amaze yourself in Technicolor.

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