Seeing Blue: Science, Art, and Perspective

Absolut Rodrigue, 1993, one of many Blue Dog paintings created by George Rodrigue.
Absolut Rodrigue, 1993, one of many Blue Dog paintings created by George Rodrigue.

This week’s post will be quick, both because I’m hard at work on research deadlines again after Easter, and because the weather outside is too beautiful to waste any more time typing indoors than absolutely necessary. Sunny weather is incredibly precious here in Northern Europe, and you never know how much of it you’ll get in a given year. I’m eagerly awaiting the day someone makes a screen you can actually see anything on in direct sunlight. Honestly, I can’t believe Apple hasn’t solved this problem yet. Do they never work outside in Cupertino? They probably don’t know how good they have it with their 265 days of sun per year.

Anyway. In honour of my PhD research, today’s post is kind of a mashup between a lecture I attended last week and an article I read a few days ago. The two don’t really have much to do with each other, but I ended up connecting them together in my brain anyway.


The article was on the history of the colour blue, and about ‘the way that humans see the world and how until we have a way to describe something, even something so fundamental as a color, we may not even notice that it’s there’. Apparently, in 1858 William Gladstone (followed up by Lazarus Geiger) discovered that ancient cultures had very strange ways of describing colours in their writings, and that this also likely related to how they perceived the world. You can read the complete and fascinating story over on the Business Insider, of all places, but this part of Geiger’s work stood out to me:

Every language first had a word for black and for white, or dark and light. The next word for a color to come into existence – in every language studied around the world – was red, the color of blood and wine.

After red, historically, yellow appears, and later, green (though in a couple of languages, yellow and green switch places). The last of these colors to appear in every language is blue.

The only ancient culture to develop a word for blue was the Egyptians – and as it happens, they were also the only culture that had a way to produce a blue dye.

I found this idea incredibly striking. To me, the idea that people might not recognise blue is like something out of science fiction. (And now that I’ve got a deluxe edition of The Giver Quartet, I do think it’s high time to re-read Lois Lowry’s Gathering Blue.)

‘What is the color of honey, and “faces pale with fear”? If you’re Homer – one of the most influential poets in human history – that color is green.’

The article, which summarises a fascinating Radiolab podcast series on colour, continues by discussing the work of Jules Davidoff. Davidoff wanted to discover whether you can really see something that you have no word for, and so he conducted an experiment with the Himba tribe in Nambia, which has no word for blue, or to distinguish between blue and green, but does have more words for shades of green than most Western languages.

Davidoff discovered the following:

When shown a circle with 11 green squares and one blue, they could not pick out which one was different from the others — or those who could see a difference took much longer and made more mistakes than would make sense to us, who can clearly spot the blue square.

When the tables were turned, however, and the Himba were asked to look at a circle of green squares where one was a slightly different shade, they spotted it immediately. Can you?

Vidipedia/Himba Colour Experiment
Vidipedia/Himba Colour Experiment

You can find out if you were right at this link.

Clearly, language has a huge impact on perception. This brings me to the second subject of this blog post, a lecture by Michael Wood called ‘French Lessons’. At the recent Roland Barthes at 100 conference, Wood indirectly talked about the use of literature in discovering the strange within the seemingly obvious. His specific example was about the love of French philosophers for aphorisms – snappy, universalising catchphrases. Aphorisms are like little linguistic caricatures, saying things that we know aren’t really true, or that are too trivial to really matter even if they are true.

The Old Guitarist, painted in 1903 by Pablo Picasso, just after the suicide death of Picasso's close friend, Casagemas
The Old Guitarist, painted in 1903 by Pablo Picasso, just after the suicide death of Picasso’s close friend, Casagemas.

Some of the most memorable (and quotable) bits of language aren’t true in the traditional ways. ‘God is dead’, or ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’ don’t really say anything in a factual or practical sense. Despite this they still convey a great deal of meaning, and have a strange power to make us re-think things we once saw as obvious. We need this kind of caricature, Wood argued, to ever have a chance of escaping the limits of language. By the limits of language, what we’re talking about here is the ways we use language to reinforce what is normal, and also to categorise things and people that are not.

I could write a lot more about Wood’s lecture (and I probably will next week), but in the context of the history of blue it really resonates. One of the best side effects of art is how it illuminates the things that hide in plain sight. Life may seem complete, but then art reminds us of all the things our picture of the world leaves out. Just think of all the colours that might still be out there, waiting to be seen.

Vincent Van Gogh. Starry Night Over the Rhone, 1888.
Vincent Van Gogh. Starry Night Over the Rhone, 1888.



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