New directions in colour studies

New directions in colour studies. Ed. by Carole P. Biggam, Carole A. Hough, Christian J. Kay, and David R. Simmons. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2011. Pp. xii, 462. ISBN 9789027211880. $158 (Hb).

Reviewed by Francesca Bargiela-Chiappini, University of Warwick

This book is a collection of thirty-five chapters, organized into seven sections and preceded by a short preface. The collection represents the work of delegates to the second conference on progress in colour studies (PICS) held in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2008. As an attentive (and critical) reader of most essays, I agree with the editors’ view that the book has achieved the original objective set for the conference, which is to create a ‘multidisciplinary forum’ on color studies ‘accessible to scholars in other disciplines’ (ix). A few chapters are highly technical in language and content, but most are within reach of the educated reader.

The essays on color perception are particularly interesting, including ‘Touchy-feely colour’ (Section 1), ‘Languages of the world’ (Section 2), and ‘Colour in society’ (Section 3). Other  essays include ‘Individual differences in colour vision’ (Section 5) and ‘Colour preference and colour meaning’ (Section 6). Collectively, these essays afford the reader a fairly detailed yet accessible understanding of many facets of a truly exciting field of study, one that ‘impacts on so many areas of human experience’ (159) as diverse as architecture, art, literature, onomastics, and semantics.

We learn, for example, how the current color-coding scheme (Munsell Colour Chips) excludes 95% of world’s color terms (43), how colors feature prominently in Scottish surnames, and how the color blue in Francis Bacon’s painting reflects the artist’s pain. Rather than treating vision as ‘the most passive of senses’ (28), a phenomenological understanding of color proposes ‘vision as active’ (31) and draws a strong analogy between vision and touch, whereby ‘the gaze is something like a grasp’ (33).

For approximately 4.4% of the population who have a condition called synaesthesia, the experience of color perception can be triggered by stimuli from other domains like sound, touch, and smell. The associations are both very specific and consistent over time, so, for example, ‘a synaesthete might describe the sound of a middle C on the piano as a silver-grey ball seen in left-hand space’ (311). This phenomenon is no less intriguing than the relationship between colors and the emotions that they evoke, or the colors and the adjectives used to describe them. This is why color studies encompass a wide spectrum of scholarly endeavours, and this book is engaging also for the non-specialist reader looking for an analytic and systematic approach to the understanding of one of the most common of human experiences.