Color Makes Us Feel: A Photo Essay
Because I’ve spent too many years hiding from all things gray, literal and metaphorical.
Color theorists postulate that, as humans, we exhibit a tendency toward either chromo-phobia or chromo-philia — a fear of, or love of, color. For example, beyond “builder’s beige” or neutral whites, we’re all born with an instinctual preference for our own unique color palettes, or, not much color at all. Because colors, like scents and sounds, provoke an emotional response. They’re “charged,” in a way that makes us feel something, and respond accordingly.
How does the photo below make you feel? Happy, perhaps? The way you feel in the summertime? This glowing green-gold is the particular color I’ve recently chosen to feature in my bedroom, mostly because I don’t like to be cold. And I’m here to tell you it’s impossible to feel cold on a winter night, or a freakishly-windy day, when you have a soft, marigold-colored quilt keeping you warm, and reminding you that summer will come your way again — in every sense of the word. Wrapped in its warmth, I feel protected and ready. I am not waiting for anything. I am content.
I’ve always responded strongly to color, and not always positively. For instance, I dislike many shades of green, particularly pea-green and army-green, colors I associate with my father. Even though he left our household when I was very young, he left a tremendous amount of pain in his wake: hurting children, a grieving wife, pea-green walls in “his” man-cave, and green army-surplus cast-offs in the basement. These somber greens left behind almost an odor of sadness that clung to all of us. I also still get the heebie-jeebies when I encounter the deep, joyless green that evokes dark memories of my neighbor yelling at her children while standing on her porch surrounded by shade-tolerant hostas.
“Blue very profoundly develops the element of calm.”
Vasily Kandinsky, On the Spiritual in Art
As a counter-balance to a rough start in life, I craved LIGHT in the form of bright yellows and blues, while my sister craved the soft comfort of pinks and lavenders. Perhaps as a compromise, our mother painted the living room walls a pale turquoise like a robin’s egg — and she left them that way — the heart of our home casting a fragile but calming influence over the chaos until we were all out of the nest for good.
Then, one day, my sister came home for a long weekend and painted all of the walls a warm spring-green. Like a breath of fresh air, this “good” green swept in and inspired our mother to start over with a new, more-hopeful palette. Soon, there were white ruffled curtains at the windows and a braided rug in earthy tones of ochre and sienna on the hardwood floor. When you walked in, the house had the air of a comfortable place you didn’t mind coming home to, and a place that was nice to think about after you returned to your own life.
My sister, it seemed, instinctively knew that the right shade of green can be one of the most hopeful and healing of colors. Instead of feeling the cold emptiness of her echoing home, our mother was able to fashion a comfortable new nest in colors that are etched forever in my memory. Years later, when I was healing from a long, painful illness, I painted my own walls this same warm, spring-green. I willed the breath of fresh air to come rushing in, bringing new life and energy, and it did.
But before this, I had moved a long distance West, looking for my own blue skies. Blue has always been my color: It’s the sky above me, the ocean in front of me, the river’s reflection in the indigo light of evening, and the blue-green of my eyes. I found such wonderful, expansive, forever-blue skies in Colorado, and again, decades later, in New Mexico. They helped to make me who I am, or they lifted the veil of who I have always been.
But, in between my twenties and my fifties, I spent many years hiding from heavy gray clouds, literal and metaphorical, in the verdant Pacific Northwest — which, of course, is the natural result of all those gray clouds. I tried to compensate by dressing in bright colors, by painting the walls of my house in vibrant hues of road-stripe yellow and chili pepper, and by taking an occasional trip to Mexico, desperate for a color fix, my drug of choice, always.
After the long, gun-metal-gray death of my marriage, I craved color and light, as if these were the only possible sources of comfort and renewal I could imagine. When everything came crumbling down, I took a divinely-guided road-trip to New Mexico, where color and light led me home. I found, unexpectedly, streams of unearthly light shining down on a rainbow of adobe houses; I found the steady blue of the sky, the rich mud-brown of spring runoff in the Rio Grande, and the pale taupe of a Sandhill Crane lifting off at daybreak; I found lavender twilight settling over golden fields, and ruby-colored wine in the glass I sometimes hold in my hand at night.
The watermelon-color of the Sandias at sunset, a multitude of greens in the juniper-covered hills, and the blood-red formations of the Jemez Mountains infused new life into me at a time when I desperately needed it. My crayon box had been empty for such a long time, and now, it is comfortably full and accessible anytime, I want or need it. For me, color is life.
“The craving for turquoise is universal. Turquoise is capricious, it is alluring, no one leaves the Southwest without it, although its life seems to flee from it when it is removed from the bare, blood-red sandstone of its native land.”
Ellen Meloy, The Anthropology of Turquoise
Like laughter, good sex, and dancing — color is medicine. On the occasional overcast, winter day, I take myself to the market shops in Old Town — hoping that a bracelet in lovely shades of turquoise and coral, or a rug in shades of goldenrod and amber will light my inner fire again. Then, I duck in out of the rain and sit in the warmth of the Church Street Cafe, circa 1706. I enjoy my rich, earthy-red posole while pink, green, and violet Mexican flags flutter in the chill wind that’s traveled all the way from the East Mountains.
In the summer, my eye lights on a flame-colored torch-ginger in bloom, alongside a yellow cafe table, and a long string of New Mexican chili-peppers swaying in the monsoon rains. The dusty-red of the dried chilis is exactly the color of a Sandhill Crane’s forehead, and I wonder how that is possible.
In late October, I walk past a cactus garden on my way to my car, and home, imagining how the cotton-candy-pink fruits will look with a dusting of snow — and the perfect light of the afternoon sun turns the mud-brick walls to gold.
And so, I was thrilled to read Ellen Meloy’s The Anthropology of Turquoise and to know that another person, another writer, sees the world in a similar way. Her lovely words convey, so strongly, my own belief that color and light possess emotion, meaning, weight, gravity, and purpose. Here’s a passage of Meloy’s I particularly love:
“The true heart of a place does not come in a week’s vacation. To know it well, As Mary Austin wrote, one must “wait its occasions” — follow full seasons and cycles, a retreating snowpack, a six-year drought, a ponderosa pine eating up a porch.”
I love that image, of “a Ponderosa pine eating up a porch.” But to know a place well, we must also come to know its colors in every season and absorb them deep into our marrow. Colors root us to a place: Think of your childhood or the first place you fell in love and you will know that this is true.
For example, know this: the pale taupe of a Sandhill Crane’s underwings is the same color as the caprock on the left side of the road as I drive to the Jemez — the not-quite-white that always makes me wonder if it has snowed up there, even in July. It’s the same color as the shell of a pelagic octopus egg-case that I happened across on the Sea of Cortez on a fine January day. It’s the color of the aspens that hide in moist, well-drained pockets throughout the West, even in our beloved Sandias.
Know this: The fiery-red of a spotted Towhee’s eye is the same color, exactly, as the Indian Paintbrush on the crest of the Sandias in August.
Know this: The blues and greens of northern New Mexico are infinite in their variety and subtlety. For sure, no one can ever convince me that the desert is brown.