titleOn The Phenomenology of Purist Blue

name. K. Dot. 

On the Phenomenology of Purist Blue


Mary was born in a black and white house. She was never allowed to go outside and her only electronic device was a black and white television monitor. She was nonetheless deeply curious about colour. Every day, she would spend hours investigating its properties and, after a few years, she became a true expert in the neurophysiology of vision. She knew the wavelength of every shade in existence and how that information was translated in our visual cortex. She understood all of the additive and subtractive rules of colour, and could tell you all the names given to the different nuances of the vast colour palette, even though she had never seen colour herself.

One day, she decided to step outside. She looked up and was immediately bombarded by the radiating blue sky above her. Did this experience teach her anything new?

I’m sure that a lot of you are acquainted with this famous thought experiment proposed by Frank Jackson in 1982. He called it the knowledge argument but it’s famously known as Mary’s Room, and it sparked a huge debate among philosophers, artists and laymen alike. It seems obvious that Mary learned something new when she saw colour for the first time. Jackson wanted to provide a strong argument against physicalism, namely the view that the universe, including all that is mental, is entirely physical. The thought experiment highlighted the fact that qualia do exist, namely, the subjective, qualitative properties of experiences conceived as wholly independent of behaviour and disposition. Put in another way, each of our conscious realities are impossible to put into words because they are a piece of knowledge in itself. This realm of experience, this world of truth beyond words and rationality is very hard to navigate and even harder to communicate. That is, in my opinion, what art tries to achieve. In a world where physicalism is the majority view, in which people think that everything can be explained through the use of mundane language, I am delighted to see a project like this magazine, celebrating art and colour, and allowing everyone to explore it with no preconceptions.

I am deeply passionate about colour and its use in art and design. It is clear that every shade in existence has its own idiosyncrasies and resonates with people in different ways, but it is important for us to explore how each colour affects us personally. The famous 20th century painter William Kandinsky, one of my heroes, says that "colour provokes a psychic vibration. It hides a power still unknown but real, which acts on every part of the human body”. I couldn’t agree more. 

The current issue deals with purist blue and it’s a colour that I hold dear in my heart. It’s not that I have any favourites, I love them all equally! But purist blue has a characteristic that I find particularly sublime. To understand it, I first need to mention the ideas of my good friend Nietzsche. He once said that art can be divided in two. The first strand deals with order, harmony and transcendent beauty, showing us something that is beyond our mundane lives. He calls this Apollonian beauty, after the Greek god Apollo, who is the god of the sun, rational thinking and purity. Good examples in music, for instance, would be the works of good old Bach, the electronic music of Four Tet or the spiritual jazz of John Coltrane. On the other hand, Dionysian beauty - after Dionysus, the god of wine, dance, irrationality and chaos - explores the nature of human emotions in a visceral way. It is a beauty that recognises the universality of the human condition and extrapolates the core emotions and experiences of mankind as a whole through a first-person view of the world. In a way, it is more human, more subjective. It is easily mappable to our own views about reality. Again, If I was to give examples in music, I could point to the romantic composers of the 19th century, like Wagner, or today’s rappers, like Kanye West or Kendrick Lamar.

The amazing thing is that this dichotomy applies to pretty much anything that affects us emotionally, and colour is not an exception. For centuries, artists have used colour to support the effective transmission of their message. If their work aligns more with the apollonian aesthetic, then it’s common to see cold, austere and impersonal colours, to reinforce the transcendental nature of the piece. These colours are the ones that lie in the low frequency range of the colour spectrum, a very common one being navy blue. This one is planet’s elemental hue. Present in the night sky and in the deep blue ocean, dark blue has had an important impact in all cultures, across all periods of time, making it so that the associations we have with it are rooted deep within our psyche. It is the subject of countless poems and recurs throughout our literature, transforming it into more than a mere chromatic phenomenon. As the contemporary Bulgarian writer Maria Popova puts it, dark blue is “a symbol, a state of being, a foothold to the most lyrical and transcendent heights of the imagination”. A couple centuries before her, the great German author Goethe published Theory of Colours, in an effort to unearth the psychological link between colour and emotion. In there, he said: “As the upper sky and distant mountains appear blue, so a blue surface seems to retire from us. But as we readily follow an agreeable object that flies from us, so we love to contemplate blue — not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it”. Dark blue is a portal to dark and mystical worlds, and it's the staple colour of the apollonian ideal. Going back to Kandinsky, he says of blue that “the deeper it becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and, finally, for the supernatural…”. On the other side of the spectrum (figuratively and literally), we find the Dionysian colours, the ones used to express strong human emotions. Their warmth and fullness can be used to convey a plethora of feelings, from love and affection, to pure, primal lust. These are obviously the reds, oranges and yellows.

In order to fully convey the emotional impact of all these colours, I decided to run an experiment. It just so happens, like many of you I believe, that I have a compulsive habit of mindlessly drawing doodles. From the classic cubes to the various unsightly 2D letterings, I fill my notes with these drawings and shapes. Unlike some of you talented people, my poor drawing skills give rise to quite unappealing doodles, to put it gently. As I was studying for exams, I noticed some of these drawings and wondered how such bland creations could be transformed into something with some emotional charge. The answer: colour, of course! Having no colouring pencils or any sort of paint (god forbid), I scanned them, downloaded a free trial of Photoshop, and painted them digitally. I started with this one:

As you can probably see, the notes around the drawing refer to many of the ideas in this piece. It's because it was that doodle that gave me the idea of writing it. As I saw it again, it was clear that the random lines I drew kind of suggested the representation of a mom and his (pretty ugly) baby. Now, any scene depicting a moment like this, should convey a feeling of warmth, affection, love. My drawing, on the other hand, had none of that. So, I decided to use the aforementioned "Dionysian colours” to give some life to it, and this is the result:

Not great, but hopefully, it shows how a bit of red and orange can really impact the emotional content of a work. As a second experiment, I did the same thing with navy blue:

See that weird shape with squares in it, kind of resembling a whale? This is what I did to it:

Again, not my proudest work, but enough to see how a bit of blue can generate that gloomy feeling of emptiness and immensity. If my questionable art wasn’t enough to convince you of the power of colour, I know something that will. If pictures are worth a thousand words, then a single Mark Rothko painting can say more than an entire library. Take a look at these two:

He didn’t give any suggestive names to these pieces and he didn’t need to. The colours say it all. To further reinforce this argument, imagine if Van Gogh’s Starry Night was in red or if the sky in Edvard Munch’s iconic The Scream was blue... A disagreeable sight indeed!

All this talk and no mention of purist blue! Well, I tried to give you an idea of the polarising effects of colour. If dark blue can pull us to an impersonal world of mystery, it is also true that we can be seduced by the eccentricity and charm of velvet red. I love being affected by both of these polar opposites, but sometimes in life, wisdom is in the middle way. And in the middle way, there’s purist blue! This colour evokes the sky, but not a scary one. It reminds us not of the deep blue ocean, but rather of the calm lakes and the joyful Mediterranean seashores. It revives the memories of warm summer evenings spent by the beach with the blissful presence of my friends and family, without resorting to the vividness of the hot and brash shades of red. After months of living in the unforgiving Edinburgh winter, it is reassuring to see this colour and be reminded of those long and lazy sunny days back at home. Further up, in the picture of the page with my drawing of the whale, there are two frames with a simple and bleak drawing of a sunset by the beach. Following the same method, I added some purist blue and stayed by the beach with my friend for a while.