It’s been a while since I was asked what my favourite colour was, but the question has always struck me as a bit odd. Considering the infinite subtle shades that exist between the 380-740 nanometre wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation that make up visible light, isn’t it strange that anyone should have an arbitrary point in that spectrum that is their favourite, throughout their entire life, as if it were some biological fact about us like shoe size or eye colour? I think perhaps a more apt question is what is your favourite colour at the minute?
I go through favourite colours like I go through favourite songs. It changes probably every few months or so; with the seasons, or when some big event in life occurs. Life is never static. Parts of us are constantly dying and being lost to history, while other parts are grow and take their place. To assert that our colour preferences remain constant seems bizarre.
My current favourite colour is orange. One day, as I bought an orange shirt, it just suddenly dawned upon me that there was something deep inside me that was resonating with this colour.
Perhaps it was the autumn leaves, scattered on the pavement and clinging to the trees, as I walked to the shop, their intense, complex shades, from a distance, making the trees look alight with fire in the low sun. Up close, streaks of green, still clinging to the veins, interrupt and mix to produce a delicate yellow, one more reminiscent of October.
Perhaps instead it is the oranges I bought from the supermarket. A write of passage into the winter months that reminds me so acutely of Christmas holidays in my home town. When I was younger, my mother would always buy oranges, and many a long evening by the fire, read books to me and my siblings as we drank tea and chocolate. We would dry the peel in front of the fire, to use as kindling the next day. I would watch as the peel slowly thinned and charred in front of the flames, the oils slowly seeping to the surface.
But what makes orange orange? To define it as a wavelength of light seems callously reductionist. Surely the beholder plays a role in what orange is. Who’s to say my orange is the same as yours?
For me, the experience of seeing orange evokes memory and feeling. Even if I pay them no attention, I believe they are still there, in the back of my mind, altering my perception. If I go to the top of a hill to see the sunset, the orange I see is not just a wavelength. One day my mind might be cluttered with thoughts of work and my schedule and I see an orange that signals anxiety and alarm of time running out. Another day, perhaps when I’m feeling more idle and open, I see a peaceful and magnificent orange, containing that numinous sense the romantic writers talk about.
This is why I think our favourite colour changes throughout life. We are incapable of not attaching meaning to things we see – associating them with memories, thoughts, feelings. But as we get older, the associations we make change, even if the things we are associating don’t, because our outlook changes. Therefore, our current way of thinking, our world-view, profoundly alters our experience of beholding all things, not only colour.
I grew up near the moors, and my family would often go to them for long walks. All year round, the heather gave the landscape a brilliant purple hue, however during the spring and summer, bracken would grow up in dense green thickets. Then, during the autumn and winter, the bracken would die back, leaving a wilted mass of vegetation of the most beautiful burnt orange colour. I remember wading through those ferns, like vast, tangled snow drifts and feeling them brush, cool and wet, against my legs. Even though they killed the heather, and were often burned to the ground in huge areas of moorland to keep them from doing so, I loved them. The way they contrasted with the purple, giving the landscape a dappled texture, like the shade under a tree.
A long time ago my favourite colour was dark green. I can see why it might have been. Perhaps I was enchanted by the deep ivy that clung to the mysterious houses I walked past on my way to school. Or maybe, struck by the pure emerald of wet sea glass I found on the beach.
But now I feel differently. Green is the colour of jobs done, progress, measurement. Red and green are too often used to indicate success and failure, good or bad, in-the-green or in-the-red. When I look at a beautiful colour, I want to feel liberated from the daily struggles of life. I want to be reminded that goodness and beauty exists outside the narrow structures of work and society. For me, green is too much a colour of the narrow everyday.
Orange is different. Orange is ambiguous. A green tick means well-done, but what does an orange tick mean? Clarity is useful to get by in the world, to achieve material things, but it is boring. A certain ambiguity, uncertainty keeps us alive. When I look at orange I feel something but I’m not sure exactly what it is, and I don’t know whether other people also feel that. That’s exciting. Computers work with things that are completely clear, but as humans we have this wonderful ability to hold within us truth and understanding that is ill-defined, hazy, nebulous. That these truths are ambiguous doesn’t make them less true. I can’t tell you what it means to be in love, but I know if I am. These ambiguous truths are what separate us from pure computation, they give us our unique humanity.
So I encourage you to think about your favourite colour. You don’t need to somehow prove it is the best, but just think what do you see, remember and feel when you behold this colour? It’s no less true than anything else in this world.