Observing Cultures Through the Colour Wheel

Take a second and look around you.  Just do it.  What colours do you see?  What does this tell you about where you are?  Green trees?  Coloured cars?  Black sidewalks?

Even think about stores: the bright bold lights of the pharmacy, the colourful effect grocery stores make with their produce displays, the tantalizing colour coordinated outfits in retail store windows.  Colour is all around us and it helps us make sense of our world.

Colour is also important culturally.  If you want to experience the true richness of a society, sit back and simply observe – in colour!

picture from http://www.indianweddingsite.com


Here we have 2 shots of a bridal party.  One from a traditional Indian wedding, one from a traditional Canadian wedding.  Both beautiful (especially the second one..ahem…which just might be my own ;))

But both have a completely different look.  And both please our eyes in two very different ways.  It all comes down to colour theory…the traditional Canadian colour palette welcomes complementary colours or monochromatic shades (that is, different shades of one colour, like varying shades of blue) as most desirable.  The Indian colour schemes tend to be more triad or analogous in nature- that is, either colours being opposites on the colour wheel or being closer to one another on the colour wheel.

classic shades
The colour wheel, depicted here from http://www.classicshades.com, is attributed to Sir Isaac Newton drawings from the early 18th century.

One isn’t better than the other, but what each reveals is the way in which different cultures use colour to beautify, enrich, and make the world a more gorgeous place.

How is this helpful?

1) It helps us to become better enriched by another culture by seeing the world, the colour world, through its eyes.

2) It broadens our visual perspective.  Purple, blue, red…the colour scheme in the above wedding photo isn’t a traditional colour scheme from my own heritage – but what a beautiful trajectory it brings! It widens my understanding of how colours work together.

3) Colours also mean things to different cultures.  I wore red and black one day in Ghana and got “sorry sister” too many times to count, while walking down the street.  Turns out red and black are the funeral colours, worn when one is in mourning.  And we Canadian women know the one biggest faux-pas of your wedding attire as an invited guest – do NOT, under any circumstances, wear white.  That colour is solely reserved for the bride.  Some colours serve political or social meanings dependent on where you are travelling.  It’s good common sense to ask about the meaning behind colour patterns and palettes if exploring a new area, especially before wearing something traditional to your new culture.  Colour can have meaning!

Disney’s Pocahontas asks “can you paint with all the colours of the wind?” (lyrics written by Alan Menken, Stephen Laurence Schwartz, and Stephen Schwartz).

Beautiful.  Enriching.  Bold.  Subtle.  Constrasting.  So many different ways to describe colour.  It adds beauty and depth and life to the everyday.  Observe the colour around you, at home and while travelling.  You’ll gain a new perspective…and see the world in a whole different beautiful light.

For more information about colour theory, visit Peter Vukovic’s article “7 simple facts for understanding colour theory” at http://99designs.com/designer-blog/2012/08/29/the-7-step-guide-to-understanding-color-theory/


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