Primary Colors Secondary Meanings

lifestyle, culture, art
Written By Mary Landers

Close your eyes and picture a freshly painted barn. For North Americans, that image is a red structure. Red became the go-to barn color in the U.S. centuries ago when farmers painted their wooden barns with linseed oil enhanced with ferric oxide, or rust. The substance was cheap, easy to find around a farm and useful because it killed fungi and mosses that might grow on wood, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Rust turned the mixture a dusky red that’s now iconic, and still in use despite the ready availability of a rainbow of commercial paints with all manner of anti-fungal, anti-rot and UV protection engineered in.

Travel halfway around the world to Botswana and a similarly organic architectural preference plays out in house colors, says Zoran Markovic of the University of Botswana. But there it’s the Kalahari Desert that dominates the landscape and lends its colors even to modern dwellings.

“More than 80 percent of the residential houses are painted in the creamy, sandy or ochre colors,” Markovic says. “Traditional houses were decorated using natural sand, which you can find in several shades and colors in Botswana.”

Dig around in the roots of color preferences and associations nearly anywhere and you’ll find the same story, according to Markovic, who teaches the histories of art, architecture and design.


These deep-seated associations with color are what Leatrice Eiseman taps into when she chooses the color of the year.

Eiseman is executive director of the Pantone Color Institute and an author of nine books, who heads up her own color-consulting company. She leads a committee that has chosen the consummate color annually since 2000.

Eiseman’s committee looks for a color that’s reflective of trends and predictive of mood. “Those of us at Pantone who are responsible for doing our homework for choosing the color of the year travel a great deal,” Eiseman says. “We are not only in the U.S. but we travel to Asia to Europe to Africa—you name it. When you’re in the world of color you have these color antennae, I call it, that quiver when you start to see a color coming to the forefront.”

2013’s color is emerald, which immediately brings to mind the high value of a jewel. But Eiseman also delves into the more subtle emotional connections of a color.

“Emerald is the color of harmony,” Eiseman states. “Greens in general embrace undertones of yellow and blue so you’re bringing those two tones together, which seem to be in opposition. One is very warm and one very cool. But our emerald green, Pantone’s emerald, really is a happy marriage of those two undertones.”

Around the world, colors reflect divergent cultural histories.


Around the world, colors reflect divergent cultural histories.

Emerald green and Ireland is one example, says Lori Sawaya, owner of Color Strategies, a color-consulting business based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“The association with green for the Irish goes back to the whole fear of famine,” she says. “When things were lush and green that signaled prosperity and growth to them. That’s why green is good luck.”

But green’s opposite on the color wheel, red, means good luck in China. Children still receive lucky red envelopes stuffed with cash to celebrate the Lunar New Year across Asia. Red is traditionally the color of prosperity, happiness and marriage across much of the Asian continent.

It’s not safe to assume, though, that these traditions are always upheld, warns Eiseman. When she first traveled to Taipei in the 1990s she was told she’d never see a bride in a white dress; they always wore red.

“Because red signified abundance and fertility,” Eiseman recalls.

It didn’t take long to see how that notion had evolved.

“When I walked down the street going to the main square in Taipei I saw these photography shops where they would show a bride in a beautiful white dress with a long white veil,” says Eiseman. “Then maybe you’d see a few pictures of brides in the culturally correct dress, what their mothers and fathers might have done. Then I walked to the square, and I can’t tell you how many couples were in the square looking exactly like they walked off the streets of San Francisco or Chicago or anywhere else in the U.S.”

Eiseman said she still finds books that caution against using white in China because it’s the color of mourning.

“But that is such an old concept,” she states.

By the way, that white dress, the quintessential Western sign of purity in a new bride, is a relatively new phenomenon kicked off by Queen Victoria’s choice of a white silk wedding dress when she wed her love match, Prince Albert, in 1840.

Before that, brides made do with their best dress no matter the color. Few would have had impractical white dresses to spare.


Victoria may have kicked off a rage for white weddings, but for many of her royal predecessors, purple was sartorial splendor. There’s a good reason for that. Purple was scarce.

In ancient times about 25,000 mollusk shells had to be hand pounded to produce just an ounce of Tyrian purple dye. Kings were the only ones who could afford a purple wardrobe.

“Many little hammers were found in the ruins in Phoenicia where slaves were employed to tap these tiny mollusks and get out the little droplets of purple,” Eiseman explains. “You can imagine how labor intensive that was, and expensive.”

The golden yellow-orange of saffron comes from an equally difficult effort. About 15,000 stigmas from the saffron crocus—about a football field’s worth of the small flowers by one estimate—must be gathered to make just a little more than a pound of saffron for dye. It, too, became a color of nobility or status. Hand plucked from the flowers, those stigmas lent their hue to the traditional robes of Buddhist and Hindu monks.

By the mid-1800s technology started coloring the world. The story goes that a young chemist in London, William Perkin, was given the task of finding a formula for artificial quinine to treat malaria. The 18-year-old instead discovered the world’s first synthetic dye when a brilliant mauve bloomed in a flask he was cleaning with alcohol. He patented the resulting dye, aniline purple, and made his fortune.

“Technology definitely has shown itself to be a great influence in how we look at color and what’s available to people,” Eiseman says.

Yet meaning can linger in our collective psyche. Purple may still symbolize wealth and royalty even though there are easy, economical ways to make it.


The Pantone groups looks at colors emerging in movies, in fashion and in interior design all over the world before choosing its color of the year.

Globalization means that choosing a color for a product is less perilous than it once was, Eiseman says, because there are so many shared influences around the world. She adds a caveat.

“You have to be very cautious. When you look at the cultural aspects related to a certain age group, perhaps living in certain areas, they’re still very much attuned to that understanding of a color,” Eiseman explains.

“The more sophisticated people are or the more access they have to the Internet, the more they read, the more they travel, the more they are adapting an international perspective.”

So while yellow, say, is a color reserved for royalty in the minds of elderly Chinese, their grandchildren feel freer to wear it in everyday clothes. Some lingering color associations, however, may be too ingrained to overcome, as the case of Orange Telecom attests.

In the early 1990s Orange wanted to expand into Northern Ireland, and introduced itself with the campaign “The future’s bright … the future’s Orange.” But in Northern Ireland orange is also the color of the Orange Order of Protestant loyalists. Not surprisingly, the company changed its ads to avoid offending the Irish Catholic population who had a long-standing conflict with Irish Protestants.


Research compiled by paint maker Sherwin Williams shows the generational evolution of color associations.

The paint company’s research shows North American Baby Boomers “seek self-expression and spirituality in color,” leading them to prefer sky blue azure, and neutral tones that take on the undertones of the colors around them like grays matched with plum or green. But Gen Xers, raised in a more globalized economy, gravitate toward colors from around the world such as vibrant Chinese reds and exotic greens from the Australian landscape. Go even younger—meaning the Millennials born since 1980—and you’ll find that “cool sophistication” is the design goal.

Given the changing cultural influences across geography and time, is there a color that’s best loved? Studies indicate blue is about as close as we fickle humans get to a universally approved hue. Eiseman suggests sky blue, because we all share the sky.

Blue is about as close as we fickle humans get to a universally approved hue

“Even if it’s not a beautiful day, it’s what we hope we’re going to see when we wake up in the morning,” Eiseman says. “This is truly a universal phenomenon.”

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