Iam a Winter. I learned this back in the late ’80s, when my mom and I treated ourselves to a Color Me Beautiful consultation, based on the then-popular book by the same name. After an analysis of our complexions and our hair and eye colors, we were taught which colors our wardrobes should consist of, from hats to socks to jewelry. As a Winter, I was told that “clear, vivid, icy colors with blue undertones” make me look best. Mom and I left with our own individual wallet-sized booklets of fabric swatches (she was an Autumn), to use whenever we went clothes shopping.
I found my Winter swatch book recently while sorting through a closet full of mostly black, white and gray clothes. For the past five years, my studio’s palette has been like my closet’s. In my column “A Line Goes for a Walk... ” (March/April 2020), I described my goal of bringing color—lots of color—into my art making. Since then, I have collected yards of fabric remnants in many hues, and I’ve been sewing them into abstract shapes. Surrounded by all these fabulous colors, I still reach first for the “icy” end of each one’s spectrum, whether it’s blue, red or yellow.
I’m always curious about the aesthetic choices that artists make, in both their art practices and life in general. Where do our preferences come from? How is taste formed? Our visual sensibilities are influenced by obvious factors like upbringing, geographic location, gender and education, to name a few. But an equally powerful, though less obvious, force is at work: language.
Ever since I began my color quest, I’ve been noticing how words can influence my inclinations. As I said, I’m a Winter. I’m attracted to the colors that are “mine,” and I associate them with my visual identity. Last week, I walked by a hardware store and, through the window, saw a wall covered with rows of paint chips. I went in for a closer look. Next to these paint samples, there was a display of Sherwin-Williams brochures with various headings—Nurturer, Naturalist, Enthusiast, Dreamer and so on. I opened the brochure that I assumed would be me: Minimalist. The Minimalist personality read like a Myers-Briggs test result: “You appreciate beauty in all things. You look to your home as a place to decompress and truly be you. Uncluttered, undisturbed. This is you.” It suggested paints with names like Essential Gray, Reflection, Snowbound, Silverpointe and Crushed Ice. Yes! This is the palette of a Color Me Beautiful Winter! I was liking it even before looking at the actual colors.
Last December, Pantone announced its 2020 Color of the Year: Pantone 19-4052 Classic Blue, a shade reminiscent of “the sky at dusk.” On its website, Pantone explains Classic Blue’s place in various industries, from fashion (“a poised and self-assured blue hue, elegant in its simplicity. Genderless in outlook and seasonless in endurance”) to home decor (“a dependable blue that can take you in different directions, expressing tradition and elegance as well as unexpected boldness”). Other color-oriented companies weighed in with their color of the year: Behr’s is Back to Nature S340-4, a “restorative and revitalizing green hue that engages the senses and pairs well with other colors both inside and outside your home.” Benjamin Moore’s color of the year is First Light 2102-70, a “fresh palette. A revitalized spirit. A soft rosy hue blooming with potential.”
Language is used to give something subjective—i.e., the feeling of a color—an objective meaning, which is then delivered as a prescription for whole marketing sectors to follow. And lest you think you are immune to an industry’s persuasion, I suggest you stream The Devil Wears Prada and watch Meryl Streep’s monologue on cerulean blue.
A more scholarly look at the language of blue was on display from November 2016 through August 2019 at the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibition, titled Infinite Blue, used pieces in the museum’s collections to convey how the “spiritual and material aspects of blue ... tell us stories about global history, cultural values, technological innovation and international commerce.” The exhibition also highlighted language that portrayed and often influenced the ways that populations perceived blue, and how meaning morphed over time, signifying “such seemingly unrelated things as political allegiances (‘royal blue’), class and labor associations (‘blue collar,’ ‘blue jeans,’ ‘blue blazer’), gender (blue for boys, bluestockings), and military and authority figures (‘boys in blue’).” This year, I’m adding another political allegiance: “blue state.”
I’ve always trusted my visual instincts. I’ve been happy with my preference for minimal styles and cool palettes. But lately, I suspect that my aesthetic taste is more prescribed than I realized. How ironic: I love the Northeast because it has four seasons, but my artistic vocabulary has adhered to just one. I need to explore a broader language. ca