color


While Nathen is away at Not Back to School Camp in New Hampshire, I, his lonely fiancé, am trying to keep myself busy and in good company. To that end, I moved in with some friends of ours, Nick and Tilke, for a few days.

While I was staying there, Tilke and I talked a lot about colour (or “color,” as I might start spelling it after I get my green card). Colour is a lifelong passion of Tilke’s, and she is in the midst of revising a book she wrote and illustrated on the topic as well as writing the syllabus for a workshop called Experiencing Color.

Tilke's backyard studio

While talking to her about her workshop, I started to describe my own challenges with colour: Since I started making quilts a couple years ago, I’ve struggled with figuring out how I want to put colours together and have realized how little confidence I have about colour. When I do hit on something I like, I mostly don’t know why it works. I described how a few days earlier I’d been in a fabric store trying to choose a few solid colours to buy: when I went for my favourites, the ones that caught my eye –fuchsia, emerald green and bright blue– they looked terrible together. When I tried to narrow my choice down to two colours that I thought of as complementary, the connotations seemed all wrong. I ended up leaving without buying anything.

Plant-dyed fabrics, books about colour.

So here she was, someone trying to figure out how to teach people about colour, and here I was, a real, live colour novice with a hunger to learn. We went to look at her fabric stash and talk it out.

Tilke has a very distinctive colour palette that anyone who knows her would recognize, a family of colours she uses in her work and surrounds herself with. She described the way that certain colours in her family support or “bridge” other colours. I noticed as she moved fabric around that she mostly grouped her colours in sets of three or more. She agreed and showed me how adding a third colour can add a subtlety and depth that you can’t get with two colours.

I started to get a feel for what she was saying. I tried putting together my own set, choosing first a turquoise I liked and then adding another blue, a mushroom, a brown and an orange until – magic! – I had a group of colours that looked great together.

“What if you couldn’t have this one?” Tilke asked, and took out the orange. So I shuffled things around and brought in new colours until I had another set I liked. We talked about the importance of arrangement (which colours are beside each other) and proportion, looking at paintings and photos around her house for examples. Later we played a game with her new “colour library” of fabric samples, where we challenged each other to take the worst colours (eg: neon peach or drab burgundy) and make them beautiful by combining them with good supporting colours. Very fun!

I was so inspired that I started “editing” some patchwork pieces I’d sewn together a year ago that weren’t doing it for me: it suddenly seemed obvious which colours weren’t working, and taking them out made a big difference.

My quilt project, before and after colour editing.

We also had great talks and I got to try out throwing around medicine balls with them in the park (Ooof. My hands were too shaky to keyboard afterwards). It’s so fascinating to peer into – and join in on – other peoples’ lives like that. I’d like to do it again some time.

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My friend Tilke sent me a link to this short film depicting synesthesia, writing “This is what it’s really like.”

Folks with synesthesia experience what those without it might call a mixup of the senses–seeing sounds, feeling colors, that kind of thing. The most famous way synesthesia shows up is with the alphabet: A synesthete might see letters in different colors. It’s not that they associate colors with letters, they will actually see an “N” as inherently brown, for example, or an “E” as red. Numbers can have colors, too. Imagine how different your experience of reading or math would be if words and equations had color schemes!

At first I was fascinated by synesthesia in terms of what might cause it–maybe it’s the result of incomplete synaptic pruning, for example. In a lecture by Dr. Ed Awh in his Cognitive Psychology class a few years ago, though, I realized that synesthesia is more like a super power than a problem. Here’s a slide from the lecture:

 

Difficult, slow search for most of us, because we have to look at each digit to determine whether it’s a 2 or a 5. A synesthete with colored numbers does not have to do this, because color is what cognitive psychologists call a primary-search quality. Differences in color jump out at you. Imagine the same field of 2s and 5s, except the 2s were blue and the 5s were red. You could pick out the 2s immediately, like I saw Tilke do. A superpower!