The word “color” refers to a basic and nearly immediate property by which something presents itself to its audience. Nearly every sensuous medium possesses, produces, or inspires a sense of color. Color is conceivably objective, subjective, or illusory, depending upon how one considers its manner of manifestation; most literally, color is a visual quality, although non-visual media, such as sound and language, can also be said to possess characteristic colors. Hence, it has a ubiquitous and complex relationship to media.

The color of visible matter is arguably objective in that the color is characteristic of the matter’s material composition and its interactions with other matter: wine is red, sunsets are golden, et cetera. An object displays its color by reflecting or transmitting corresponding portions of the visible light spectrum while simultaneously absorbing all other portions of the spectrum that contact it. In this mode of thought, color has the power “to induce sensory experiences… understood as a sensory quality.” [1] However, color is simultaneously subjective because, arguably, it only exists in one’s perception as the eye reacts to light, and thus color’s significance is dependent upon the individual who perceives it. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe observes, “A grey object on a black ground appears much brighter than the same object on a white ground.” [2] To complicate things further, color is also arguably illusory; that is, objects do not actually have color at all because all physical accounts of objects do not explain why they are colored as such. This “illusion theory” is summarized in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “colors are conceptualized as objective, intrinsic features of physical bodies but, so it happens, there are no such features in nature. The essences are virtual, not actual.” [3] These varying theories on color are integrated; for example, in addition to illustrating color’s subjectivity, Goethe shows color to be illusory with his experiments that temporarily burned images upon his retinas. After viewing a brightly-lit circle for a sustained period of time, he switched his view to the darkest part of the room, whereupon he continued to perceive a circular image that gradually changed from yellow, to red, to blue, before disappearing entirely. [4] The colors were illusory in that they did not emanate from an existent object, but they were simultaneously as real as any other color source.

Thus, there are opposing approaches to philosophy of color, contrasting “color-as-in- physical-objects” with “color-as-in-experience.” [5] This dialectic is complicated by the fact that we learn and teach colors through paradigms, which rely both upon objective observation and subjective perception. In support of color as an intrinsic quality, David Hume writes, “a blind man can form no notion of colours…Restore [him] that sense in which he is deficient; by opening this new inlet for his sensations, you also open an inlet for the ideas; and he finds no difficulty in conceiving these objects.” [6] And yet Hume’s argument also supports the notion that color is experiential, that we need not perceive it strictly through causal connections; he continues:

Suppose…a person to have enjoyed his sight for thirty years, and to have become perfectly acquainted with colours of all kinds, except one particular shade of blue, for instance, which it never has been his fortune to meet with. Let all the different shades of that colour, except that single one, be placed before him, descending gradually from the deepest to the lightest; it is plain, that he will perceive a blank, where that shade is wanting, and will be sensible, that there is a greater distance in that place between the contiguous colours than in any other. Now I ask, whether it be possible for him, from his own imagination, to supply this deficiency, and raise up to himself the idea of that particular shade, though it had never been conveyed to him by his senses? I believe there are few but will be of opinion that he can. [7]

However, Hume’s theory of color takes it to be thoughtfully conceptualized, and does not deeply address the fact that color, in its quickness, rarely requires thoughtful mediation. We recognize an object’s color before recognizing the object’s iconography or symbolism because color does not require conscious interpretation; as David Batchelor writes, color “speaks to the senses rather than to the mind,” and thus, it is “the language of nature.” [8] Because of its immediacy, color can influence or control the way in which one perceives its object. Optically, certain colors appear more present, or closer to the foreground, than others; “pale yellow-green” is commonly perceived as the most foregrounded color of the spectrum. Subjectively, color is a sensible quality, so, as John Locke writes, it produces individualized feeling or emotions as the mind reacts to the sense. [9] For example, Goethe makes the generalization that yellow “carries with it the nature of brightness, and has a serene, gay, softly exciting character…This impression of warmth may be experienced in a very lively manner if we look at a landscape through a yellow glass, particularly on a grey winter’s day.” [10] Caught between objectivity and subjectivity is the impact of color as a tool; as Clement Greenberg writes, color is the optical means by which painting both imitates and resists the realism, the tactility, of sculpture. [11]

On the other hand, some conceptions of color treat it as something that is, in fact, mediated by its perceiver. As Gustave Moreau taught his art students, “you must think through color, have imagination in it. If you don’t have imagination, your color will never be beautiful…Color must be thought, dreamed, imagined.” [12] In addition to color as a foundation of imagination, it also acts as a very powerful metaphor. Thus, as Marshall McLuhan writes, it translates the experience of its perception into new forms; its perception is partly dependent upon cultural conditions. [13] Color is a communicative tool: green means go, red means stop, possibly even when viewed out of context. This is why one can confidently say that a certain visual color “is” melancholy, or a certain sonic color “is” an oboe, when clearly the color is merely symbolic or iconic of the association. Beyond commanded symbolism, though, Western societies associate color with things foreign, uncontrollable, or downright evil. According to Batchelor’s concept of “Chromophobia,” we associate color with drugs, homosexuality, infantilism, and uncontrolled jouissance. “To be colorful,” he writes, “is to be distinctive and, equally, dismissed.” [14] Color is inseparable from life, and thus, color is integral to nearly every other prejudice.

Hence, according to Batchelor, we default to colorlessness. Normality and safety are without color, as classically shown in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy falls from the routine safety of colorless Kansas into Oz, a land that is sometimes joyous, sometimes decadent, and sometimes deadly; but it is consistently brilliant in color. Her entry into color is indeed a fall in that she plummets from the sky as well as into unconsciousness. [15] When Dorothy is freed from her unconsciousness, she leaves her imaginary world and returns to a waking state of colorlessness. Color requires imagination not only because we experience it sensuously, but also because it does not physically exist in every imaginable form. In considering whiteness, Batchelor refers to a particular artist who “used tubes of white light — or rather daylight, or cool white, which is to say whites, not white.” [16] The multiplicity of whites, each of which one could accurately describe as, simply, “white,” shows the impossibility of actually viewing a pure form of white; an object that appears to be perfectly white when viewed against a black background may seem blue when viewed against a colored background. This “illusion theory” can be applied inductively to every other color as well as white, with the conclusion that color is entirely imaginative.

Frantz Fanon refers to the same imagined default of monochrome colorlessness when he claims that white is the skin color against which all others are gauged. He writes, “not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man…[Yet] the black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man.” [17] Caucasian skin is safe and reliable, while other skin tones mediate identity; Fanon later writes that he was forced to objectify himself by the discovery of his “blackness” (which, in the perceptions of his acquaintances, was produced primarily by his skin color, rather than by his character). In a passage that seems to anticipate McLuhan, Fanon rhetorically asks of his blackness, “What else could it be for me but an amputation…?” [18] Color in the racial sense, as in other forms, is dependent upon imagination: Fanon knows that his skin tone conjures prejudices. More literally, our imagination and artistic portrayals of caucasian skin approach the same “pure white” that we can only idealize, despite the fact that caucasian skin often appears more pink than white.

Fanon’s personal perception of his blackness, of course, is built upon much more than simply his skin color; rather, it stems from his ethnic characteristics, and all associated prejudices. His blackness is cultural, but it is also inescapable: subjective and objective. Hence, color as a non-visual quality is understood within the same dialectic of color-as-in-experience versus color-as-in-object. Consider sound, which can be described as possessing a certain color, or “timbre,” which refers to the shape or pattern of the waveform that interacts with the listener’s ear. The waveform, which exists as rapid fluctuations in the air, is created by the vibrations caused by a sound source (e.g. a bow) upon a sound filter (e.g. a cello string).19 Timbre makes sounds identifiable: a sine wave has a different timbre than a triangular-shaped wave, and as such, the ear reacts differently; a sine wave typically sounds “smoother” than a triangle wave. Timbre is conceivably objective in that sound waves are empirical; the waveforms that adjacent listeners hear are virtually identical. Subjectively, however, each listener may be stirred differently by the same sound; for example, a flute induces different emotional responses in different people.

Like visual color, we learn to describe sonic color through the use of paradigms. To describe a sound as “metallic” is to communicate a recognizable feeling of the sound without having to specify the acoustic processes that created the received waveform; yet the description is only recognizable to those who can comprehend the metaphor. Thus, sound color, like visual color, evokes associations, be they abstract (e.g. tranquility) or experiential (e.g. vomiting). Also, the context of the sound is important; just as a visual color changes appearance when viewed against differently-colored backgrounds, a sound source’s timbre is affected by external acoustic elements, such as the shape of the room in which the sound exists. [20]

The word color is used to describe feeling in other media, as well. A vivid literary scene can force the reader to imagine a distinct color palate if it mentions wooden furniture, a glowing fire, and sacks of pretzels. Or, independently of the story’s content, melancholy literature can be described as having a “blue” or a “cool” color. In that these comprehensions of color are commonly understood, they are objective; in that they are metaphorical, they are subjective; and lastly, they are illusory in that the textual color is conjured solely within the reader’s mind.

Due to the contradictions between objectivity, subjectivity, and illusion, color cannot be directly addressed in its complete existence, just as its relation to its corresponding media is complex, debatable, or ambiguous. It is, like language, “symbolical and figurative,” according to Goethe. Thus, he writes of colors, “They are not to be arrested, and yet we find it necessary to describe them; hence we look for all kinds of formulae in order, figuratively at least, to define them.” [21]

Geoff Stansbury
Winter 2007


1. Maund, “Color.”

2. Goethe, 15, pgph. 38.

3. Maund, “Color.”

4. Goethe, 15, pgph. 40.

5. Maund, “Color.”

6. Hume, 98.

7. Hume, 98-9.

8. Batchelor, 28, 25.

9. Locke, 123.

10. Goethe, 307, pgphs. 766, 769.

11. Greenberg, 70-1.

12. Gustave Moreau, quoted in Benjamin, 29.

13. McLuhan, 57.

14. Batchelor, 67.

15. Batchelor, 39.

16. Batchelor, 12.

17. Fanon, 110.

18. Fanon, 112.

19. Slawson, 28.

20. Fantel, 228.

21. Goethe, 300, pgph. 751.


Batchelor, David. Chromophobia. London: Reaktion Books, 2000.

Benjamin, Roger. Matisse’s “Notes of a Painter”: Criticism, Theory, and Context, 1891-1908. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1987.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991.

Fantel, Hans. The True Sound of Music: A Practical Guide to Sound Equipment for the Home. New York: Dutton, 1973.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Theory of Colours. trans. Charles Lock Eastlake. London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1967.

Greenberg, Clement. “Modernist Painting.” The New Art: A Critical Anthology. ed. Gregory Battcock. New York: Dutton, 1973.

Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. ed. Tom L. Beauchamp. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894.

Maund, David. “Color.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. entries/color/

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1994.

Slawson, Wayne. Sound Color. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1985.

Wyler, Seigfried. Colour and Language: Colour Terms in English. Tübingen: G. Narr, 1992.