What is Colour Like?

  1. The title of a recent post on Flighty’ s blog got me thinking  about colour, how we perceive it and its importance to us as gardeners. So I have borrowed Flighty’s title for this post.

As gardeners we  love colour and we all share the same names for the same colours but how can we ever know if we perceive colour the same way? We probably don’t.

Researchers have found that people vary in the number of colour sensitive cones in their retinas. Some people, usually men, are colour blind when it comes to green and brown shades. Other people have a heightened sensitivity to colour. They are called ‘‘tetrachromats’. Our colour sensitivity starts in photoreceptors in the back of the eyes. Most of us have three photoreceptors. They are  responsible for enabling us to see red, green and blue. Tetrachromats have four photoreceptors which make them extra sensitive to colour. Birds, reptiles and insects are tetrachromatic too but they have an extra bonus in being able to  see infra red and ultraviolet light. Bees can see markings on flowers which are invisible to us.

Photoreceptors in the eye don’ t tell us what colour something is though. They send messages to the optic nerve and then to the brain which sifts through the information and  interprets the colour differences.

We can’ t see colour in the dark because  colour is based on the reflection of light as Einstein discovered. Our perception of colour is the result of the way an object absorbs and reflects light.

I hope I have got this right; I am not a scientist and reading up  about how we perceive colour has made my head spin. It occurs to me that the way we see colour could also be conditioned by the society we grow up in and the words available to describe colour. Our use of words make things our own and if we have no word to describe something are we aware of its existence? Language shapes how we see the  world. Remember Homer’ s ‘wine- dark sea‘? The Aegean sea is blue.  Homer constantly referred to it as ‘wine- dark’.  I don’ t suppose wine in Ancient Greece was blue. So presumably the colour of the sea was perceived differently, perhaps because there was no word to describe the particular shade of blue. Homer also referred to the sky as bronze and honey as green. It seems the Greeks may have perceived colour differently.

If we all see flower colours differently this could explain why we like and dislike certain flowers. My recent post on taste in flowers got some interesting comments. Some people, me included, really dislike certain flowers and others love those very same flowers. I wonder if we perceive their colour differently?  I can’ t think of any other explanation.

But on the other hand  it could be that different colours affect our mood and emotions differently. Most of us love blue flowers and blue is generally thought to induce feelings of calm and tranquillity.

IMG_4661 DSC_0006[1]Reds and hot colours are said to be warm but they can also induce feelings of anger and hostility.  Red stimulates the heart rate and makes you alert. And of course it is the colour of love.
DSC_0235[1] Orange is a warm  colour; it is supposed to make you feel good by  triggering the release of the brain chemical, serotonin.
DSC_0232[1]Yellow is the colour
of sunshine and summer. It is the most luminous colour and the one the eye processes first.
IMG_4677Pink is supposed to be calming and prison cells in some parts of the the US have been painted pink to reduce prisoners’ aggression.
DSC_0228[1]  Green, the colour of the natural world, is said to relax us. Though whether this Echinacea ‘Green Jewel’ will relax some bloggers who I know dislike green flowers is debatable.
White suggests purity and innocence. This Lilium longiflorum does anyway. And it is easy from seed.


Purple means power and wealth and maybe passion?
IMG_5168Violet is supposed to be a spiritual colour.  This all sounds a bit New Agey to me. Colour therapists tell you what colour clothes to wear and what colour to paint your walls but so far as I know they don’ t tell you what colour flowers to grow.  I don’ t know how much scientific evidence there is for these ideas about colour affecting our moods but colour certainly defines our world and how we react to it. Anyway, it was an excuse to show you some of the things I have in flower at the moment.

When it comes to our perception of colour there are people who live in a world of colour that we can only imagine. They are synaesthetes; that is people whose neurological wiring causes them to experience different senses at the same time. Colour may trigger a sense of smell and sound or taste. Some of them see letters, numbers and words in colour.  Or they experience  colour as a sound or the other way round.  This strange intermingling of the senses must create a psychedelic world which is hard to imagine. The artist, Wassily Kadinsky claimed to be able to see sound and hear colour. He wanted to paint symphonies.

Romantics of the nineteenth century thought that synaesthetes were in some way nearer to God because they had a deeper understanding of the unity of the Universe and how things connect. The idea that they are more spiritual than other people is no longer believed but it is possible that understanding how they perceive the world can tell us something about human consciousness. They show us that reality is not the same for everyone.

When I discovered the poems of the French decadent romantic poet Charles  Baudelaire, as a student, I did not realise that he was a synaesthete. All the same I found his poem ‘Correspondances‘ hauntingly beautiful. It seemed to offer a new, visionary way of looking at the world.


La nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles
L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme une nuit et comme la clart
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se r

Il est des parfums frais comme de chairs d’enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
—Et d’autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants,

Ayant l’expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens,
Qui chantent les transports de l’esprit et des sens.


Nature is a Temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with understanding eyes.

Like prolonged echoes mingling in the distance
In a deep and tenebrous unity;
Vast as the dark of night and as the light of day;
Perfumes, sounds and colours correspond.

There are perfumes as cool as the flesh of children,
Sweet as oboes, green as meadows
-And others are corrupt, and rich, triumphant

With power to expand into infinity,
Like amber and incense, musk, benzoin
That sing the ecstasy of the soul and senses.

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52 Responses to What is Colour Like?

  1. Maybe Homer meant the colour of the sea had depth and richness comparable of the darkness of wine, rather than the actual shade of colour ? Or maybe he was just colour blind – just a thought ! Lovely post and pics 🙂

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you and thank you for your comment. Maybe Homer just didn’ t have a word to describe the exact shade of blue or maybe as you say he wanted to convey richness and depth. We’ ll never know now.

  2. croftgarden says:

    It is easy to become confused when you add psychology, philosophy to physical science and throw in some linguistics for good measure. In the end it probably all comes down to translation. Light hitting the retina stimulates cells and this information is translated by the brain into an image. This is where the problem begins as what we perceive (i.e. how the brain interprets the information from the retina) is not necessarily what we “see”. The brain does not analyses each piece of information it receives, it relies on experience to a certain extent. So if buttercups are 99.99% of the time yellow, unless there is contradictory information, the brain informs us that we are seeing yellow buttercups. This is OK until we wish to communicate this information. If we share a common language we will probably agree that buttercups are yellow, but if we do not and my language has no word for yellow, we have a translation problem. Similarly we might both agree that buttercups are yellow, but that does not mean that we are both seeing what the other perceives to be yellow. I think this is where there has to be some kind of cultural norm that allows us to agree that buttercups are yellow. Now I have solved that little problem I can get back to the ironing!
    P.s. Great photos!

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you for your lovely clear scientific explanation Christine. What still puzzles me though is whether you can actually see the yellow of the buttercups if you have no word in your language to describe it.

      • croftgarden says:

        Your brain recognises the signal from the optical nerve as “yellow” it doesn’t matter that you have no word for yellow as you can call it what you like in one or many words.

  3. snowbird says:

    What an interesting post, I often think about how different animals and birds see colour. To us plain blackbird is simply black yet to another it’s utterly radiant.
    Hospitals also know how colour can assist healing, and certain images, floral and seascapes produce remarkable results, it’s such a fascinating subject.xxx

    • Chloris says:

      It is a subject that fascinates me. I think as gardeners colour is particularly important to us. But then if you are a bee it is important to you too. After all the colour of flowers is designed to attract pollinators. I wonder whether bees have an aesthetic sense and buzz around thinging’ Gosh, this flower is just so beautiful’.

  4. An interesting and thoughtful post on a complex topic. I have never heard before that orange is supposed to make people feel cheerful or that it triggers the release of serotonin. I can say for certain that your photos have made me feel cheerful and have put me in the mood to go plant-shopping. What’s the aster cultivar in the top photo? Is that Thalictrum growing with it? I love that subtle combination and may have to borrow it myself.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you, I am glad you enjoyed it. That is a Thalictrum in the first photo with my favourite Aster. It is the first to flower and is so reliable, I wouldn’t be without it. It is Aster frikartii ‘ Monch’.

  5. Kris P says:

    You do present the most interesting posts, Chloris! I live with a severely red/green color blind husband and have found that the differences in what we see (not to speak of how he dresses when he’s left to his own devices) have led to some colorful discussions. (His attempts to work on electrical wiring, with its reliance on color-coded wires, without a “color consultant” standing by strikes terror in my heart!) I have questions about my own perception of color whenever someone calls a flower I see as blue “purple” or vice versa. And then, if you add the subtle changes that occur in the perception of a color when it is paired with one or more other colors, the differences in what is perceived by individuals may become greater still. It seems that beauty is indeed “in the eye of the beholder.”

    • Chloris says:

      I am always baffled by lists of blue plants in garden magazines which include purple ones. I always wonder whether people are just being lazy grouping them together or whether they really see them as blue.
      My husband confuses green and brown although he insists that he is not colour blind, he was tested for his pilot’ s licence. But I wonder how much colour he does see, he is totally uninterested in flowers.
      I can see how important colour is to you, you put together beautiful, vibrant colour schemes.

  6. jenhumm116 says:

    Another wonderful, thought provoking post.
    I’ve often wondered whether others see the same colours I do and don’t think I’ll ever really know.
    One issue related to your information on synesthesia is the idea that some people ‘see’ music in a different colour depending on the key it’s written in.
    What amazing things our brains are, and really so very undiscovered.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Jenny. I didn’ t know that about people with synesthesia. I wish I knew someone who experiences it I would love to find out what it really feels like.

  7. I think color has such an ability to create varied emotional responses in everyone. I leave a very bright classroom every day for a warm, earth toned house that feels cozy and nest-like. I like any color combination that feels balanced to me, regardless of the colors used. But purple and chartreuse plants mixed together drives me nuts while others love it. Great post!

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Tammy. Now that is interesting, I love purple and chartreuse together. I wonder if we are seeing the same thing when we look at these colours.

  8. What a beautiful, interesting and informative post, written in a way that even I can understand.
    I have big problems with shades, especially describing them.

    But looking at your photos, Chloris, confirmed that while I admire some other colours, I am invariably drawn to blues and yellows!

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Cynthia. The blues are my favourite but I am coming round to orange which at one time I would never have in the garden but now I love it.

  9. Christina says:

    I used to listen and watch in amazement when gardeners described the colours of plants on TV, describing blues as purples and lilacs as blue etc. colour is very much in the eye of the beholder as we can quickly appreciate when taking photographs in different lighting conditions, blues often change to almost pinks sometimes! Men definitely seem to see colour differently; I seem to remember reading somewhere that it came from when the women were gathers and the men hunters. We needed to be able to differentiate between the different coloured berries quickly as some were poisonous whereas men needed to be able to see movements more distinctly to catch a moving animal. Interesting post Chloris.

  10. Colour is such a fascinating subject, not only how we perceive individual colours but how each individual ‘likes’ certain colours. I can safely say that I love all of the plant colours in your photos, but would be more drawn towards the pinks and purples.

    • Chloris says:

      I love blue best of all; true blue rather than the purply blue which people often call blue. At the moment the Agapanthus are the best thing in the garden.

  11. I’ve been thinking about color, but on more personal terms. Until the last few years, I’ve always embraced strong color and used it in my dress, decorating, and gardening. When we moved 4 years ago, however, I went to a simpler and softer decorating scheme; not the beige of fashion magazines, but muted earth tones. The garden, which is all shade, has color in spring and fall, but is (mostly) green in winter and summer. At first, I tried to force summer color, with red caladiums and such, but it jangled my nerves. Now I’m expanding the green scheme with white flowers and blue foliage, which works for me. Of course, some of this change is situational and some possibly subject to trend, but I’m wondering if it’s influenced by age too. I see color the same as I always have, but I think it effects me differently now. And I wonder if I still had a sunny garden, if I would be pulling out the chartreuse plants that I once loved but are so abhorrent to me now.

    • Chloris says:

      You are right our taste in colour does change. I have been thinking for a long time about having a part of the garden which is just green with no flowers at all. I would never have considered such a thing a few years ago.

  12. Cathy says:

    Colour plays a big role in my life… can’t say why, I just need it! I can’t bear drab colours and that is why my garden is such a mix of different colours – no planning or coordination and I like it that way! I think culture and language play a much greater role than we think – I had a class of German students with an orange text book, and they ALL called it red! I think they saw it the same as I did, but just gave the colour a different name.

    • Chloris says:

      I am intrigued about your story about the students calling the orange book red. I wonder if anyone has studied the cultural differences in the perception of colour in different nationalities.

  13. Flighty says:

    Thanks for the linked mention.
    I really enjoyed reading this interesting, and informative, post with it’s wonderful pictures. It has certainly made me think about colour and how we perceive it.
    Reading the other comments is illuminating as well. xx

  14. What a fascinating post, Chloris! It is quite an amazing topic and so difficult to get the the old brain around. How a person perceives colour – I’ve often wondered if it’s down to description, or to what the brain actually sees. But how do we know what one person actually “sees”? My husband often refers to “purple”, when, what I see is “wine”. Is he actually “seeing” the same colour as me? Quite mind-boggling, really!

  15. nikkipolani says:

    BEAUTIFULLY illustrated with blooms from your garden — I’ll take any excuse to see such wonderful variety. I was most interested in the cultural perception of colors. Thanks for putting together this post.

  16. Annette says:

    This surely is a very informative post with so many facts, well written and illustrated. Got me thinking…so I wonder if people -as they often do- describe a colour wrongly in my eyes, is it myself that doesn’t get it right? It’s hard to tell as we’ll never be able to judge what others see and feel, will we? I only know that colour is something very personal and what’s a pain to me is a delight for others. This make most of the gardens and gardeners unique, that’s what I love about it.

  17. Very interesting post. Maybe you’ve explained why I like to have a lot of orange. But clearly different cultures attach different feelings to the same colors. In China, white is the color of mourning and yellow connotes heroism. Also, until recently they used the same word to describe blue and green. (I only know this because I just googled it.)

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Jason, that is interesting. I wonder if they could see the difference between blue and green if they only had one word for the two colours. How strange.

  18. Anna says:

    Oh a most fascinating subject Chloris and a thoughtful and informative post from you. I am very much drawn to blues both in the garden and in my choice of clothes which must say something about me. It has always amazed me how colour can alter according to light levels and sometimes I think ones perception of colour can be influenced by moods.I’ve read a couple of books on the subject of colour in the dim and distant past. Maybe time to revisit them.

  19. Chloris says:

    I love blues too Anna, so we are both blue people. Writing this post and reading peoples’ comments has really made me want to read more about the subject.

  20. It’s certainly an interesting topic Chloris. It seems you’ve tweaked the interest of many if the above comments are anything to go by.
    I had a fear that when I started reading it was all going to get to technical for me but no it certainly was not. I thoroughly enjoyed everything you have written. It was easy to understand and follow.
    The same colour can look different, it depends on what it’s surroundings are or it does in my eyes at least. The Blue colour description of plants is one that baffles me the most. Some I see as blue yet others to my mind are clearly purple. Then that brings me onto shades of purples/lilac/mauves etc – although I can see the difference in the colours, I can’t for the life of me get my head around which is which!
    I also see lots of reds as what I perceive to be orange rather than a true red. Strange!

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Angie, I am glad that you enjoyed the post. I quite agree with you about blues and purples, I am frequently surprised when people talk about purple as blue and as you say, many so called red colours are more like orange.

  21. Hollis says:

    beautiful photos! … true for all the colors. So enjoyable, thanks.

  22. I find the whole area of perception fascinating, the unanswerable “do we see the same thing” etc. As a gardener without any artistic training, and therefore lacking some of the colour theory and language my artist friends have, I am constantly intrigued by how one white is “wrong” in a border because it is too blue and yet another makes the other colours sing. Great post.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Janet, I am constantly surprised about which colours look good together( to me at least) and which don’ t. I tend to ignore colour theories and arrange things by eye.

  23. bittster says:

    What a meaty post, doesn’t look like there’s much relaxing going on over your way this summer! You really did a nice job covering the complexities of vision and color detection, it’s such a fascinating subject especially when you start going into how the brain processes the information.
    ….and of course you can add in the quality of lighting to the colors reflected, argh it makes my head spin! I far prefer to just assume my color perception is the best and my taste impeccable. It makes all the questions on color so much easier for me.

    • Chloris says:

      I quite agree, never mind all the colour theory, we should all just rely on our own taste and make pictures which please us. I am sure you have impeccable taste Frank.

  24. Debra says:

    So much information and so many lovely photos to enjoy here! I remember when I studied Homer in school I thought his colour descriptions were odd but regretfully I never thought to ask about them. There is an old tradition of Homer as being the blind bard — that idea might come from his odd colour descriptions. So many of them are connected with metal, too. Mayve he was using the words poetically as a way to complement the meaning. I have also heard that people used to describe color according to luminosity rather than by hue. Colour is really mutable. I really noticed this when I painted my arbor a periwinkle. On the sunny side it looked violet but on the shaded side it was clearly blue —

    • AnnetteM says:

      That is so like when you paint a room in your house. You spend so long with testers getting exactly the right shade of colour, but then, when you have finished one wall can look totally different to another because of the way the light hits it.

  25. Chloris says:

    Thank you Debra. Now that makes sense about Homer. The actual hue was perhaps not important or poetic either. It would be much more poetic to talk about luminosity.

  26. AnnetteM says:

    A good thought provoking post and interesting comments. It has explained something I have been puzzling over for a while – why on earth they chose pink to be the colour of the outfits for the rugby league (Super league) referees and linesmen! On the blue/purple subject it is sometimes the colour in the photograph or print that is not accurate rather than the name of the flower colour. It is not always straightforward to reproduce these accurately as they are affected by the colour of the light falling on the flower and what settings you have chosen on your camera.

    • Chloris says:

      You are right about the fact that blue photographs sometimes appear purple although this should’ t happen nowadays. But I have seen magazine articles where they suggest blue flowers that aren’ t blue at all.

  27. Robbie says:

    I stopped by here a bit ago, but did not have time to comment….I was just in and out, but wanted to get back to this post to say..I garden because of “color”…I am able to use color to express how I feel + each year I tend to change it up depending on what I feel….I know some people have all white gardens. or shades of green….but I love color it evokes emotions!

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