Colour at Work

Colour at Work - Kate Davies and Felicity Ford

Huzzah! Today I can happily share that my good friend Kate and I have been putting the finishing touches on the book we’re editing together – Colour at Work. It’s now available to pre-order for a limited time only with FREE International Shipping, wherever you are in the world.

Colour at Work

If you love colour, are interested in understanding how it is connected to many other aspects of our lives, and are inspired by the colourful making practices of friends, colleagues and peers then you will love this book!

It’s luminous and richly-illustrated, and it takes an expansive view of colour and its relationship to social history, creative practice, and many different kinds of colourful work. Together with our amazing list of talented contributors, Kate and I have put our best work into this project. The result is a practical, polychromatic tome aimed at thinkers and makers who – like us – enjoy the challenges, inspirations, contradictions and provocations of COLOUR!

Colour at Work - Kate Davies and Felicity Ford

Here are Kate and myself to introduce it.

Colour at Work

We are two people whose work for many years has been focused on making colourful things, and in taking delight in colour. Colour sits at the heart of our creative practice and also underlies our creative thinking. As well as being artists and designers, we are teachers and writers, and regard the communicative aspect of our work with colour as one of the most important things we do. Alongside the textiles and art that we create, we have spent many years researching and writing about the everyday work of colour and its connections with the broader contexts of the world. We love sharing our ideas with other makers, so that you might too find nuanced and personal ways to think about colour, and find joyful ways to make it work for you. And that’s what this book is all about.

Spread from Colour at Work in which Felix ponders the relationships between yarn shades and the colours of the road

Chromophobia? No fear!

In the course of our work, we’ve encountered many talented and thoughtful creative people who seem to struggle with colour and profess to finding it “difficult.” We’ve also witnessed the understandable desire to find simple solutions to the issues that creative people think they have with colour: a way of resolving all the questions they have about this one, big, problematic thing. All too often, the uncertain maker takes refuge in so-called “neutrals”, or ideas of “complementary” or “pop” colours. Armed with monochromatic mood boards, lists of rules, boxes, wheels and diagrams, everyday makers can find themselves mired in beige or bound to the colour wheel rather than set free. This is a long way from the unpredictable and inspiring business of just making colourful stuff that draws us towards creative activity in the first place. Don’t get us wrong: we love grey shades and pop colours and, as you’ll discover in this book, we’ve found many ways to appreciate and explore their subtleties. But sticking to a safe or predictable palette doesn’t allow us to grow our confidence with colour and only offers a superficial solution that neither enables us to address, nor overcome, our fear of working with different shades and hues.

Brightly-coloured Ancient Greek Lion sculpture, re-coloured with the pigments understood to be in use at the time (and not the white colour so often now associated with ancient Greek sculpture).
Contemporary Colour Reconstruction of a c. 550 BC Ancient Greek Sculpture of a Lion, informed by research into pigments in use at this time: the statues were not all white!

What might it mean to feel afraid of colour? Chromophobia has a long history in the West, with pale neutrals carrying associations of cleanliness, discipline, and restraint, while saturated colour suggests excess, intemperance, and prodigality. The vivid, polychromatic cultures of ancient Greece and Rome have been quite literally whitewashed in contemporary popular understanding, and no-one can be unaware of the dominant social-media aesthetic of what Sarah Manavis has memorably dubbed “beige-fluencers”, with their vanilla-scented, cream-coloured homes and ecru-hued fast-fashion wardrobes. While interior designers now advocate shelving books page-outwards to avoid disturbing the purity of neutral spaces with colourful spines, even children (the traditional market for high-chroma garb and objects) find themselves clad in restrained shades, with Etsy reporting a 67% year-on-year rise in parental searches for beige kids’ clothes.

If “vanilla girls”, and “beige-fluencers” are now the focus of aspiration, they also embody an aesthetic of exclusion. Indeed, in a contemporary world where the meanings of shades and hues inevitably overlap with those of racial and cultural identity, the choice to exclude colour can never really be thought of as “neutral.” Trinidadian artist and textile designer, Althea McNish, recalled one encounter with an exclusionary, monochrome culture in these terms:

The chairman of the Bradford Printers and Dyers, I think they were called, asked me if I would come and give this talk to them. I said, “Yes.” I thought it was fun and I went up. Then I was presented to an audience of 200 men, only men! All I could see was these grey suits in front of me and I thought, “Althea, what are you doing here.:” Having got over the shock. . . . I told them what is wrong, you know, “I think men should show more interest in their clothes. I mean, there are only grey suits here.”

In a room full of white men in grey suits, McNish is a bold, polychromatic outlier. The irony of these white / grey men themselves being responsible for the production and reproduction of industrial colour was not lost on McNish, who defied (and redefined) the palette of the post-war British domestic interior with her gloriously creative high-chroma output.

Althea McNish's bright peach, acid yellow and hot magenta ground is covered in inky black marks in this 1961 print, Tomee
Althea McNish, Tomee (design sample for Danasco fabrics ltd) ©V&A Collections (1961)

Unruly colour

The creative people we’ve encountered who are wary of colour often just want a quick answer to their problems, which so-called “colour theory” often purports to provide. But what do we understand by the term “colour theory”? Apparently obvious concepts like contrast and complementarity can still create controversy in contemporary chromatic circles, and many so-called “theories” of colour emerged out of the same pseudo-scientific movements that produced misleading fads like theosophy and chromotherapy. “Colour theories” might be better described, in fact, as “colour ideologies”: as groups of predetermined, fixed ideas within which the notoriously tricksy concept of colour has been, at one time or another, described, contained or understood. But what if there was no one theory that might resolve all our chromatic fears and questions? What if unruly colour is — and has always been — difficult to contain?

Pixelated visualisations of the blue and black / white and gold dress produced by participants, each using a digital colour wheel to record what colour they thought they could see
Two visualisations of the infamous blue and black / white and gold dress produced by participants, each using a digital colour wheel to match a colour pixel with what they thought they saw on the dress.

What is colour anyway? Do we think about it as an inherent property of objects or just as a mere trick of the light? As the 2015 online furore over “The Dress” revealed, a blue and black object might be perceived as gold and white depending on the (digital) visual contexts in which it is presented to us. Our perceptions of colour are continually shifting, determined by different lighting conditions and in relation to adjacent and surrounding shades. And what do colours mean? In the Qur’an, green is the universally positive colour of paradise, but actors on the English Renaissance stage were so superstitious about green’s negative connotations that they refused to wear it. Though white is a bridal colour in the West, it is associated with death and mourning in many east Asian cultures. Is red always a “warm” and blue always a “cold” colour? If asked, most people today might refuse to regard red and blue in any other terms, but that was certainly not the case just a few centuries ago. As distinguished chromatic historian, Michel Pastoureau, explains, prior to the modern era, “blue was considered a warm colour and sometimes even the warmest of all.” Colours do not carry their own fixed associations through history, then, but are temporally and culturally contingent, shifting their moods and meanings in tune with the priorities of different human communities.

“In order to use colour effectively,” wrote Josef Albers, “it is necessary to recognise that colour deceives continually.” We find ourselves in strong agreement with Albers’ useful, practical approach to how colour works, and how to work with colour. We feel, in fact, that the inherently deceptive, always unruly nature of colour is perhaps the most interesting thing about it. Colour is a great inspiring force in the world: it is undoubtedly a very powerful thing. And perhaps once you accept that the power of colour derives in large part from the fact that it can never really be trusted you can allow two things to happen. First, you could start to develop a different kind of respect for colour as the elusive trickster it really is. Second, having let go of any assumptions about colour’s fixed and pre-determined nature, you might find that you approached it with a much greater sense of creative freedom. Could you think about blue as the colour of heat, passion or energy? Might yellow be used as a neutral? Who says that red and green should, as the proverbial expression would have it, never be seen? How would you regard colour if you thought about it more as a driving force behind all of your messy, unpredictable, creative experiments, rather than as a set of rules or theories with which you felt you had to comply?

Colourwheel spreads from the book

We love colour’s inherently messy, tricksy and unruly nature. So rather than presenting a set of of rules for you to follow, we want, in this book, to share just a few of the ideas, resources and approaches that have helped us to develop ways of thinking about, and working with, this inspiring creative force that are life-affirming, curiosity-driven, and fun.

Vigée le Brun & Angelica Kauffman’s rainbows from Colour at Work

Chromatic contexts

The first part of our book opens up the relationship between colourful representations (how ideas about shades and hues are perceived, displayed and shown) and chromatic contexts (the larger cultural and / or industrial picture within which debates about colour are understood. What’s the historic meaning and function of that most persuasive of chromatic objects, the colour wheel? How do we see rainbows and what do rainbows represent around the world? What contradictory ideas might be absorbed into that most complex and unpredictable of colours: grey? Later essays in this section reflect Kate Davies’ special interests in cultural and cinematic history. Exploring debates around the notorious aesthetic hoax that duped members of the Royal Academy of Arts; the chromatic legacy of British Colour Council pioneer, Robert Wilson; and the technicolor and monochrome palettes of A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and The Man in the White Suit (1951), Kate suggests how colour has often acted as a window, tinting and filtering broader debates in British culture.

Robert F. Wilson, The British Colour Council Dictionary of Colour Standards (1951)

Colour play

This part of our book draws on the shared experiences of Felicity (Felix) Ford and Janine Bajus and the many creative and adventurous knitters with whom they have shared their colourwork classrooms over the years. In three essays, Felix and Janine explore ways to unlock chromatic colour potential and to develop the practical tools you need to go forth and play confidently, happily and messily practice. You’ll learn how the pop colour is not the easy fix you might think it is; how to ignore unhelpful rules and instead make up your own; how to design from the heart and rely on your personal associations to steer your colour choices; and how to play with colour in a life-affirming, everyday, practical way.

Ways to Play with Colour!

Colour makers

Our book’s final section shines a light on some of the amazing ways in which our creative friends and colleagues are putting colour to work. Each of these makers writes about colour, but not just in the sense of which shade goes with what, nor in order to impart prescriptive rules that we should feel compelled to follow. Rather, they collectively present colour in the context of its makers hands – as a vital and indivisible part of creative life and practice.

a jumble of shade-cards from Jamieson & Smith
J&S shade-cards

Speaking to her long tenure at Jamieson & Smith (The Shetland Woolbrokers), Ella Gordon explores the significance of colour in Shetland – famed for its dazzling, polychromatic Fair Isle handknits – while also describing the practicalities of managing a commercial range of differently-coloured yarns. Her essay reminds us of the connections between industry and places; between colours and the landscapes from which they come. We meet the inimitable shades of the Shetland sheep – the product of generations of careful animal husbandry, and a localised demand for coloured wool.

Rams and Yowes by Kate uses all the natural sheepy shades sorted, graded and spun into yarn by the Shetland Woolbrokers

On another continent with its own specific resonances, culture and history, designer Tressa Weidenaar speaks to some of the ways in which her colour decisions for knitwear designs are inspired by her Navajo heritage, and embedded in her particular experiences of places and identity. Here you’ll find dark red earth and bright blue skies; the sand and madder rocks; and the turquoise stones of Navajo and Zuni silversmiths. Colours, in this essay, are indivisible from identity, and how places (and the colours of places) are represented and conceived within a culture.

Tressa Weidenaar’s Twin Lakes Cowl

Textile artist Max Alexander shares her story of becoming a renowned knitter of moths – describing how the winged creatures normally regarded as the enemy of knitters slowly revealed, to her, an engaging world of colour inspiration and challenges. Knitting a new chapter into the history of botanical illustration, Max builds on a long history in which the natural world has not only been a rewarding object of study and observation, but has (through famous standards and nomenclatures) itself provided an important context for our modern understanding of the work of colour.

Max Alexander’s Footman Moth

Designer Jeanette Sloan speaks to the significance of a personal attachment to bright shades and hues and the sustained importance of colour throughout her long creative career. From growing up in a West Indian household with Bajan parents, to styling garments for a knitwear collection, Jeanette’s essay reveals the many ways in which her creative use of pink and orange has been indivisible from her personal, lived experiences. Jeanette introduces us to the bold and joyful hues of her 1970s childhood home, the signature shades of her ready to wear fashion label, and the colours of consolation in times of loss and healing.

Jeanette Sloan’s Shonda’s Shawl (detail)

Designer and visible mender extraordinaire, Flora Collingwood-Norris, shares with us how her distinctive use of colours evolved slowly, and describes how her own colour sense was formed by getting away from fashion forecasts and the tyranny of unhelpful college feedback. Here we meet the colours of experimentation and see the positive effects of trusting your own creative instincts rather than listening to prescriptive rules or someone else’s restrictive notions about how colour should work. Flora’s work provides a marvellous example of the creative magic that can happen when you go your own chromatic way.

Flora Collingwood-Norris darning sampler in autumnal shades

A knitter with a keen interest in surveillance technology and its cultural impact, Ottilia Westerlund shares the process of knitting an anti-surveillance sweater, that has been designed to outwit the algorithms that search camera footage for faces. Created through a laborious process of unintuitive charts and stranded colourwork, it is a piece that speaks powerfully to our contemporary moment. Ottilia’s choice of black and white is utterly practical; these are the shades that will generate sufficient contrast for the “faces” in the sweater to be algorithmically interpreted. Using human ingenuity to defy machine learning, Ottilia’s monochrome shades are the colours of resistance, and a jubilant reminder that we can still use the work of our own hands to develop a creative space beyond surveillance capitalism.

Tilly in her anti-surveillance jumper, testing its efficacy!

In the hands of these multi-disciplinary makers, colour becomes many things. It is a link to place and heritage, home and culture. It is the thing that allows us to carefully observe, record and stitch the exact shade of a moth’s wing. It is the connective tissue running through all the chapters of a creative life, weaving its way through all aspects of our identity and experience. it is the rich resource with which we might knit and stitch and tell the story of our time on earth. Colour can bring us back to ourselves, as we develop intuitive and self-trusting ways of working. And we can turn to colour whenever we feel the need to use the work of our own hands to question the world in which we live.

What excites all of the creative contributors to this book is what happens when interesting ideas and ways of thinking are brought to life through acts of colourful making. In all of our day to day attempts to make colour work, we are continually mining the rich seam where thinking and creating come together. For all of us—designers, writers, yarnies, artists, makers and menders— colour mediates our relationship with the world, and is a way of expressing our place in it. We all feel that colour—with its many, multi-faceted imaginative and social resonances—is the energising stuff that truly brings us to life as creative people. And the best thing is that the joy of colour is an inclusive experience, open to all, it is something that everyone can be a part of. And so we end this introduction, and begin this book, with a question: what will colour be in your hands?

Catching rainbows in my old kitchen sink, with a prism
Catching rainbows in my old kitchen sink, with a prism

How will you make colour work?

colourful photograph, which forms the book’s cover

Pre-order your copy of Colour at Work in the KNITSONIK online Shop today. Keen-eyed spotters will notice that there’s a course called Colour at Play available to pre-order there too; more on that very soon!

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