Few things are as subjective as color. It has been several months since Pantone released their “Color of the Year” for 2013 – Emerald. Still, I don’t see that bluish green swath of color relating much to the hue that pops into my head when I hear the word “emerald”. I imagine a cut gem with pure, grassy green facets sparkling in the light. Although emeralds from across the globe are said to range from green with a slight yellowish tint to green with a slightly bluish sparkle, the finest emeralds – according to the website gemstone.org – come from Colombia.
“Colombian emeralds differ from emeralds from other deposits in that they have an especially fine, shining emerald green unimpaired by any kind of bluish tint.”
My point exactly. But this doesn’t mean that my image of “emerald” is any more correct than Pantone’s. By looking at photos of emeralds, it seems the similarities may be greater in its raw, unpolished state. To my highly biased eye, the Pantone variety is both too artificial and – for lack of a better word – a little too “pasty” to jive with even the bluest of the reflected facets in a cut emerald. I realize, of course, the difficulty in replicating the color of light in a pigment. But even more so, I acknowledge that we all see things differently. This color is now touted as “Emerald” – because Pantone said so. (Pantone Inc., by its own definition is ”the authority on color, provider of color systems and leading technology for accurate communication of color”.) I’m sorry, Pantone – but I disagree. The actual Pantone color 17-5641 may rest comfortably on its its own merits, but I will not drink the KoolAid. I cannot possibly refer to it as “emerald” without smirking! Not counting the possible validation provided by the occasional, faceted, bluish sparkle – it’s just too blue for me!
My opinion is very much my own – just like everyone else has their own. A long time ago, during an NCS class at the Scandinavian Colour Institute in Stockholm, our instructor Olle Svensson handed out unlabeled fandecks and asked everyone to pick out “salmon pink” and “dusk blue”. Not surprisingly, there were as many examples of each as there were students in the class. The point of this exercise was, as you probably figured out, to prove the point of how subjectively humans see color. In this particular way it was was a very noteworthy learning experience for me. I learned to be highly sceptical about the practice of naming colors, as we all associate and view colors immensely differently.
I sometimes fill in as color consultant at a local paint store. In a day of dealing with poetically named paint colors, I often come across clients that can’t disassociate themselves from these ficticious names. Many latch on to them, as if they are truly what they say they are – rocky coast gray, raincoat yellow, raspberry red, etc. When they do, they no longer see the actual paint swatch. Instead, because of that name, what they see is what they imagine that color to be, regardless of the hue actually beaming back at them from the named sample. I find this fascinating, and of course somewhat gratifying, because it keeps the demand up for those of us who can distance our minds from deceptive labeling, and attack color choices head-on.
But, back to my opinion of the Pantone 17-5641 “Emerald” feeling artificial. Before 1856, all dyes we used had natural origins. That year, everything changed. William H. Perkins’ accidental discovery of “mauvine” or Mauve (the first marketed synthetic color) changed the world of color, dyes and paint as we know it. Since then, with the aid of chemistry, we have been able to access colors that natural pigments had never been able to come even close to. In 2003, I visited an art exhibit by the Swedish painter Olle Baertling. In the paintings on display, he explored “unnatural colors”, i.e those that aren’t obtainable with natural pigments, and that don’t occur much in nature. The closest natural representation that I can think of to some of the colors he used, are the irridescent, metallic sheen of “structural” colors seen in feathers, butterfly wings, insects, etc.
The interesting thing about structural color is that its metallic luminescence is caused by layers of transparent cells at a nanometric scale, that refract the underlying color as light, beaming back from a variety of angles. This is why we get this constantly changing iridescence that in effect is impossible to pin down as *one* color – we often perceive it as a range of colors – often bluish greens. Because structural color is manifested in its inherent physical surface geometries rather than as a separately applied layer of pigment, it holds up extremely well – it does not fade, dematerialize, or in other ways stray from its original shine. Amazingly, the only recorded change in a 2011 discovery of 47 million year-old beetle fossils, was a slight reddening of the original color! Time will tell how the fields of science, energy and design will use this relatively recent discovery.
Keeping Olle Baertling and his exploration of “unnatural colors” in mind, I spent a couple of days looking around town for evidence of use of the Color of the Year, or close to it. Sure enough – they are out there. I was truly intrigued to see where and how they popped up. My conclusion is that the likes of the Color of the Year of 2013 are the ones we use when we want to be sure to be noticed and stand out – a kind of narcissistic call to attention.
Most noticeable of all is the ubiquitous green traffic light. It’s almost a dead ringer – even more so with the refracted light glowing through the green lens, as opposed to a pigment. If I were to have been given the honor, I would have called Pantone 17-5641 “Go Green” instead of “Emerald”, but that’s just me.
This weekend, we and the good citizens of the Emerald Island celebrate S:t Patrick’s Day. Perhaps we should leave it up to Irish or Colombian experts to figure out exactly what color “Emerald” is. All I know is, that if I saw a leprechaun the color of the Pantone chip, I would think we were invaded by little green men from Mars.