White Noise
Made in White City

The Colour Reference Library

Too many options makes us less happy, not more. If true, the task of picking colours presents this paradox on the largest possible scale: an infinitely-divisible spectrum. Faced with such dizzying diversity, some artists go with their intuition. Others go to the Colour Reference Library

The Library is held at the Royal College of Art, our neighbours-to-be in White City, so we paid a visit.

WORDS - Liz Ann Bennett

Precise and authoritative in manner, its librarian Neil Parkinson makes for an unlikely prophet. But, fanciful as it may seem, I couldn't shake the sense that the library was an oracle of sorts. I had come to the RCA in Kensington to discuss this, one of the largest collections of its kind, with Parkinson, the college's Archives and Collections Manager. In a small office a floor or two above the bustling main library, it was becoming clear in our conversation that many of its users came here not only in search of knowledge, but also in search of direction, reassurance, certainty. 

Many of the makers who used the library were on the hunt for a story behind their pigments, he explained: “People want to feel that there's something a bit special about their colour. They want to feel there is a rationale behind it.” As librarian, he guides readers towards the books that will nudge them in the right direction. “If people are presented with pages and pages of colour wheels, each one subtly different from the next, they're thinking: oh hang on, where do I start with this. That can be quite bewildering.” 

Frontspiece from Field, George. ChromatographyFrontspiece from Field, George. Chromatography, 185-?.

Appropriately, the library itself traces its origins to a colour project that failed due to its over-ambitious scope. After the Second World War, Donald Pavey, an RCA alumnus, was attempting to write a universal history of colour systems. “It was such a vast topic,” said Parkinson, “that it completely defeated him. But to do that he put together this core collection of about 60 books. And then as that project unravelled, he sold the collection in the late 60s or early 70s.” In 1977, Pavey's collection, by now much augmented, was eventually acquired by the RCA.

These days the library numbers around 2000, encompassing almost every significant work ever published in English. Only a stubborn few important books remain outstanding, which Parkinson admits “really drives me bonkers.” It's a truly interdisciplinary collection. You won't simply find books here about the science of colour, or the psychology of colour. You'll also find volumes from the wilder reaches of 19th-century mysticism: colour therapy, auras, even the occult. There are modern introductory guides packed with pictures, and rare journals with leather-bound spines.

Fold-out hand-coloured demonstration pages from Chevreul, M E. [[[[De la loi du contraste simultane des couleurs. Paris : Pitois-Levrault, 1839.Fold-out hand-coloured demonstration pages from Chevreul, M E. De la loi du contraste simultane des couleurs. Paris: Pitois-Levrault, 1839.

We pore over fold-out charts from 1839 that contrast dots of the same shade against different backgrounds. Each neat circle is meticulously hand-painted. “Even after all these decades,” marvels Parkinson, “the effect is as visceral and immediate and as obvious as ever.” Michel Eugène Chevreul, a chemist by training, had been employed by a tapestry company to investigate complaints that their dyes weren't vibrant enough. The dyes, it turned out, were fine. 600 pages later, Chevreul had argued in The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors that the perceived issues were instead a function of the human brain, complete with this supplement of dot charts to demonstrate visually the effect of context.

Next, Parkinson slides the original edition of Josef Albers' 1963 classic Interaction of Color out of a folio slipcase so large that it probably qualifies as a box. Accompanying it are 40 screen-printed plates of Albers' colour exercises, some optical illusions similar in principle to Chevreul's coloured circles. This first edition is the best for seeing the effects – modern colour printing still can't capture each tint exactly. “People assume you can cook up anything,” Parkinson says, “and of course you can't.”

SpectropiaSpectropia was an 1864 work that attempted to debunk the supernatural by inviting readers to stare at its colourful ghosts, then look away and observe the phantom that appears.

Archaeologists, advertisers, design historians: a broad swathe of the general public come in to consult such treasures. Around half the readers are students from the RCA, often looking to incorporate colour theory into their art practice. It's a readership who respond best to visual cues, for the most part, and Parkinson recommends work accordingly. As an example, he pulls a volume with the intriguing title Colour Perception: Mind and the Physical World from the stacks down the corridor. It sounds exciting, he explains, and so readers often order it over the online catalogue. But inside there are pages of solid text, graphs, formulae and not a single colour illustration. “I'm sure this is very popular at Imperial College library down the road, but it is almost always completely the wrong thing for students here, and indeed many external visitors.”

Southbank yellow stairsYellow-painted stairs at the Southbank Centre. Photo: Tom and Jen (licence).

There's always been a tension in the history of art, Parkinson says, between those who've embraced colour theory and “those who've wilfully shirked it.” The art students, creative professionals and artists who embrace it make pilgrimages to the library, and they often do so hoping to be blessed with a clear decision, a rationale, a story. As our theme of colour in cities draws to a close, I'm here for guidance too: books for further reading and his take on the apparently superficial, fraught and complex question of architecture and pigmentation.

He alludes, unsurprisingly, back to the work of Albers and Chevreul. “I don't know that we necessarily need a whole load of new brightly-coloured buildings. I like things like Carlos Cruz Diez's pedestrian crossing – his brightly-coloured zig-zags. It's a testament to how much colour can lift you when you encounter it quite randomly. Colour has got to be very finely judged, and it's got to be within a consideration of context. Because colour only makes sense in context, and that's what all of the great theorists have explored. There isn't such a thing as colour in isolation.” 

Five Books for Further Reading

Urbanisms of Color (2010). This collection of essays mixes interventions, analysis, art projects and even personal memoir. “What I liked about it was the sense of updating the classic literature, like Tom Porter, with so many exciting new examples and it seemed to appear at just the right time. I like that sense of colour as a disruptive intervention, where it becomes its own focus, where it actually changes your relationship to all the greyness around it. It's a pretty inspired and inspiring range of contributors. They've started from a point of trying to make it as global and diverse as possible and that's to be commended.”

Chromophobia, David Batchelor (2000). Batchelor's book explaining the absence of colour in Western art and architecture will mean you can't quite think about the topic in the same way again. “He's encapsulated all of the complexity of our relationship with colour, and that ambivalence, and that in certain contexts it does seem garish or almost violent or abrasive. It's amazing that a book that is so slim is so influential. It's been so widely cited, and now I feel you almost can't talk about colour and culture without thinking about what Batchelor articulates in here. It just is like a new lens really for analysing the world. And it also tackles of the shortcomings of the colour library, which is its in-built western bias, which it's a tricky thing for me to redress.” Read our extract.

Interaction of Color, Josef Albers (1963). “Albers covers a lot of the same principles as Chevreul, but in a totally different way – in a much more intuitive, almost mystical, poetic way. It's the complete antithesis of a 600-page scientific law, so it's very appealing to artists and designers who want to work with their hands. It's very experiential, there's nothing abstract or theoretical about it at all. It's about immersing yourself in colour.”

Chromatic Algorithms, Carolyn L. Kane (2014). “I'm going to have to bluff spectacularly, because I haven't read it. But it's very recent and it's been hugely popular. This is a book about a history of synthetic colour, and particularly digital colour. It seems to be about the integration of the past and future of colour, how far digital surrogates can accurately reflect our world. It covers a history of computer art and how utopian it seemed and how eye-opening and head-warping it was to be able to create colour and those designs on a computer screen. We take it so much for granted now, and it's extraordinary when you think about the development. It's almost like a whole new revolution like the discovery of chemical dyes. For such a vast subject, there are still great books unwritten. It still astounds me. And this really needed to be written.”

Colour: The Professional's Guide, Karen Triedman (2015) / The Complete Guide to Colour, Tom Fraser and Adam Banks (2004). “These look totally unsurprising books, and in many ways they are completely unsurprising. The reason I've gone for these is because this one [Colour: The Professional's Guide] in particular is such a source of relief to people who come and say: I don't know where to start, all I know is that I'm interested in colour and I want to use it in a more purposeful way. Both of these books are a huge number of bitesize chapters. What they both do is acknowledge the vastness of the subject, and the impossibility of ever properly addressing it, but they also give you a very good way in to the whole thing.”

Our In Colour series explores the elusive and surprising phenomenon of colour in cities, with artists Craig and Karl as guest editors. The pair are working on a secret commission to transform one of White City's unloved spaces. 

Plate from Chevreul, M E. Cercles chromatiquesPlate from Chevreul, M E. Cercles chromatiques. Paris: Didot, 1861. Image at top: Plate from Benson, W. Principles of the Science of Colour. London: Chapman & Hall, 1868.

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