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In Rainbows: the Inextricable Bond of Color and Narrative

Nice Shoes delves into the relationship between color and narrative, exploring its applications for storytelling, communication, and brand-building

Color is one of the fundamentally human ways in which we experience the world, functioning biologically and culturally; storytelling is the other. The scholar Jonathan Gotschall refers to humans as ‘storytelling animals’ (arguing that “We are, as a species, addicted to story.”), locating an essential part of our humanity – the very essence that differentiates us from animals – in our affinity and ability to narrativize. 

And yet despite the importance of storytelling, the written (or spoken) word is only one of the tools available to creatives. There’s also sound, camera movement, lighting, dialogue, and music. And then there’s color – an essential part of our lives that’s one of the most useful devices for narratively conveying tone and emotion. Color’s ability to induce and influence psychological states has been theorized on for millennia, starting with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s essay, Theory of Colors, published in 1810; the idea has also been explored in science, art, literature, and film. Nice Shoes is raising the questions once more with the help of colorists, directors, and experts in the field. 

Filmmakers – and for centuries before the advent of film, writers, and painters – have always deployed color deliberately and thoughtfully in their craft. Some have been known to obsess over color, becoming synonymous with their preferred shade. The French artist Yves Klein’s blue is iconic, serving as both the name of the deep ‘ultramarine’ blue shade he first mixed and the title of several paintings that sees the extraordinary shade applied in a thick layer to a canvas, which bears nothing besides the striking hue. The color is internationally trademarked as IKB (International Klein Blue).

Branding and color are likewise synonymous. Tiffany’s is as associated with beautiful jewelry as it is with the aquamarine boxes that signify luxury, thoughtfulness, and class. Supreme’s stark red and white logo looks at home on a variety of objects, from lighters and t-shirts to skateboards and bricks; at once, it’s bold and nonchalant, asking to be seen while revelling in the absurdity of where its logo appears.

Above: Tiffany’s cuts through in this print ad through bold use of color. 

Brands and businesses find themselves concerned with the question of color often, but how does a company decide on its colors in a world where so much needs to be communicated instantly through the visual medium? Marine Tanguy, founder of MTArt – an agency representing contemporary artists – chose a very specific shade of blue for her company’s branding, a kind of turquoise balancing blue and green. “It’s active, energizing, and innovative; it is also the color of trust. We always wanted to become someone artists and clients could trust while being seen as innovative, which is a difficult proposition for the art world to accept. It’s a traditional space, so trust is paramount,” says Tanguy. 

It’s clear that color is an invaluable tool for storytelling, communication, and brand-building; often it combines all three. To explore the relationship between these elements, Nice Shoes took a closer look at why color is inextricable from visual narrative. 

Against monochrome: cinema’s colorful love affair

There’s a pervasive misconception that cinema began its life in monochrome. In fact, it was full of color from the very start, only not in a way we think about it today. In as early as the 1890s, monochromatic frames were hand-painted, toned, and tinted through an incredibly laborious process since each frame had to be painted individually. When the moving image was first introduced to viewers, the experience wasn’t an entirely pleasurable one – The Lumiere Brothers’ 1896 film, The Arrival of a Train, is said to have overwhelmed audiences. Color, then, became a kind of anchor for the eye, grounding viewers and giving them a sense of realism about the world as it was reflected on screen, an unspoken symbol that connected the artificiality of film with the eye’s expectation. It’s estimated that, by 1920, up to 90% of films utilized tinting to some degree. An imprecise exercise, tints were applied broadly with a few standing in for natural concepts. Amber was used for daylight interior scenes; blue for night scenes where the moon was the only source of light; sepia became synonymous with the hot and dusty look of Westerns. 

L’écrin du rajah (di. Gaston Velle, Pathé Frères, 1908):stenciled or hand-colored (left); La Vie et la passion de Jesus Christ (di.Lucien Nonguet & Ferdinand Zecca, Pathé Frères, 1903/1905): stenciled(right)

One of the most influential voices on color in the cinema was Natalie Kalmus, who found herself part of the film industry through her husband and co-founder of Technicolor, Herbert. When the two divorced, the settlement gave Kalmus control of Technocolor’s Color Advisory Service – she went on to instruct productions on the best ways to utilize the company’s tech, creating elaborate color schemes pertaining to all aspects of the film’s look. Often referred to as a ‘color director’, Kalmus had a hand in all of Technocolor’s major features across the 1930s and 1940s. She detailed her color philosophy in an essay titled ‘Color Consciousness’ and it was widely read by industry professionals after its 1935 publication date. Kalmus called what film was trying to convey “enhanced realism”, noting: “A motion picture […] will be merely an accurate record of certain events unless we guide this realism into the realm of art.” Color is the tool, the guiding light, transforming images into impactful experiences – and into art. 

A world of color and emotion

“The psychology of color is of immense value to a director. His prime motive is to direct and control the thoughts and emotions of his audience. The director strives to indicate a fuller significance than is specifically shown by the action and dialogue. If he can direct the theatregoer’s imagination and interest, he has fulfilled his mission,” wrote Kalmus. Emily Maye, director with Farm League, echoes the sentiment, saying: “Color is often at the forefront of my mind when I’m thinking about the world that I want the viewer to step into. It’s a really powerful tool for emotional connection. You have to think about the little details that are going to be read on screen, where a pop of color can really serve you well, tying the space and the talent together in one world. I work a lot in sports, and I want that work to feel timeless. Through color, I think about how the athlete can be in harmony with their arena or with nature, rather than at odds with it.”

Above: A still from Emily Maye’s ‘Race Day is (Still) Sacred shows how a pop of color can focus a viewer’s attention. 

The first season of HBO’s hit show, Euphoria, is known for its bold and imaginative use of color. The director Sam Levinson has said that the colors are not supposed to be realistic, instead seeking to represent what teenagers imagine their life to be – dramatic, turbulent, expressive, with a palpable intensity that only a teenager can relate to. The show’s cinematographer, Marcel Rév, chose bold primary colors and a lot of orange-blue contrast to support the characters’ extreme emotional states, ranging from addiction to violence at home. Season two changed its aesthetic, as the narrative shifted to further explore the issues set up in the previous season, creating a more insular and intimate look through muted hues, conveying the experiences of reflection and remembering.

Above: The intense contrast of colors in Euphoria is frequently used to dramatic effect across all seasons of the show.

In 2018, a new color scheme swept across screens with the arrival of Janelle Monáe’s Make Me Feel video. The video utilizes neon shades of pink, blue and purple at once (the colors of the bisexual flag), which was dubbed ‘bisexual lighting’ by the media. The openly queer Monáe spends the video flirting with her girlfriend, played by Tessa Thompson, and playfully running back and forth between her and a man. While the use of those colors isn’t itself new, the newfound queer – specifically bisexual – meaning gave audiences a new way of reading moving images. MoonlightAtomic Blonde, and Black Mirror’s San Junipero bathed their protagonists in the ethereal mix of blue, pink, and purple light, conveying metatextual elements of those characters’ biographies through color alone. Employing the mix of blue, purple, and pink works as a signal to the audience that the characters on screen are bi, without having to spell it out narratively at every point. 

Above: Use of intense colors throughout Janelle Monae’s Make Me Feel acts as a subtle way of communicating sexuality. 

Speaking about the role of the colorist today, Nice Shoes’ senior colorist, Marcy Robinson highlights the evolution of aesthetic demands: “The scope of colorists’ work has changed a lot since the days of chemical tinting. We now have many more tools under the color umbrella to affect images both generally and more specifically. For example, by hiding or highlighting certain things, we can completely change the focus and sense of light with even very simple masks and vignettes. We also have an infinite number of ways to affect contrast, saturation and color.” Robinson worked on Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, a devastating look at a relationship’s dissolution. The story is split between two core locations. Firstly there is the couple’s home in New York, filled with mementoes, books, and art, employing muted reds and greens. By contrast the LA half looks paler, with soft pinks, greens, and blues.

Above: The pale interiors of a couple’s home in Marriage Story is juxtaposed with the comparative vibrancy of the outside world. 

Robinson, who worked on the film, says: “The environments and how the characters appeared in them really played with color. Shot on film, the palette creates era and mood. It’s a really beautiful “normal” that the characters are in. There’s a scene with Adam Driver in an office with fluorescent light, for example, that we just let stay fully green. In each scene we embraced the variations in light and the way film reads and interprets them. There’s often great beauty in grittiness.”

Robinson likewise worked on the documentary The Truffle Hunters, which followed the seventy and eighty year-old men in the Piedmont region of Italy, who spend their days hunting for elusive white truffles. It’s a sensitive portrait of a simple life, steeped in the beauty of Italy’s rolling hills. She worked with the captured footage to enhance the story subtly. “The color helps tell the story by emphasizing the mood of the places and characters. There are happy moments that are underlined by saturated pinks and reds. And there are moments of snow or brooding that are cooler in tone. The colors are simply fitting, they do not try to change or override what’s naturally there but rather emphasize it.” 

Above: Similarly, The Truffle Hunters uses color to convey both warmth and cold in its imagery. 

Farm League’s director Janssen Powers concurs that color and storytelling are vital and inseparable bedfellows while highlighting how effective collaboration produces the best outcomes. “As a director, I’m learning that the color of a film is an output created by many inputs. In some ways, the color palette of a film feels less like one decision and more like many. It’s a mural created by a collaborative team of artists who understand the desired output and contribute their unique input. The location, art department, wardrobe, and HMU are all participants. The companies who make the film stock and camera sensors are participants. The colorist is obviously a huge participant. The weather, time of day, and time of year all play a role.”

Reaching consumers with color

Brands and businesses likewise use color to story-tell, which bolsters the intangible qualities of their product or service, nudging consumers to pick them – not their competitors. Tanguy, who works with artists and brands on a daily basis, says that color is “definitely a communication tool, a language.” It may seem that the ultimate aim for many brands is to own a color or a color scheme so as to be instantly recognisable to consumers. Recently, however, some brands have used color to expand on their brand image and inject new life and meaning into how they appear in the marketplace. Hendrick’s Gin is easy to spot when shopping – the bottle is dark and round, while the label evokes a bygone era with the typeface and illustrations. It’s a serious drink for gin connoisseurs. For the launch of the new Neptunia Gin, Hendrick’s lit up three lighthouses on the Scottish coastline with bold, bright, and expressive projections from MTArt’s contemporary artist, Claire Luxton. The campaign expanded on Hendrick’s image, externalising the floral qualities of the gin into artwork, and communicating the essence of the product through imagery and color. 

Above: Color cut through dark landscapes in MTArt and Clair Luxton’s work for Hendrick’s Gin.

“Brands can use color to challenge what’s been built before. Color is specifically useful for brands who have been around for a long time as you can use a new color palette to reactivate the brand without actually changing or undermining the brands’ values,” says Tanguy. Taking into consideration color’s psychological impact on consumers, Tanguy advises brands to “not be afraid of an overload of color for temporary activations, while opting for something more settled for longer-term ones.” 

Research by Saddington Baynes showed that consumers have color expectations when it comes to concepts like ‘luxury’ and ‘distinctive’. Lighter tones were found to drive more positive response across the board (98% confidence) while the association of darker tones with a ‘premium’ feel only elicited the desired effect for products in certain sectors, like watches and beverages. Marketers, then, can’t afford to discount the importance of color at any customer touchpoint. 

“With color one obtains an energy that seems to stem from witchcraft,” said the artist Henri Matisse. Color, then, is nothing short of magical in its ability to suffuse any kind of storytelling with visual purpose and meaning. So, to tell stories effectively – and best appeal to our inner storytelling animal – color has to play a starring role in any creative strategy that intends to capture the imagination of its audience.

Read LBB article HERE