Article by Maria Høgh-Mikkelsen – PhD Fellow at Design School Kolding

I have a box of colours. It doesn’t contain crayons or paint, just colours on paper. It is a big box crammed with colour samples in all sizes from previous design projects. I dislike throwing away colours, so only samples smaller than the fingernail on my thumb will be excluded from the box. Sometimes I open the box and scatter the colours around in my study. I love how the colours fall out in a big mess when I turn the box upside down. As if the colours race each other on the way to floor. They finally lie down in random connectedness and compositions I never intentionally could have created. Or would have created. It is as if exactly this combination of colour is a new born baby, never seen by the world before. This is the surprising moment of when I look at my new born colour combination for the first time. Filled with tranquil wonderment, I observe it and think: oh yes, what a fresh and innocent appearance.

Today I select colours from the big box. For no specific project or purpose. I simply select colours based on my liking. I look at many colours. I select more than I deselect, so the pile grows bigger and bigger. I select colours I personally favour. I select colours to explore what I personally favour. I select favourite colours because I wonder if I might be just a little sceptical of the idea of an objective colour harmony based on old theories and systems. I select beautiful colours.
When I observe a colour intensively, I almost always find it alluring. Or maybe each colour is just seductive in its own distinctive character. I get drawn into the colour. If I allow myself the time and space. If I manage to remove the noisy images of applications racing over my inner screen. A pale pink, perfect for helping the light to find its tone through a curtain. A lemon yellow, perfect for creating energy and freshness together with full gloss and curved form. A deep almost black brown, oh so perfect for the walls in my dining room, creating an intimate sense of community in the light around the table, creating depth and drama. But these are all distracting images, amputating me from the process of evaluating each colour. No ‘evaluate’ is the wrong word. Right now, my objective is not to assess the colour from my design professional point of view, but to let the colour seep into me. Through intuition and emotion, I want to sense the colour, respond to it and ask myself: Do I like this colour?

Professionally I need all colours, they turn into the words with which I create narratives. I need the clattering colours, the spiky, the vulgar, the quiet, distanced, inclusive, seductive and fresh. But today I am telling no story. Today it is just me and not a project. I look at a colour. I sense if I like it. But I find this procedure difficult. Without a design project I no longer now how to choose. I choose almost all colours.

I really like green. My pile of chosen colours contains a lot of green. Greyish, dusty green. Blueish, chilly and dissociated. And the warm almost yellow green colours. Light and dark, transparent and deep. I really like green. But all the other colours have also slipped into my pile. Have I become blind for the colour?

It is easier for me to see what is not in my pile. I look at the few colours which have landed in the small pile of deselections. I notice two things in this pile. First, I see all the very bright colours. High intensity, children-colours, signpost-colours, plastic-colours. Cold shrill turquoise and hysterical pink. Second, I see the blue-violet colours or the blues on their way towards blue-violet. Deep down I knew that already. I have worn out the blue-violet colours in the nineties because of my propensity towards second-hand flower-power clothes. Back then the colour was lilac. Lilac is unrequited college love and rock music and heavy sandalwood incense. Today, no lilac finds its way into my pile of favourite colours. I have left lilac behind.

I sweep the deselection pile aside and bring my attention back to the voluminous pile of selected colours. There are so many colours. I decide to study the pile, to spread it out, reduce it and turn it into a palette. If I was a design project, I might only be allowed five colours in my palette due to terms of production. Or two colours. Not governed by this kind of restriction here, I nevertheless feel a strong need to apply a sort of framework or objective in the transformation from a chaotic pile of colours to a personal palette. I give in to the urge of setting goals and decide for 30 beautiful colours in my personal palette.

It is immensely difficult to select only 30 colours. I try to lay out the colours in various ways. Based on hue. Based on value. Based on intensity. Slowly I can reduce the number of colours. Some colours resemble one another. Even though I deep in my heart love the tiny differences and fine nuances in the colours, the voice of my emotional self is overruled by my ingrained designer voice, arguing about production and colour perception. So, I deselect colours. It is a difficult process. I look at the individual colour and at the entirety of the colours respectively. The entirety is beautiful, rich and colourful in a calm way. When I look at the entirety, I have the feeling that I can easily remove a colour without changing the whole. This colour can leave the pile. But, when I pick up the departing colour and look at it isolated, I find it indispensable. I hold it against similar colours to decide if it has to go or needs to stay, and I notice the difference in nuances and how this specific colour changes character every time I place it next to a new colour. It appears darker with a light colour. Brighter with a dusty colour. More blueish with an orange colour. When the colour changes all the time, when it is interactive as Albers call it, it becomes even more complicated to let a colour go. I might need this specific colour to change another colour.

I work intuitively and systematically at the same time. Or switch between the two approaches. I call it ‘informed intuition’. Eyes, hands and feeling communicate and react almost automatically. In a way my consciousness and my professional designer-self is shoved into the background by the powerful threesome of eyes, hands and feeling. It can be no other way when intuition put pressure on. It is difficult to describe just how the intuition makes me act. It is informed intuition because I already know a lot about colour. Maybe that is good. I am a competent colour designer. Or maybe it just creates a lot of noise when I aspire to experience the colour as for the first time. I easily evaluate the colour instead of feel it. It is also informed intuition because I decide how I want to explore the pile of colours. I stage my own systems in which I want to challenge the colours.

The manner in which I lay the colours side by side depending on hue, value or intensity all derive from old colour theoretical systems I try to distance myself from. The same systems I am seduced by. The systems are dogmatic, instructive and narrow. When Itten talks about how one can create objective colour harmonies by combining colour according to his triangles or square, my shoulders tug and my mouth wants to shout: no, no that colour combination is hideous. On the other side, the theory of harmony and musical tones as metaphor for colour seems so persuasive. It is graphically beautiful when the triads or squares are placed in the twelve-hue colour wheel. I am fascinated by the logic when everything in the colour systems comes together. Like Aristotle’s specifications on how to achieve beauty. Build on a system. With rules. And then, a moment later I want to shout no again.
These colour theories are complete in their own closed systems. They are easy to understand. Easy to apply. They tell us what to do. Without us having to see. Put together two complementary colours and you have the most powerful contrast, the loudest racket and vibrant energy. But the shades or nuances, the tone in the noise, the taste of the energy; that cannot be created from a recipe. It takes lots of devotion and sensitivity, lots of listening, tasting, seeing, again and again till it is absolutely right. I find the old colour theories outdated and constraining, belonging to an outworn conception of aesthetics where beauty is defined by rules. I want to create atmospheres, ambiences, moods. Gloomy, flighty, deceitful and repulsive atmospheres. And beautiful atmospheres. Beautiful colours.
And I love the old colour theories and their systems. I love the codes and their theoretical diagrams and their elegant organisations of colours. I love how the systems let me work conceptually without sensing. I love order, recipes and the possibility of articulating the colour. I love to surrender to the system. The same way as I am overwhelmed by the coincidence by which the colours fall out the box when I turn it upside down in my study. I love when the coincidence or the system creates a surprising and peculiar colour combination.

I no longer select colours. I deselect. I persistently try to reduce my pile of colours to the goal of 30 colours. After a long struggle with the reduction, I give in, I surrender to the emotional sympathy for the diversity of colours. I cannot deselect anymore. I have reached 60 colours. Let arguments be arguments; if I am to choose favourite colours today, I most have 60 favourites.
I lay out the palette dividing light colours, mid-toned colours and dark colours in three rows. Each row going from blue, to green, to yellow, to red and finally to the few violet colours in my palette. It contains many tertiary colours binding together the contrasts in the palette. The entirety is colourful and yet all colours appear closely related.  The palette is broad but united by an ambience of a subtle softness. It is shady and downy. These are my favourite colours today.


The content of each paragraphs could be subject for more investigations.
1: about the love for colour and random colour combinations
2: about selecting colours and about the noisy images of applications due to professional experience
3: about the professional need for all colours in the creation of narratives
4: about the love for green
5: about the deselected colours especially about lilac and the emotional background for the dislike of that colour
6: about selecting colours and about the need of a framework
7: about a single colour and the entirety of colours, about the relation between part and whole and about colour interaction
8: about the informed intuition and the threesome of eyes, hands and feeling
9: about my ambivalent relation to some classical colour theory, about working in a dogmatic system and about harmony and atmosphere
10: about the palette of today’s favourite colours

Maria Høgh-Mikkelsen
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