Where we come from: Place and Colour


‘I know where you are coming from’.

If I hear this is a group therapy context, I’m expecting it to be followed up either by a version of – let me tell you about my own experience – or – but I think you’ve got it wrong here. It’s a statement of solidarity and a permission to disagree at the same time, which could be seen as another version of family: People who know the most about you, who can be on your side and also oppose you.

Our language is awash with geographical metaphors used to convey often complex emotions and interactions. I’m increasingly pondering the “geographical’ in that sentence, having spent years of talking and writing about internal landscapes. I’ve always been focused on the emotional content, but now I’m taking the actual physical terrain more seriously.

I’m wondering about our earliest experiences of place, and the ways in which we attach to/detach from this place. There’s no easy correlation, as in people born by the sea always want to get to the coast, or those whose first years were spent in high rise flats love climbing mountains. But I believe that there are influences; that the impact of place is never erased, however subtle or hidden. Perhaps rather than attach to a location that can be described in terms of contours and features, we resonate with the mood of a place? So how  do we ascribe a mood to a place ?

Colour and light immediately come to mind. Beyond any simplistic associations – cheerful yellows, angry reds, gloomy greys and so forth – colour plays upon, expresses and creates emotion. In a recent tribute to Howard Hodgkin, Colm Toibin writes,

 ‘There was no colour in his work, he emphasised, for its own sake; he was not involved in making decoration. Nor did he allow colour to stand for some generalised set of emotions or experiences. He always thought of himself as a representational painter. The paintings arose from precise occasions, precise emotions, from a memory, something very specific and personal.’ (The Guardian 11.03.17 )

 Colour is for serious artists.  I describe myself as someone who is ‘not good with colour’, but that is a sentence, like the one that precedes it, which is too glib for comfort. I like greys – and blue-greys, green- greys, brown-greys and even yellow-greys. Why?

There are many possible factors, but the one that I am thinking about here is childhood landscapes of the Thames estuary. I remember it as muted, overcast, and yes, mainly grey! I’m not sure if it is a landscape that I am ‘attached’ to, but I do feel that its colours have seeped into me somehow. In my sketches I have periods where I consciously try to use vibrant, noisy colour – but I always either blot it away or just don’t like the end result. Colour and place are entwined. I’m not at home in hot vibrant noisy places any more than I am drawn to hot vibrant colour.

Psychotherapy enables us to go beyond our early programming, but reminds us that certain aspects of ourselves are foundational. I’m thinking that also applies to the way we respond to and use colour. It can connect us to the geography of our lives and that of our preceding generations, and it can introduce us to new ways of appreciating the current places that we and others inhabit. So to challenge the idea that I am forever entranced by greys, here are a few of my latest lino prints. You may know where I’m coming from, but look where I’ve got to!











2 thoughts on “Where we come from: Place and Colour

  1. Pam Lunn

    I’ve been mulling this over in the couple of weeks since it was posted . . . for two very salient reasons!
    First, I grew up in the 1950s near the Essex marshes and the Thames Estuary, and as a child (and still now) I always liked misty, sludgy, dusty colours . . . but it had never occurred to me to make the connection. My preferences were resisted vigorously by my mother who thought them totally inappropriate (to say the least) for a young girl who ought to like “pretty” colours. When I was older she did grudgingly acknowledge that such colours in clothing did in fact suit me.
    Second, and much more of ‘now’, I’ve spent the past five months totally refurbishing the interior of my house – stripped back to bare plaster and floorboards, rewired, replastered, redecorated, carpeted, curtained . . . everything. So this has involved a great number of choices (accompanied by decision-fatigue) about colours and textures. My instinct was neutrals everywhere, but I did stop myself to reconsider that. Although all the backgrounds are in neutral shades I have made some bold (for me) choices . . . bright red tiles in the kitchen . . . pattern (good grief!) on one wall and some blinds . . . a lot of textures in otherwise plain neutral colours. It was quite anxiety-provoking: decisions have to be made on the basis of small samples – what if I don’t like it when it’s writ large? It would be an expensive mistake if I’d got it wrong. I’ve been hugely relieved that the decision I’ve made have all worked . . . I’m just beginning to get beyond the relief to enjoying them.
    But also, for me, the preference for receding neutral colours is part of something more complex which is to do with needing to avoid over-stimulation, becoming overwhelmed by sensory input. I dislike strong flavours or scents, I can’t abide loud noise or crowded places, I hate parties. Too much bright colour is something I look away from . . . I prefer Scandinavia to the Med!

  2. Claudia McGill

    I find this interesting to think about. In addition to the use of color related to associations or past influences, I have thought about it in terms of how a person actually physically sees – I have poor vision and I think I have compensated by using bright colors (so I can see what I am doing!). I am not sure what influences my color choices other than that – I’ve always lived in the same kind of place, medium colored (as I think of it), but me, I like contrast and bright. Anyway, not sure what I’m trying to say, except that your post sent me into thinking about using color, since I never think about it, I just tend to do it. Thank you.

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