When we think of all the forces that influence our behaviour – and our lives in general – we often forget one that exerts a constant subliminal power: colour.
Colour can determine our mood and affect our judgement, alter the impression that others form of us and persuade us to buy something or leave it on the shelf. It’s a force that will gain in importance in coming years as we swap life in a real, polychrome world for a virtual environment in which anything is possible.
A hundred, 50 or even 30 years ago, life as lived on screen was black and white – think of photography or television – or black and green, in the case of early computer monitors.
Today, the quality of modern displays makes it possible to reproduce reality in a rich and precise manner, while social media – specifically Instagram, with its clever filters – is refining and amplifying our perception of what we see.
There are few people better able to comment on this trend than Leatrice Eiseman, a charming, middle-aged American with a neat bob haircut. Known as ‘the international guru of colour’, she ranks among the world’s top experts and consultants in this field.
“New forms of communication have made people more aware of colour,” she says, writing to me by email from her home in Bainbridge Island, Washington, in the US. “Even those people who felt that they did not have much interest or ability with colour are finding that actually they do. Increased exposure to colour makes us more aware of it – and that is always a positive experience because it enriches and informs our lives.”
The same can be said about Eiseman’s life; after graduating in psychology from Antioch University in Seattle, she went into fashion and interior design, going on to write nine books about colour – soon to be 10. She organises courses and seminars on how to combine colours and is constantly researching colour psychology (a discipline that studies how colour affects our mood and behaviour). She defines the latter as “my speciality, along with [colour] trends”, and it has led her to travel extensively around the world.
Eiseman founded and still runs a consultancy service on the use of colour in marketing and communications, helping companies choose the right shade for their logo, packaging and storefronts. That is an important decision because, according to recent studies, colour accounts for 60 to 90 per cent of the purchase decision and is central to brand-building: a yellow M makes us think of McDonald’s, the name Coca-Cola is inextricably associated with red and white, and the sight of Tiffany’s turquoise boxes – the exact colour of robin eggs – make many a heart skip a beat. Eiseman also has her own personal blog, a Facebook page and has just opened an Instagram account.
The role for which she is best known is her 30-year collaboration with Pantone, the quintessential colour company, famous for its categorisation system. Pantone references are used everywhere from graphic design to fashion, and even in the kitchen. Designer Calvin Klein famously gave a Pantone swatch to his chef so he could prepare coffee of
precisely the right shade every day.
Specifically, Eiseman is director of the Pantone Color Institute, responsible for selecting the Pantone Colour of the Year since 2000, which she does with input from a small panel of experts. It is a recent initiative that sees companies eagerly awaiting her verdict before rushing to produce garments and other items in that particular tint. For others it provides the inspiration for future collections. The initiative has brought Pantone to the forefront of the popular imagination due to coverage in the press, on the internet and on social media. Every season sees a slew of articles discussing what objects to buy in the Pantone Colour of the Year and how to match them with others. It also inspires highly-creative graphic-design projects as a backlash against the ubiquitous monochrome.
An interesting point about the Pantone Colour of the Year, which also reveals Eiseman’s way of working, is that the criteria used to establish it are not aesthetic. Instead it is merely an attempt to capture the spirit of the time as a reflection of people’s desires and needs at a given moment. For 2017, Eiseman and her team chose Greenery, Pantone 15-0343 – light green with a yellow tint.
“It is a refreshing and revitalising shade,” Eiseman explains, “symbolic of new beginnings – a fresh and zesty yellow-green that evokes the first days of spring, when nature’s greens revive, restore and renew. Suggestive of flourishing foliage and the lushness of the great outdoors, the fortifying attributes of Greenery invite individuals to take a deep breath, oxygenate and reinvigorate. Satisfying our growing desire to rejuvenate, revitalise and unite, Greenery symbolises the reconnection we seek with nature, one another and a larger purpose.”
Despite its name, the Colour of the Year is not limited to a 12-month span, but instead identifies a need and a tendency that will grow over time. “People’s innate craving to immerse themselves in the physical beauty and inherent unity of the natural world,” Eiseman explains, “this shift is reflected by the proliferation of all things expressive of Greenery in our daily lives through choices in urban planning, architecture, lifestyle and design. Having been a constant on the periphery, Greenery is now being pulled to the fore – it is an omnipresent hue around the world.”
It is in just these areas that Eiseman finds the colours of the future; she carefully scrutinises fashion shows and the palettes of the most successful films, participates in international fairs and exhibitions, visits the most fashionable furniture stores and art galleries, and then emerges from this chromatic and emotional ocean to identify the desires, concerns and recurring hopes, and the colours in which they are communicated.
Eiseman explains: “I must constantly keep my eyes open to colour influences, whether they be from the art or entertainment worlds, fashion, interior design, even industrial or stage design. We also pay much attention to what people say is important to them in their lives; our goal is to choose a colour that helps satisfy those desires.”
One of her favourite events that she visits in the course of her work is Milan’s Salone del Mobile exhibition. She often talks about it in her blog, where she also publishes photographs taken at the show (more than 1,270 in 2017). “I like going to Milan, it’s a place full of talent that inspires me a lot,” she says. “Not only is the Milan Salone very directional for us, so too is the entire Brera district. Other places, like the Triennale, allow us to appreciate many different artists and the beautiful or intriguing colour combinations used and the stories they tell.”
I take the opportunity to ask what colour she associates with Milan, usually considered to be grey and polluted, but which has been renewed and transformed in recent years with new neighbourhoods, green spaces and palaces, including architect Stefano Boeri’s Bosco Verticale. “It would be difficult for me to choose just one colour to best express Milan because the decision must be based not only on the architecture of a city, but also on the people who inhabit it,” she says. “We stay with a friend in the Brera district and so many of the people I have met there are so warm and friendly and very talented with colour. When I think of them, I think of colour. I think that the sophisticated shades of aubergine, teal, deep blue, black, wine (of course) and some olive greens, lit with fuchsia against various shades of grey and greige would be the most memorable for me.”
It is an answer that reveals Eiseman’s acuity in capturing the atmosphere of a city and its personality – such as Los Angeles, where she lived until 1990. “It was a magical place, filled with sunshine and energy. It was a Technicolor city spread out between orange groves, mountains and the ever-present blue of the Pacific Ocean. If sea and sand were not readily available, there were swimming pools everywhere.” But all this sunshine and blinding light are not ideal for a colour expert. “When I lived in southern California I needed to get out of the sun to do colour matching, unless I was doing exteriors for a building where outside sunlight was important,” she explains. “But sunshine can really distort colour – not a good thing for a colourist!”
So Eiseman decided to move to Bainbridge Island, where colours are muted and delicate. In the American imagination the place is grey and rainy but, she assures me, “It doesn’t rain all of the time – that is a myth about the North-west. While it does rain, mostly in winter and early spring, it brings the most gorgeous colours you can imagine to gardens in the late spring, summer and fall. It is worth the wait. Secondly, this is the best light in the world for colour matching because they are really true in this atmosphere.”
Her passion for colour was born in another city, however. Baltimore is where she grew up, influenced by a mother who repainted the house every year – once even painting the broiler oven, risking setting everything on fire. Not even the piano escaped; when it was sold, recalls Eiseman, it was layered with more than 20 different colours and surely weighed a ton.
As elsewhere, in the world of colour natural talent is not enough; it is necessary to experiment, study and train continuously. To become an expert, Eiseman says, read everything you can find on the subject of colour. “Most of all, be constantly aware of what surrounds you in your everyday life,” she advises. “Look at the way Mother Nature combines colour.
Note how the grassy green meadow looks under a periwinkle-blue sky – that is the perfect model for a colour combination. If it makes you happy and you love the look of those colours together, then go for it. Let your own sense of colour and comfort level decide your choices. I think that continued training is important and that is why I still teach.”
Then you have to learn to feel and describe a colour accurately, as you would a rare wine.
“Colour is inextricably connected to all of our senses,” she says. “We might describe a colour as ‘soft’ because it has tactile qualities, such as Pantone Cashmere Blue. Or we might think of a colour as ‘fragrant’, like Pantone Peach Blossom, because it is so linked to our sense of smell. Even taste is evoked through colour – pink is linked to sweetness and lime green, obviously, to a sparkly, somewhat tangy flavour.” Just as we have used colour for centuries to provide a narrative for the world, so mouth feel can be useful in defining the grain and the character of a shade.
Eiseman’s approach is concrete, emotional and personal, so it is not surprising that she has little faith in attempts to apply Artificial Intelligence to colour choice. “When the senses play such a large role in our daily lives, it is easy to see why a robot would not make a good colour consultant,” she says. “Human emotion and reaction cannot be sensed that way. The dialogue between client and consultant can often lead to discoveries of negative colour associations. These are best handled with care and compassion – and can lead to new ideas on colour and one’s personal perceptions. I couldn’t imagine trying to communicate those responses to a computer, could you?”
Meanwhile, the industry continues to evolve and change as new pigments are created and identified as a result of new technologies and sometimes even happy accidents. The most recent and famous is “vantablack”, the blackest black in the world, produced by British company Surrey NanoSystems. This is capable of absorbing 99.965 per cent of visible light and causes objects to which it has been applied to lose their threedimensionality.
Rights to vantablack have been bought by the artist Anish Kapoor, making him the only person allowed to use it. And then there is YInMn Blue, discovered in 2009 in the chemistry lab of Oregon State University; since the discovery of cobalt in 1735 no other inorganic blue pigment had been known to exist.
It is therefore likely that not only will we have more access to colour, but also to more actual colours in future. As Eiseman writes in her blog, when a new colour combination appears, about 10 per cent of people will adopt it right away while the remaining 90 per cent will need time to get used to it; but “even the most sceptical people will end up accepting it”. At which point, the most avantgarde and cutting-edge companies will have acquired and made the most intense colours their own, winning customers who are attentive to the new, rare and exclusive; thus, the work of the colour expert becomes more competitive and demanding.
In following Eiseman, who constantly shares her activities and explorations around the world in her blog and on social media, we can together take the pulse of that chaotic and varied universe. She’ll find us a new favourite colour even before we know we need one.