The colour of grey

Thursday 18th Feb 2010

I grew up under grey, overcast skies, in a place with nearly two metres of rainfall a year and where the roads and pavements never fully dried out. A cloudless sky came once a year and had people talking for days, and hot weather was anything over 20° celcius. Funny thing is, it’s not even the wettest place in Britain, it’s just normal for the west coast.

It’s led to me having a little theory about perception, particularly the perception of colour. I remember having a conversation one day at school with a boy who’d moved from Gibraltar. He was moaning about how grey everything was, grey skies, grey buildings, grey landscape, grey people, even. I was surprised. I looked out at the same view he was looking at, and there seemed to be plenty of colour out there. The clouds had touches of pink here, blue there, purple on dark ones; the fields were a rich variety of greens, fading off to blues in the far distance, with dark green forests and ochre and fawn moorlands on the hills; even the limestone buildings with their slate roofs had their own palette of colour. Why this kid was saying it was all grey, I’d no idea.

Not grey.

So I’ve developed a theory, based on the idea of how salt affects your taste. If you add salt to your food, you become desensitised to it, over the years you need a tiny bit more salt every time you eat so that eventually unseasoned food tastes bland and unappealing. The same thing I think affects your sense of colour. If you come from a place with blazing sunshine, you’re seeing high-intensity colours lit up by unfiltered, full-spectrum sunlight. You become desensitised to the bright colours, they seem normal, you simply get used to them. However, someone who grew up in a grey place is going to be very sensitive to colour - bright things are going to appear garish, eye-searingly so. They’re going to go for desaturated shades in their clothing, housing and art.

As far as I can tell, my little theory of visual seasoning seems to hold out. Just look at the colours people where when it’s sunny, and when it’s not.