Theo van Leeuwen comes to the academic discipline of social semiotics – the study of how meanings are conveyed – from his previous career as a film and TV producer. His interest in the makings of visual communication is hardly surprising. More surprising was his realisation that, after 10 years teaching and research in the field, he had little to say about the role of colour; a realisation that spurred the research presented in this book, The Language of Colour: An Introduction (Routledge, 2011).
The use and meaning of colour has been debated by philosophers, artists and scientists for millennia, with distinct aspects being considered focal at different times: its symbolism, its role in yielding naturalism of representation, and its emotional force. Now, as van Leeuwen puts it, “colour has made a comeback”. Not only are all these different aspects of colour being exploited in communication, but they are being exploited over a wide range of contexts: fashion, web design, interior decoration, and so on.
This predictably attractive book serves not only to trace the history of colour meaning (a particularly interesting summary), but also to explore the technological and intellectual drivers of its change, and to suggest a system for analysing colour meaning. We talk about this history, the tension between perceptual and conceptual approaches to colour, the dangers of ethnocentrism in the study of colour, and the status of some modern artists as researchers into colour meaning.