Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/January 1897/The Popular Esthetics of Color

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THE human race, like most large groups in Nature, presents a considerable variety amid a still more fundamental similarity. It is evident that, if only we measure finely enough, no two specimens, however simple, are precisely alike; and in proceeding from the simple to the complex the opportunity for variation and diversity rapidly increases; and yet amid all this diversity of individuals there is much that is common, typical, and similar. In mental processes, with which we are here primarily concerned, it seems fair to expect that, given the same premises and a fairly simple problem, similar conclusions will be reached by different individuals, owing to the similarity of the logical processes involved. But we know very well that when these processes are complex, and particularly when the emotions and interests of men are involved under substantially similar circumstances, very diverse conclusions may be reached, until, in extremely complex questions and in those in which personal interests are dominant, we find tot homines tot sententiæ.

Of all varieties of human judgment, the ones generally considered as least subject to rule and most open to caprice are those commonly referred to as questions of taste. These questions of taste refer partly to our individual and peculiar likes and dislikes, and partly to our more strictly aesthetic preferences and aversions. Æsthetic judgments, however, are subject to the influences of heredity and environment, of education, of general mental development, and the like. We speak of certain preferences as childish, as savage, as Philistine, as uneducated, as national, as local, as a fashion or a fad. In some directions it is possible to gather an aesthetic census and determine in a statistical way the distribution of particular likes and dislikes, and to attempt to gain from such material some suggestions of the underlying laws in obedience to which certain sense-perceptions are judged to be more or less pleasure-giving than others. The aesthetic relations and proportions of simple geometrical figures and lines have been studied by this method, and it is very readily applied, as is to be attempted in the present paper, to the study of the nature and distribution of color preferences.

The material for the present study was collected in connection with the Psychological Laboratory of the World's Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893. The public was invited to record its color preferences by means of a placard, which was displayed in a well-lighted corner of the laboratory, bearing the inscription shown on page 363.

This method of voting was made possible by having on hand a constant supply of small cards, each bearing a number from 1 to 25, and arranged in numerical order in small boxes or trays. Of such boxes there were two sets, one containing square and the other oblong cards. By means of these devices the shape of each card dropped into the ballot box indicated the sex of the voter; the printed number on its face indicated the voter's favorite color; the letter written on its back, his preferred combination of colors; the number written on its back, his age; and the fact that all this information was recorded on one card established the relation between the preferred single color and the preferred combination of colors.

The colors thus displayed were those bearing these names in the series of colored papers prepared by the Prang Educational Company, and to Mr. Prang my obligations are due for very material assistance in this investigation. I am also indebted to Dr. Herbert Nichols and Mrs. M. D. Hicks for the selection and arrangement of the colors and the permission to use the color scheme prepared by them for the study of color preferences. In such a study only a small and somewhat arbitrarily selected range of colors can be conveniently presented, and it is likely that the results may be to some extent influenced by the particular colors among which a choice was requested. Regarding the nature of the colors here presented, it may be noted that the twenty-four single colors fall into two groups of twelve each, the second group forming respectively the lighter shades (in the same order) of the colors in the first group. Each group of twelve colors is composed of the six "primary" or "normal" shades of the colors red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, and of six intermediate or transitional colors — red orange, orange yellow, etc. In the color combinations no transitional colors are used, and, so far as is possible in twenty-four combinations, a wide range of grouping and combination is presented.

The material thus gathered, about four thousand five hundred records in all, may be considered from a variety of points of view, and may be made to furnish interesting information regarding the range and distribution of average color preferences. We shall consider first the preferences for the single colors and for color combinations as they occur in the general average, and then ascertain how far these preferences are modified by differences in sex and in age.[1]
PSM V50 D379 Statistics of color references.png

Our first interest lies in determining what colors are the general favorites. The first place is held by blue, which is selected as the most pleasing color by slightly more than one quarter of all the voters; and the second place, though not a good second, by red, which is chosen by somewhat less than half as many as choose blue. In the next group of most pleasing colors are found lighter blue, blue violet, red violet, lighter red (or pink) violet, and "no choice," while the five least favorite colors are orange and its shadings toward red and yellow. In order to illustrate the significance of this result it may be noted that the four colors, blue, red, lighter blue, and blue violet, constitute just about half the entire preferences; or, again, if we divide the number of records into four approximately equal parts, blue would constitute the first quarter; red, lighter blue, and blue violet the second quarter; red violet, lighter red, violet, "no choice," green, and yellow the third quarter; and the remaining fifteen colors would constitute the last quarter of the color preferences.

It will be remembered that the colors presented for selection were divisible into two groups, the one group composed of the lighter shades of the colors of the other group. On comparing the preferences between the two groups it appears unmistakably that the darker colors are decidedly preferred. Of every seven persons five choose among the darker colors and only two among the lighter. An equally unmistakable tendency is the preference for the primary colors — i. e., red, orange, yellow, etc. — as opposed to the transitional ones — i. e., red orange, orange yellow, etc.; this preference is nearly as marked as that of the dark above the lighter shades. This seems to indicate that colors more distinctly corresponding to familiar shades and names are apt to be chosen as opposed to those that are less typical and familiar. All these results appear so clearly and strikingly that they may be regarded as possessing considerable general validity.

We may now consider the color preferences of the two sexes. The differences between the male and female preferences are

considerable. While blue is pre-eminently and overwhelmingly the masculine favorite, it is by no means so general a feminine favorite. The favorite woman's color, standing at the head of the female list, is red. Roughly speaking, of every thirty masculine votes, ten would be for blue and three for red; while of every thirty feminine votes, four would be for blue and five for red. Red and blue are thus much more nearly equally popular among women than among men. Other relatively marked masculine preferences are for the colors related to blue (blue violet and violet), and other feminine preferences are for lighter red (or pink), and, to a less extent, for green and yellow. Further, men confine their selections to relatively fewer colors than do women; and finally, while all men and women alike are much more apt to choose a normal than a transitional color and a darker than a lighter shade, yet the tendency to do so (about the same in the former direction) is markedly different in the latter respect; of a dozen men, ten would choose among the darker colors and only two among the lighter for the most pleasing color; while of a dozen women, seven would choose among the darker and five among the lighter shades. This feminine fondness for the lighter and daintier shades appears also in other respects, to be noted presently.

Passing next to the discussion of the preferences among the combinations of colors enumerated above, the first noteworthy result is that no combination of colors occupies the position of a decided favorite as did blue among the single colors; but that preferences for the several combinations vary gradually from the most to the least favorite. The two most frequently (and about equally) preferred combinations are red with violet and red with blue, which are somewhat similar in effect (the violet being very dark in appearance); more than one fifth of all the persons contributing to the results choose one or the other of these combinations. The third in the list is blue with violet. The three most favorite combinations are those composed of the three colors, red, violet, and blue. The next position on the list is taken by those who are unable to decide upon any one combination as their favorite, and it should be noted that this group is nearly twice as large in the selection of the combination as it is in the selection of a single color. Then follow lighter red with lighter green, red with green, lighter red with lighter blue, and red with lighter green. Some one of the above eight color combinations was chosen by three out of every five persons who recorded a preference, the remaining two fifths of the preferences being distributed very widely and rather uniformly among the remaining seventeen colors. The combinations most generally avoided are orange with green, orange with violet, lighter orange with lighter blue.

Before leaving this division of the subject one further conclusion may be indicated. This relates to the relative frequency of the several colors in the color combinations. Such a comparison is possible only for the normal or primary colors and their lighter shades, and is further hampered by the fact that the several colors are not equally offered for selection in the color combinations. A method of comparison making allowance for these points yields the conclusion that, on the whole, the same colors are preferred and avoided in both the single colors and the color combinations. While the order of preference is measurably the same, we find no such decided favorites as is blue among the single colors, but that the several colors are much more uniformly represented. Red and blue and violet and lighter red are near the head of both lists, and orange and lighter orange at the foot of both. The most striking exception is lighter green, which is very rarely chosen as a single favorite color, but appears frequently in the color combinations. It may also be observed that on the whole the lighter shades of the colors appear relatively more frequently in the color combinations than in the single color preferences, and that this is particularly the case for the women.

The results of the comparison of color preferences for those of various ages are somewhat meager. This is probably due to the wide distribution of age here represented. It is probable that the characteristics peculiar to certain ages could be best determined by recording the preferences of large groups of persons of nearly the same age — a form of investigation that is particularly desirable among children, in whom changes of taste are going on more rapidly than in older persons. For the purposes of comparison the ages were divided into five groups, the number of records in each group being approximately the same. The groups thus formed are for the youngest, eighteen years and below; the next, nineteen to twenty-four years; the third, twenty-five to thirty years; the fourth, thirty-one to forty years; and the oldest, forty-one years and above. The most noteworthy characteristic of the color preferences of these groups is their general similarity; but there are four indications which are sufficiently marked to be probably free from chance. These are, that blue is least selected by the youngest group, about equally by the three middle groups, and decidedly preferred by the oldest; that violet is gradually avoided as age increases; that those who make most use of the "no choice" column are between twenty-five and thirty years of age; and that lighter red is particularly preferred by those below eighteen years of age. It is equally difficult to detect any marked differences between the sexes respecting their color preferences at different ages, but it is perhaps not accidental that in these results the liking for pink (lighter red) is confined to young girls, and does not appear among boys, and that lighter violet is more distinctly preferred by the older women than by the older men.

The method of collecting these preferences, it will be recalled, enables one to know the combinational color preferences of the individuals who choose a given color as their favorite. It is thus possible to study the correlation that may exist between the choice of a single color and the choice of a color combination. It will not be worth while to do this except for those colors that are chosen by a relatively large number of individuals. Taking, for example, those who choose blue as their favorite color, we find what combination of colors these "blue-choosers" were most prone to select, and so on for those who chose red, lighter blue, blue violet, red violet, lighter red, violet, and green. The first marked result of such a comparison is to show that the favorite color is extremely apt to reappear in the combination of colors. The evidence for this may be given in some detail. If we represent by 1 the proportionate choice of a combination having the color blue in it in the general records, we find that the number expressing how many of the "blue-choosers" would also choose a combination in which blue occurred would be 2·17, or more than twice as many as the general average. So for red it would be 1·87, for lighter blue 3·98, for lighter red 3·83, for violet 2·85, and for green 4·44; or on an average 3·18, which means that a person who has chosen any one of the above colors as his favorite color is more than three times as likely to choose a combination in which that same color appears as is the average chooser. It also appears that the men obey this tendency slightly more than the women.[2]

Having found characteristic differences between the single color preferences of the sexes, we are prepared to find them as well in the preferences for color combinations. On the whole, the order of preference of the combinations of colors for the men and for the women is very much alike; and when they differ it is frequently doubtful, especially when the combination of colors is rarely selected, whether such differences are accidental or not. Of the masculine preferences those which seem most decided are for the red with blue combination and the blue with violet, there being five men to one woman choosing the former, and three men to one woman choosing the latter; while the most marked feminine preferences are for the lighter red with lighter green, red with green, and red with lighter green, there being nearly four times as many women as men choosing the former, twice as many the second, and two and a half times as many the last of these three. We observe in these differences the reappearance of the masculine preference for blue and its related colors, and the feminine preference for red, and also the feminine preference for the lighter colors. The liking for combinations of red with green in their various shades seems also a particularly feminine fondness.[3]

In reviewing these results of this popular census of color preferences, it is apparent that while in some directions the conclusions seem clear, suggestive, and interesting, in others their interpretation and value are at present doubtful or defective. It must, however, be borne in mind that these returns have been gathered among the general public and by only one of several methods; their full significance can hardly appear before special studies shall have been made of the influences upon color preferences of age and nationality, of education and special artistic endowment, of conventionality and association, and of the many other factors that contribute to the complexity of even the simplest æsthetic judgments. For the present, the results are presented as merely an initial contribution to the statistical study of the popular æsthetics of color.


An interesting case of mimicry is described by Mr. Charles A. Witchell as shown in his brother's Dandie Dinmont terrier, which was in the company of a fine mastiff for a short time when young. "The little dog was somewhat awed by the great beast, which could easily have made a meal of him; but he was evidently very proud to be allowed to accompany her for a ramble in the country." In a short time he began to try to reproduce her baying, which was much lower in pitch than his bark, and made very great efforts to accomplish it, which he finally did very successfully. "He raised his head and uttered a great bark, about an octave in pitch below his usual tone. All his breath was exhausted by the effort, and he immediately coughed, as though his larynx had been strained." Mr. Mitchell also observes that when one of the fish in his aquarium gaped, any other one near would be tolerably certain to gape soon afterward.
  1. 1,810 (about two fifths) by women. Of these, only 3,043 (1,864 men and 1,179 women) indicated both the preferences for the combination of colors as well as for the single color, and only 2,594 (1,548 men and 1,046 women) recorded their ages. These numbers are suggestive, as indicating that, of all those sufficiently interested to stop and select a color, only fifty-seven per cent were careful to follow the entire directions, while just about two thirds did as requested, except that they did not record the age. In all these respects the women are no more nor no less accurate than the men.
    The ages of the voters cover a wide range, from six to seventy years. The age best represented occurs at about twenty-two years. One half of all the voters are between nineteen years and six months and thirty-five years of age, and two thirds of them would be between seventeen and thirty-nine years old. The age distribution of the men and women presents no significant differences.

  2. During the two months or more during which the public was invited to vote its color preferences 4,556 cards were dropped into the box, 2,746 (about three fifths) by men and
  3. Several other "correlation" conclusions maybe drawn, of which the following are the most interesting: It appears that the men who are rather exceptional and choose a color which is a common feminine favorite, and the women who select a typical masculine color, are more apt than the more conforming choosers to retain this color in their color-combination preferences; it also appears that the tendency to retain this favorite color is limited to the same shade of color and does not apply to a different shade of the same color, and it further appears that those who select a favorite color which is selected by a relatively large number of persons are more alike in their combination preferences — i.e., they confine their selections to a more limited range of color combinations than those whose preferred color is not a popular favorite.
  4. It is possible to calculate for the men and women separately the tendency to select given colors in the color combinations (irrespective of the colors with which the given color may be combined). Such a comparison yields the conclusion that the colors relatively better represented in the combinations of color than in the single colors are, for the men, blue and violet; and for the women, lighter red, lighter yellow, and green.