Grey matter: Are colours fading from our world? - Hindustan Times
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Grey matter: Are colours fading from our world?

Aug 10, 2023 05:20 PM IST

A hotly contested study argued, in 2020, that manmade objects were turning to darker shades. See why the researchers may have been right.

Is it true that the manmade world is losing colour? Or is there something else at play, driving a preference for greys and blacks over brighter hues?

The gradual leaching of colour from American cafes of the 1970s to the 1990s and today. (New Castle County Government, Shutterstock / Starbucks) PREMIUM
The gradual leaching of colour from American cafes of the 1970s to the 1990s and today. (New Castle County Government, Shutterstock / Starbucks)

The idea that the world is becoming increasingly monochromatic first entered popular consciousness in 2020, when a non-peer-reviewed study analysed the colours in over 7,000 photographs of objects from the Science Museum Group Collection, an archive that draws from a number of museums, in the UK. These objects related to photography and time measurement, lighting, printing, writing, domestic appliances, and dated back to 1800.

The most common colour among the 7,083 objects examined was found to be a dark charcoal grey. The “greying” became more pronounced in the late 1980s, the study stated. Where shades of black, white and grey accounted for about 15% of the items from the 1800s, almost 60% of the items from the current decade bore those colours. To add to this, a 2020 chart released by the paint brand Dulux stated that their most popular colours that year were grey, white and beige.

As the idea that the world was leaching colour began to catch on, roboticist Macleod Sawyer wrote a post on Tumblr in which he pointed to other areas that had turned to grey. The brightly coloured fast-food eateries of ’70s, ’80s and ’90s America are now the same grey-on-grey-on-grey as the average Starbucks. McDonald’s has swapped its bright red for a more muted brown.

Is the rise of the Nordic aesthetic the cause? Is it the sparse understated-ness of our chrome-and-glass cities, devoid of embellishment and architectural flourishes?

Colour researcher, psychologist and design educator Kaustav Sengupta believes it’s something else entirely. “The perceived loss of colour serves as a proxy for other losses we’ve experienced lately,” he says. “Colours have a psychosocial connection and reflect our state of mind as much as they influence our emotional states. Today, people are becoming more isolated and less interconnected. As a result, there is a palpable shift to a darker colour palette or a darker chroma zone.”

The leaning towards muted colours could also come from our overstimulation in other areas of our lives, particularly with relation to our phones and other screens, Sengupta adds.

In a three-year investigation into the colour preferences of young urban Indians (aged 15 to 32), Sengupta says he found that 28% of the 400 respondents chose black as their favourite colour, “even in a colourful country like India”. Sengupta believes this comes from black’s traditional association with rest and blankness. “They are looking for space to sit down in and relax. In essence, it is an indicator of our mental health.”

The respondents in his study associated paradoxical emotions with black: sad, lonely, angry, empty on the one hand, and calm, hopeful and powerful on the other.

Desi blues

In India, a lack of colour acquires even more layers. “When Indians become more colourless, they’re becoming more urban,” Sengupta says “You are demonstrating that you are not a typical Indian who enjoys colour.”

If you’re wearing white, black or grey, that’s also a statement that you can afford it. “It is very difficult to maintain those colours in India, so if you can maintain a white laptop and a white phone that means you have money. We are doing it in India not because we dislike colour; rather, we are shifting our socioeconomic level in our perception of ourselves and others.”

People who are newly wealthy or have moved from small towns to large cities, “would like to go colourless or more neutral because they want to fit in with those who can afford these colours. This is an adapted liking to the colour.” Such learned preferences are being driven, Sengupta says, by young, global Indians who have more in common with their peers in cities around the world than with their non-urban peers in the country.

Fast fade

Interestingly, studies are showing that the natural world is shifting to a darker palette too.

Rising global temperatures are turning blue lakes to a green-brown. As snows melt, once-pristine whites are turning to shades of grey. Autumns are shrinking in duration and in palette.

In a 2022 study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill looked at more than five million Landsat 8 satellite images of 85,360 lakes and reservoirs from around the world, taken between 2013 and 2020, and found blues to be on the decline. They believe the reason for this is larger volumes of algae in the warming waters.

Similarly, a 2019 report by Skymet Weather Services tracked growing greys across Himalayan ranges. Dry conditions, droughts in particular, are causing more browns in what were normally vibrantly coloured autumns, a 2020 study researchers at Washington University in St Louis, published in the journal Science, revealed.

“Warmer temperatures in September and October reduce anthocyanin production in leaves, which could mean that fall colors would become less brilliantly red or purple,” Susanne S Renner, co-author of the study on autumn colours, states in the report. Meanwhile, from Delhi to San Jose, rising pollution levels are causing more grey-sky days.

As the climate crisis intensifies, perhaps the grey palette will find more takers (there’s certainly little colour in most of our imagined post-apocalyptic worlds). Or perhaps, over time, humans will pivot back to brighter colours, to substitute for those that have faded from the natural world, where they were once in such abundance.

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