Pigment of the Imagination – Visual Analysis & Dissertation Update

I am currently undertaking my dissertation titled ‘Pigment of the imagination: in what ways is colour information?’. We live in an age of multiple, overlapping ‘informations’ and there is a growing dialogue in the field of LIS on the concepts of information across different domains. (Janich, 2018). In library and information sciences the philosophies of information have a particular focus on communication and semantics. (Ibekwe-SanJuan & Dousa, 2014). Colour, which is semiotic by nature, is integral to artistic research, practice, and communication, and through this research project I hope to understand it is a form of information. Perhaps it is the artist in me too, but I have always been fascinated with colour and the cadences of the senses, and since I started the MSc I have been drawn to the idea of what information means within the context of visual arts.

As part of my own research it felt necessary to carry out some visual analysis to explore these ideas. It will also help me to understand and find any links with the philosophies of information science, colour theory, and aesthetics. I could therefore not have asked for a sweeter treat than the Olafur Eliasson retrospective at the Tate Modern. Eliasson is widely known for his interactive socially engaged art and for exploring the signals and flux of the natural world; all the while twinkling in multi-colours like the jewelled wrappers from a box of quality street. (Godfrey, 2019). Smoke and mirrors aside, ‘In Real Life’ is an important retrospective and full of intriguing ideas relevant to LIS, from immersive experiences, documenting ephemerality, phenomenology, and revealing the vital documentary and studio processes that are an important part of practice-led research.

The first time I saw Eliasson’s work was on a school trip back in 2003. I still remember the awe of standing under the ambient faux-sun of ‘The Weather Project’, the calescent colour limning the turbine hall in amber. Returning to this retrospective filled me with that same giddy schoolboy wonder I had felt over a decade ago; art meets science, technology, and illusion. Din Blinde Passeger ‘Your Blind Passenger’ 2010 was a colour work that especially stood out and got me thinking more abstractly about information, experience, and aesthetics. The installation forms a long, narrow corridor where visitors are temporarily blinded by a brightly illuminated fog, requiring them to rely on other senses to orient themselves. Stepping into the stark white mist I felt excited and afraid, immediately I thought of Stephen King’s novel ‘The Mist’. The power of the threshold should not be underestimated here in terms of creating the experience. The moment I walked through the door I was instantaneously transported into something transitory, metaphysical, and even a little sci-fi. All sense of direction and perception was lost becoming an information black-out with no point of reference other than colour. Moving forward the fog began to change, tinging slowly from powder white, flesh peach, to ochre yellow and through to the densest burnt orange. Bathing in the rusty atmosphere felt uncanny, like I was walking on Mars or through the atmosphere of an alien planet. The strangeness was marked with happiness and laughter too, not just because I could not help but smile as people bumbled past each other in a daze, but because of the overwhelming warmth the colour evoked. Like the warmth of laying under a summer sun with my eyes closed, or the feeling of being embraced by a loved one, this was a powerful and evocative use of colour.

Clearly this work is a highly subjective example of colour, my reaction to it based on my own social, cultural, and personal experiences. However, if colour can communicate an emotion, summon a memory or delight a sense, is that not then informational by nature? Eliasson’s work is interesting in that it draws this tension between feelings and facts, the invisible and communicative, and the mental and physical. During my literature search I have found a pool of interesting texts on information as a physical and fundamental aspect of the universe, information appears to be just everywhere! The physicality of information is an interesting idea in relation to colour; what is the difference between the orange colour of a star, a traffic cone light, and Eliasson’s ‘Your Blind Passenger’? The colour a star emits can indicate the complex alchemy of chemical elements present in the atmosphere, the traffic cone light beams a warning or a indicates a barrier, and the work of art is a subjective and personal experience. All are sources of colour, but what are the distinctions between them being physical, informational or purely aesthetic? Other questions also spring to mind, how do we construct meaning from the perception of colour? How integral is colour to the way we experience documents? Are all aspects of colour well-formed and processes of communication? How is information theory understood in art and semiotics?

The course of reading literature for the dissertation has been like opening Pandora’s box, each time I begin to think I am understanding and starting to answer my research question, the curiosity of engaging with research unleashes a hundred more questions. I will be carrying out a more detailed visual analysis in the dissertation itself, and to help me find my focus I will also carry out a conceptual analysis of Floridi’s General Definition of Information. The next update will coincide with a visit to the Colour Reference Library at the Royal College of Art. I will be looking at more conventional forms of colour information from colour charts and taxonomies, to colour theories and models.



Godfrey, M. (2019) Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life. London, UK: Tate Publishing.

Ibekwe-SanJuan, F. & Dousa, T.M. (2014) Theories of Information, Communication and Knowledge: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

Janich, P. (2018) What is information? Minneapolis, USA: University of Minnesota Press.



Bell, A. (2019) Din Blinde Passeger. [photograph]. UK

Waves of Light – Colour as Information

What do you see when you look out into the world? Do you notice auric gold ribbons of sunlight dappling through the leaves of a tree and feel the warmth of a happy memory? Are your eyes satiated by the plump scarlet flesh of a summer sweetened tomato? Do you move when you see the icy optic viridian of a traffic light signalling you to go?… Everyday life is full of fleeting glances of colour, and though the smallest may seem transient or abstract, these visual signs can grant a wealth of information.


A question of colour

Colour has always left a tint in my life; from studying at art school and creating artworks, to communicating my research, recalling my strongest memories, and shaping the way I interact with the world. Even now as I walk the steps into Librarianship, I aid creative arts students with their contextual research, and must think seriously and practically about colour. I have encountered queries that have ranged from ‘Do you have any information on the colour red and how painters have used it?’ to ‘Do you have information on fashion designers who have subverted the use of white in bridal couture?’. Colour is a powerful visual language and a primary tool for artists to create and communicate information. So what is colour as information? Is it truthful and evidential, or is it subjective and ambiguous? By looking introspectively at the facets of colour, perhaps it can tell a better story of information itself, what it is, and how it can be communicated.


Splitting open the sunbeam

Before I start wandering dreamily over the shades of blue, let us first apply some exacting science. Colour is the subjective physiologic interpretation of the visible electromagnetic spectrum. As a ray of light enters your eyes, bright ambiences or images, produced in the retina, are sent to the brain and interpreted as a set of chromatic sensations. The reason different things appear different colours, are because like tides passing through the ocean, light travels in waves too. (Evans, 2017). While some things absorb some wavelengths of the visible spectrum, others are sent bounding off into the heavens. Blue light for example, is scattered in all directions by tiny molecules in the air of the Earth’s atmosphere. This light travels in short, small waves, and when it touches your eyes and your brain processes the data, the sky appears to breathe out an all-encompassing colour blue. The absence of these light waves at night is also what turns the sky into a black cauldron, enabling us to see the glitter of distant stars. In this sense, the colour we really perceive something to be is precisely the colour it isn’t, that is, just the segment of the spectrum that is being reflected away. (St Clair, 2016).


Colour as information

Colour is a very sophisticated neural process and the specific biochemical reaction results in the organisation of what is conveyed or represented by the arrangement or sequence of light. (Nichols, 2014). It is evidential so surely it must be information? Information is notoriously mercurial, it exists in abundance, and like running water it takes shape and significance depending on the environment and need. The father of information theory Claude Shannon (1993) was hesitant with definition, stating

“it is hardly expected that a single concept of information would satisfactorily account for the numerous possible applications of this general field”.

The different interpretations, misunderstandings, and misuses of information are more evident now we are living in such a hyperconnected and information sharing society. This is what Floridi (2014) describes as the 4th revolution, where contemporary life has become immersed within a swirling cloud of data. The news, social and digital media, technology, and analytics, all filter swathes of data and downpour us with varying types of information. Whether we like it or not, there is not a part of our lives now were we don’t get soaked in the stuff.


Floridi’s (2010) General Definition of Information (GDI) is a single map of informational concepts and this nifty model is now commonplace in fields that reify information, to be organised and disseminated, such as the library and information sciences. By applying this model across domains, we can start to decode complex information and think of it as a structure of data + meaning. Using this model, we can also start to understand non-textual forms of information, beyond the frame of the written word. Although not always obvious, images, objects, and even performances containing the same pattern of data + meaning, can be credible sources of information.

Our understanding of the many practical uses of colour to communicate, has in turn enabled us to interpret and transcribe everything, from mundane objects to the illimitable architecture of the cosmos. Even though it seems impossible to imagine a world where the colour of something could not be used to visualise, describe, inform or understand, the textual use of colour has historically entered the written language very slowly. The ancient Greeks, with all their beautiful and poetic prose, never had a simple word for the colour blue. The seas and skies of their world were described as ‘wine-dark’, ‘starry’ or ‘of lead and bronze’. (Michela-Sassi, 2017). Similarly, in the middle ages there existed no word for the colour orange, and today there are desert tribes in Africa who have six words for the colour red, and yet no single one for green. (Fletcher, 2001). Through the eyes of observation and understanding, it has become clear that every culture has its own way of understanding, organising, classifying, and communicating with colour. This is not due to varying biology of the human eye, but because colour is subtle and prompts varying emotional responses, all according to varying social, political and cultural contexts. The complexity of colours conveys numerous types of information from feeling, relationships and contrasts, dramas and tensions, to the very nature of matter and its processes and transmutations. Once understood and harnessed, colour can be used to suggest temperament, class, vocation and hierarchy, and as such can define, differentiate and blend well formed data. (ARAS, 2010). There are entire industries that use and are highly dependent on libraries of colour to communicate information; it can be applied to weave a piece of clothing as equally as a work of art, design or product, and logo or brand.


Shades, hues, and tints of information

Colour as information triggers different responses. It can be environmental, a cold fact, usefully and efficiently giving meaning to data. A red light is a signal or warning, a well-placed green on a topographic map distinguishes land from water, and a green banana turned yellow is ripe to eat. (Tufte, 1990). What is more interesting, particularly for the business of artists, is that colour can be a tool of subtle visual communication. It can draw from cultural knowledge and create a story, trigger or carry deeply truthful or emotive information, invoke a memory, stimulate the senses, and rouse the soul. It can also be unnatural, juxtaposed, playful, and subverted to change to the status quo. (Paul, 2017). It can be both truthful and universal as well as highly subjective and interpretive. Understanding information, and the many forms it possesses, is especially important for library and information professionals. It is after all our responsibility to collect, protect, preserve, manage and disseminate meaningful information to society. To understand information, context and critical thinking are therefore paramount. It is our ability to critically evaluate its contents, that allows us to judge its meaning, purpose, and be able to act on it. As with any language, the language of colour and information is learned. By widening the understanding and teaching of visual and information literacies, Librarians can bring clarity to a deluge of information and assist researchers with applying more creative and practical ways of giving meaning to data.

So perhaps then when you walk to work in the morning, you may take the time to notice some colour in your day and think more about what it is telling you. Let the amber corona on the edges of leaves whisper to you that autumn’s hand is near. Read the gaudy yellow billboard at the bus stop you always walk past. Stand in front of an abstract painting, or the bright cerulean sky and let the colour wash over you. Life is showered with waves of light, colours, sensations, and complexity, and you will begin to see that even in the mundane there is information to be read and little bit of magic.



Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (2010) The book of symbols: reflections on archetypal images. London, UK: Taschen. p636.

Evans, G. (2017) The story of colour: an exploration of the hidden messages of the spectrum. London, UK: Michael O’Mara Books Limited. p14-15.

Fletcher, A. (2001) The art of looking sideways. London, UK: Phaidon Press. p53.

Floridi, L. (2010) Information: a very short introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. p19-24.

Floridi, L. (2014) The 4th revolution: how the infosphere is reshaping human reality. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. p13-17.

Michela-Sass, M. (2017) ‘The sea was never blue’. Aeon. Available at: https://aeon.co/essays/can-we-hope-to-understand-how-the-greeks-saw-their-world (Accessed: 30th August 2018).

Nichols, W. (2014) ‘The Sense, the Body and the Big Blue’, in Blue Mind. London, UK: Little, Brown & Company. p88-89.

Paul, S. (2017) Chromophilia: the story of colour in art. London, UK: Phaidon Press. p11.

Shannon, C. (1993) Collected papers. New York, USA: IEEE Press.

St Claire, K. (2016) The secret lives of colour. London, UK: John Murray Publishers. p13-15.

Tufte, E. (1990) Envisioning information. Connecticut, USA: Graphic Press.



Bell, A. (2018) Splitting a sunbeam [photograph] UK.

Floridi, L. (2010) Information: a very short introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. p30, diagram.