This is a part of a series I’ve decided to launch for myself in which I attempt to write *a minimum* of 1 paragraph (3–10 sentences) about something a day. It will not be perfectly curated or articulated, and there will certainly be punctuation problems. You’ve been warned.
Recently, there was a conversation on NPR about how purple has become the cautionary color of the pandemic. In the color scale that was discussed, Green = Fine, Yellow = Spread is Minimal, Orange = Moderate, Red = Substantial, Purple = Bad. I have also noticed purple appearing in relation to air quality chart reports—in which I had to study what exactly the purple indicated (it wasn’t clear immediately to me). The issue in general is that a color needed to be added that was more severe, above Red. While it seems the consensus is that purple was most appropriate mainly because it is next on the color wheel, it was also mentioned that it’s the color of a deep bruise. I can’t disagree more with the selection. It seems the choice was a very literal one for something that should take a larger context into account: the historic symbology, theory, and psychology of color.
Throughout history purple has symbolized anything from power, wealth, royalty, divinity, to mystery, magic, and creativity. While it has been used to represent sadness, more times than not its connection is not to caution or threat. According to The Secret Lives of Color, the painter Manet is said to have pronounced purple (in this case “violet”) as that of the atmosphere in 1881: “It is violet….Fresh air is violet. Three years from now, the whole world will work in violet.” Though the point earlier that the color has a connection to the worst bruise is true, isn’t a bruise less as fearful as an open wound itself, exposing bloody red flesh? I keep thinking of Neil Young singing “red mean run, son” from the song Powderfinger. While stop signs indicate the opposite of run, they do have in common the sense of alert. By contrast, purple is often a calming, soothing color—not requiring immediate attention. It is a color of inaction in this context and to define space.
Instead of taking the obvious next step in the color wheel to purple, I propose above red should lead to maroon. The blood tone has a closer connection to red, but gives off a sense of deeper danger through its density in color. It does so because all colors are defined within a ‘temperature’ of either a warm, cool, or neutral tone. Red, yellow, green belong to the warm side; blue and purple cool; black and white neutral for example. Yes there are some purple tones that can be considered to have a warmer tone. They’re ultimately still in the camp of cool tone for their incorporation of blue (a cool temp color); as opposed to maroon, which is mixed from red and brown (very little blue if any at all). Warm versus cool colors matter which you consider their psychological impact. A warm color has a relationship with fire, passion, or intensity; a cold color with loneliness, atmosphere, space, or void.
All of this to say that the choice of purple is a simplification of the very complex nature of color and perception.