“Colours are what drive me most strongly, colours in painted pictures, but, most strongly of all, colours out of doors in the fresh cool air, the colours I see when I am walking in London streets, in the country or by the sea. In this northern suburb where I have lived all my life, the colours are exquisite.”
I share Stevie Smith’s penchant for vibrant color (the first of her three novels was Novel on Yellow Paper) as she outlines it in “What Poems Are Made Of.” Color is especially pleasing when surrounded by drabber shades, browns and grays, of which there are infinite gradations. In our neighborhood and much of greater Seattle conifers dominate, though their green is not uniform. Some of the cedars, for instance, are marbled with yellow-green and reddish-brown. In fall, maples are the chief color source – yellows, yellow-browns and reds. The only deciduous tree in our yard is a species new to me because it’s a Pacific native – the bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum). The leaves, some 12 inches or more across, turn yellow on the tree, then splotchily brown, then fall. On the ground they resemble crustaceans, especially when a breeze skitters them across the pavement. Also littering the ground are hundreds of pinecones, convincing replicas of dog turds.
I became aware of color’s capacity to heighten mood and sometimes induce euphoria in the fall of my freshman year at college. I had discovered Paul Klee, his paintings and diaries, on my own in the library. He favored a yellow palette, as some of his titles suggest -- “Cityscape with Yellow Windows,” “Landscape with Yellow Birds,” “Signs in Yellow.” His use of the color seems very un-Swiss and suggests a landscape in the Middle East or Southwestern U.S. At the time I fell for Klee, a black locust tree was growing outside the window of my dormitory room. Locust leaves are pinnate with oval leaflets, and turn buttery yellow in the fall. The color seemed extraordinarily vivid, on the tree and the wet sidewalk, and Klee and locust leaves are forever fused in my memory.
One of the reasons I’ll never grow bored enough to contemplate suicide is the proliferation of color in the world. Yellow in particular boosts morale, as do pale green, orange and most of the blue spectrum. Even certain rich grays, the color of slate, for instance, lift me. Colors I would never tolerate in clothing, furniture or wallpaper – pink, chartreuse, magenta – are thrilling in nature. Consider a field of purple loosestrife in the late summer. Or this from another Smith essay, “A London Suburb”:
“In the high-lying outer northern suburb the wind blows fresh and keen, the clouds drive swiftly before it, the pink almond blossom blows away. When the sun is going down in stormy red clouds the whole suburb is pink, the light is a pink light; the high brick walls that are still left standing where once the old estates were hold the pink light and throw it back. The laburnum flowers on the pavement trees are yellow, so there is this pink and yellow colour, and the blue-grey of the roadway, that are special to this suburb. The slim stems of the garden trees make a dark line against the delicate colours. There is also the mauve and white lilac.”