When does blue stop becoming blue and start becoming less blue more green? Could you pinpoint the exact point where pigment stops being one and starts becoming another? And would that decision be objective or subjective? Take the Pantone colour bridge below, what is blue and what is green here?
Is there a fully blue blue? Is there a fully green green? And if there is an uber blue and an uber green, are they mutually exclusive? Can they coagulate or mix? Of course they can, everyone who has played with paint knows this. But if and when they coagulate how do we represent that complex phenomenon? Bluegreen? Greenblue? BLgrUEeen? GREblENue? GbREENlue? And once again, is it possible to do this objectively? Is my blue the same colour blue as your blue? Are these terms in and of themselves sufficient to narrativise the colours we see before us? The modernists’ didn’t think so. Writing in 1921 Virginia Woolf composed the following two pieces, titled “Blue & Green,” and it’s with these two short pieces that I want to initiate this week’s post about data and narrative.
THE PORTED fingers of glass hang downwards. The light slides down the glass, and drops a pool of green. All day long the ten fingers of the lustre drop green upon the marble. The feathers of parakeets—their harsh cries—sharp blades of palm trees—green, too; green needles glittering in the sun. But the hard glass drips on to the marble; the pools hover above the dessert sand; the camels lurch through them; the pools settle on the marble; rushes edge them; weeds clog them; here and there a white blossom; the frog flops over; at night the stars are set there unbroken. Evening comes, and the shadow sweeps the green over the mantelpiece; the ruffled surface of ocean. No ships come; the aimless waves sway beneath the empty sky. It’s night; the needles drip blots of blue. The green’s out.
The snub-nosed monster rises to the surface and spouts through his blunt nostrils two columns of water, which, fiery-white in the centre, spray off into a fringe of blue beads. Strokes of blue line the black tarpaulin of his hide. Slushing the water through mouth and nostrils he sings, heavy with water, and the blue closes over him dowsing the polished pebbles of his eyes. Thrown upon the beach he lies, blunt, obtuse, shedding dry blue scales. Their metallic blue stains the rusty iron on the beach. Blue are the ribs of the wrecked rowing boat. A wave rolls beneath the blue bells. But the cathedral’s different, cold, incense laden, faint blue with the veils of madonnas.
So here in these pieces we see Woolf exploring the concept of blue and green, attempting to evoke the “feeling” of blue and green, the “experience” of blue and green. Because for Woolf, the adjectives alone were not enough. Blue may signify blue or blueness (just as green signifies green or greenness), but there is more to blue than the word “blue,” and there is more to green than “green.” After all, what, exactly, is so blue about blue or so green about green that is cannot be described by any other term or terms?
This provides us with the foundations for yet another narrative/ data puzzle. When it comes to complex and subjective experiential phenomenon such as colour or emotion, what is data and what is narrative? And how can our assertions about either be considered in any way objective? Even the most banal of assertions, such as an assignation of colour (“blue”) or an emotion (“sad”) are innately tied to our subjective experiences of that colour or emotion. If I am colour blind I may see a different shade of blue to you, but that facet of my experience of reality (my dataset of colours and of the colour blue specifically) will be no less “true” or representative of my reality than yours. Similarly, if I am autistic, my understanding or interpretation of the facial contortions that signify someone in my vinicity is “sad” or “happy” will be different to yours. They will be fed by different experiences and different stimuli, but are no less valid an interpretation of reality that the weird faces you find in your textbook neuro-typical example of a “sad” face.
In the above fictional pieces by Woolf, we encounter narrativised, impressionistic versions of blue and green; but what data or datum could we extract from the pieces? The title, “Blue & Green,” does not really do the respective narratives justice, because there is something more than blue and green here; or is there? Do the narratives elaborate on the data, create narrative from the data, or do the narratives reveal the latent richness inherent in the data? Woolf gave us facets of blue and green-ness we did not know existed within the colours; activating the speculative value of the data, presenting facets of blue that were already present in blue, just waiting for the right person to unlock its richness or full value.
In this way her work is analogous to Picasso’s or Monet’s respective blue periods, periods wherein both artists explored the nature of colours such as blue. We can place Woolf’s “Blue & Green” alongside representative pieces such as Picasso’s Blue Room, or to any one of Monet’s many water lilies studies (where he also explored yellow, but let’s not overload the KPLEX colour palette). To return to the issue of subjectivity, it is significant that in his later life Monet’s colour choices were greatly influenced and affected by sight problems; and so again, the blue I see, the blue you see, is not necessarily the blue he saw, which was itself not the same as the blue he saw following surgery to remove his cataracts in 1923.
The true depth of blue’s blueness, the full-Irish 40 shades green sees the colours incorporate elements that are not simple blues or greens. Taken together, these narratives paint a picture of blue and green that is far too complex for the adjectives alone; perhaps the Pantone colour bridge introduced earlier, or facets of these colour tone experiments by the Impressionists, and later by Picasso and the Cubists (among many, many others) provides us with a more complete dataset of the Woolfian blue and green.
So once again, is the colour blue when I write it the same shade of blue as the colour blue you imagine when you read this sentence? And if we cannot agree on a standardised version of something as commonplace as blue, how can we possibly agree on terms that carry more weight or exert control over us and our surroundings? Covfefe, anyone?
 Virginia Woolf, “Blue & Green,” Monday or Tuesday, 1921.