Colour has been an area of study within fine art and art history, as well as psychology and perception research, anthropology and the social sciences. Colour has been studied as a range of material substances – for example,  pigment, the monetary value of which translated into cultural value being placed on them. Colour has further been studied as a symbolic system as well as how it is used within a variety of cultural practices

From a multimodal perspective Colour can be understood as a mode in that it consists of a set of elements and features, or semiotic resources, including hue, saturation, differentiation, modulation and purity. These exhibit regularities of use that are understood by people in context. Colour can be used to denote ideational, interpersonal and textual meaning: it is metafunctional. But the resources of colour are not (yet) fully specified in semiotic theory to the extent that some other modes are. Indeed the question of whether colour is a mode, or exists as a mode on its own is debated within multimodality.  Certainly it is the case that the resources of colour are often combined with other modes (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2002:351).

Kress and van Leeuwen discuss the features of colour and its communicative functions in advertising, home décor, and fashion (2002). Van Leeuwen builds on this work in his book Languages of Colour (2010), which approaches colour as a mode. This moves away from the idea of a colour having one fixed meaning and towards understanding colour as having many different features that shape the way we attach meaning to colour, and that colour schemes are more important than individual colours.

Koller  (2008) investigates the functions of the colour pink as a marker of gender and sexuality in cultural models and the multimodal texts (leaflets, advertisements, websites and magazines) where pink functions to gender textual referents, attract female readers’ attention and index both sexuality and sexual identity. She suggests an emergent schema that relates pink to post-feminist femininity that both complements and extends conventional and counter-cultural associations of pink with stereotypically feminine characteristics or gayness, respectively. Through her article she argues for an approach to colour that combines social semiotics with cognitive semantics.

See also: Mode, Semiotic resource

Editor: Carey JewittOther contributor: Gunther Kress

Key References

Kress, G. &  van Leeuwen. T. (2002)
Colour as a semiotic mode: notes for a grammar of colour
Visual Communication October 2002 vol. 1 no. 3 343-368

van Leeuwen, T. (2010)
Languages of Colour
London: Routledge

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