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Colourful journeys

July 24, 2018 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy
"First, the pulse of colour flooded the bay with blue, and the heart expanded with it and the body swam, only the next instant to be checked and chilled by the prickly blackness on the ruffled waves." (To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf)

Anne of Green Gables, Snow White, The Scarlet Letter, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Red-headed League, Little Red Riding Hood, The Golden Compass.  What have these novels got in common? A colour in the title! Colours play a significant role starting from the titles of many novels. When you are reading or assigning texts in class, one fun and exploratory approach can be the study of how colours are used in the text. As Kress and van Leuween (1996) point out, colours are signifiers which carry ‘a set of affordances' for language users (writers, speakers, readers). However, these meaning potentials can be very different for people from different cultures and can vary according to personal experience. Colour offers an interesting starting point for investigation, not only because of its communicative, but also because of its artistic function.

Reading colours

First let's look at some approaches to colour and reading, and then we will offer some creative activities to engage your students with colourful activities. Our questions are based on the approaches posed by Kress and van Leeuwen in Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design:

  • Can colour represent people, places, things and ideas?
  • Can it represent relations and interactions?
  • Can it realise textual meaning? For example, can it offer a system of reference or create cohesion in a text?
  • What about the emotional function of colours?

1 Reading picture books

Let your students explore the colours of different pages, and ask them to tell you what mood these colours create. How do they feel about the powerful colours of these places?

The Hare and the Tortoise pp. 12-13
Illustration from the picturebook The Hare and the Tortoise by Richard Northcott, illustrated by Estella Guarrera. © Helbling Languages

2 Reading novels

If your students have read picture books, illustrated books and viewed some paintings and photographs, they will be able to notice the importance of colours in novels and short stories as well. Ask them if they can remember any story where a colour gained particular significance?

For example, think of the role of the artist and the functions of different colours in To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.

"She paused a moment. But now, she said, artists had come here. There indeed, only a few paces off, stood one of them, in Panama hat and yellow boots, seriously, softly, absorbedly, for all that he was watched by ten little boys, with an air of profound contentment on his round red face gazing, and then, when he had gazed, dipping; imbuing the tip of his brush in some soft mound of green or pink. Since Mr. Paunceforte had been there, three years before, all the pictures were like that, she said, green and grey, with lemon-coloured sailing-boats, and pink women on the beach."


Illustration from the reader To the Lighthouse. Illustrated by Francesca Protopapa. © Helbling Languages

3 Reading poetry

From picture books you can arrive at reading poems and experiencing colours through your imagination. Start with this poem by Cristina Rossetti, then go on to reading imagist poems and ask your students to reflect on the colours in the poems.

What is pink? a rose is pink By a fountain's brink. What is red? a poppy's red In its barley bed. What is blue? the sky is blue Where the clouds float thro'. What is white? a swan is white Sailing in the light. What is yellow? pears are yellow, Rich and ripe and mellow. What is green? the grass is green, With small flowers between. What is violet? clouds are violet In the summer twilight. What is orange? Why, an orange, Just an orange!

Colours and cultures

In Western culture, we usually associate colours with the following concepts and emotions. How is it different in other cultures? (Source: Introduction to visual grammar.)

  • Blue: peace, tranquillity, truth, dignity, power, melancholy, coolness, heaviness. Regarded as being therapeutic.
  • Yellow: Happiness, cheerfulness. Can denote caution, decay, and sickness in some shades.
  • Red: Warmth, urgency, passion, heat, blood, excitement, danger and hostility. Used as an accent colour, it can promote expectations and quick decision-making.
  • Green: Growth, fertility, health, cheerfulness, vegetation, money. Signifies life, new growth, energy and faith.
  • Grey: Cool detachment, bleakness, and lack of intensity.
  • Purple: Wealth, royalty, sophistication, intelligence. Also the colour of passion and love.
  • Black: Death, rebellion, strength and evil. Associated with the supernatural, it can also suggest inner strength and determination, as well as power and formality.
  • White: Purity, chastity and cleanliness.
  • Black and white: Nostalgia, seriousness, truth, detachment.
  • Brown: Credibility, stability, and neutrality.
  • Orange: Warmth, strength of personality. Associated with autumn, it also has broad appeal.

Activity tip: Play a free association game and ask students to write down the first thing they can think of when they here these colours. It can be a place, an emotion, a food, anything.

The language of colours

The colour wheel

Learn about the colour wheel. What are primary and secondary colours? What are complementary colours? What is a hue and what is a shade?

For your intermediate-advanced level students, here is an excellent video from a Coursera course on Introduction to Art: Concepts and Techniques.

The wonderful world of colours

The names of colours sound magical and there are so many of them that only reading the names of colours you can expand your vocabulary. Here are two lists, but you can easily find more.

Activity tip: Use the names of colours to write a poem or a story. Choose 5-10 colours and either start each line in your poem with a colour, or write a story containing all of the colours.

In our resource book, English Through Art, you can find some activities based on paintings which talk and teach about colours.

The absence of colour

Round off your exploration of colour by experiencing it through your other senses in The Black Book of Colours, written by Menena Cottin and illustrated by Rosana Faria. This simple and achingly poetic book combines descriptions of natural monochrome objects and their black on black illustration using embossed lines allowing the reader to enter into empathy with a blind or visually impaired reader and experience the colour in a new and thrilling way.

As you can see, colours are inspiring for your language classes, and you can do so much more with them than just asking about the favourite colours of students. Do you have any inspiring activities based on colours? 

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