What is your favorite color?

What is your favorite color?

I recently heard a story on NPR  (and later found it in a New York Times article) that recalled an interaction between the well-known Abstract Expressionist painter, Mark Rothko, and a woman interested in purchasing his work. Rothko offered the woman an enormous painting of dark blue and black rectangles with a deep burgundy background. “Mr. Rothko,” she said with disappointment, “I want a happy painting, a red and yellow and orange painting, not a sad painting,” Amused, Rothko is said to have responded: “Red, yellow, orange – aren’t those the colors of inferno?” The woman left without making a purchase.

As I was thinking about this story, I wondered about the feelings people have about certain colors. Did Rothko really feel that way about reds and oranges? Why do we feel different about a color than someone else? And, why do we even have favorite colors?

Turns out there is a bit of science behind it. Karen Schloss, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and her colleagues developed an “ecological valence theory” while researching why one person may love a certain color and someone else finds it repulsive. It basically comes down to our experiences with “things” of various colors. The color(s) of objects (or places) we have more positive experiences with are colors we feel more positive about. And, as we gravitate toward a favorite color, we tend to surround ourselves with more of it from the décor in our homes to our clothes, or even phone covers.

This might explain for example why young girls, like my daughter, are attracted to purple and pink. Many of the toys and clothes aimed at her age group and gender are made in shades of purple and pink. If I had avoided bringing toys in those colors into our home would her favorite color be different? I don't know.

But over time, as my daughter has more lived experiences her color preferences will continue to evolve. By the time we’re adults our favorite color is most likely to be some shade of blue. Not just in the United States, but across cultures. Perhaps it has to do with the blue planet we’re all living on, or the beauty of a clear blue sky on a sunny day that could be appreciated around the globe.

I decided to use blue skies and our love of blue as inspiration for the below piece, Blue Skies Grid, which has been selected for the upcoming exhibit Chromacosm at the Schack Art Center in March.

Blue Skies Grid by Maren Oates, 2024

I do love blue, but mostly because it is a wonderful complement to my favorite color – orange. What is your favorite color?

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