Monthly Archives: February 2012

Roy G Biv

We all know that Newton wrote about the colour spectrum having seven colours. As a child I wrote the mnemonic – Richard Of York Gave Battle in Vain. The sentence makes reference to Richard III, an English king who was defeated by Henry VII in 1485 at the battle of Bosworth. In order to avoid reference to this defeat, people from Yorkshire developed the alternative Rowntrees Of York Gave Best In Value, apparently. Rowntrees was a chocolate factory formed in York in 1862 (exactly one hundred years before I was born).

When I was young I naively thought that everyone would know the Richard of York line. I was surprised, later in life to learn that in the USA a different mnemonic is normally used: Roy G Biv (the name of a person). I find this American mnemonic a little bizarre to be honest; are there really people whose surname is Biv? If your surname is Biv, or you know someone called Biv, please comment below. Only recently I came across a small rhyme that goes:

Red for the rainbow, orange too.
Yellow says, ‘how do you do’.
Green is the next one, green for go.
Then comes blue and indigo.
Number seven, we must not forget, is pretty violet.

Since children learn these mnemonics from an early age most people never question whether there really are seven colours in the spectrum despite the fact that we often see the spectrum in the form of a rainbow in the sky. However, if most people look closely at the spectrum they will likely state that they can only discriminate between six bands of colour; that indigo and violet are really one colour band. So why is it that we teach children that there are seven colours in the rainbow?

The Incredible Grey Hulk

When I was young I used to read Marvel comics. My favourites were Spiderman and The Fantastic Four but I also liked the Hulk and Thor. When I was about 10 (in about 1972) I even had this idea of designing a wrist band that could shoot out web like spiderman. What I needed was a substance that would flow (as a liquid) when it was shot out but then quickly solidified to create the web. I noticed that polystyrene turned liquid under heat and I started to build a prototype. Sadly it never worked. But I often wonder if this incident sparked my interest in chemistry, an interest that led me to study Colour Chemistry at Leeds University in 1983 and finally to my lifelong passion for colour.

I just came across a story that the Hulk was not green in the original comic strip versions. He was grey!! Apparently, in The Hulk’s debut (May 1962, a few days after I was born) Lee chose grey for the Hulk because he wanted a colour that did not suggest any particular ethnic group. The chap in charge of the colour, Stan Goldberg, however, had problems with the grey; colour management was not what it is now and this resulted in several different shades of grey, and even green, in the first issue! Given the colour problems, Lee chose to change the skin colour to green. What a shocker! Next, I’ll probably find out that Spiderman was not real!!

taxi colours

In 2009 I blogged about a big row in Derby (UK) about yellow taxis. Most taxis in UK cities are black (in most other cities they are yellow). In 2009 Derby decided that their official taxis should be yellow.However, they didn’t specify exactly which yellow and they ended up in a bit of a mess with a taxi driver that they said had used the wrong shade of yellow. Good business for lawyers!

Then in 2011 I blogged about a major row in Durham (UK) where, again, there was a similarly heated row about the local council wanting to adopt white taxis in the city. It seems to be a topic that people get quite emotive about. So I wonder if there will be similar argument in Kolkata (West Bengal) where the government wants to change the taxi colours from yellow to blue and white. See here for the story.

I guess I sound like a bit of a sad geek, writing about taxi colours. Have I nothing better to do on a Sunday morning? The answer is obvious no. 🙂

But if you have read this far you might be interested in Beijing (China). Beijing is not known for its good taxis. But about 6 years ago the authority of Beijing city unified the colours to make them easier to recognise. The body of taxi is fixed to be 3-stripes-2-colors. The middle stripe is a golden yellow color while the rest of the body in another color which are commonly blue, green or red. When I was last in Beijing someone told me that the colours had special meanings but I am not sure it is true. I am going to consult my colour guru who works at Tsinghua University in Beijing and will add a comment later.

The date for abstract submissions to AIC2012 (the International Colour Association’s conference in 2012) has been extended to 14th February 2012. There is still time to apply to present at this very exciting event in Taiwan. For further information see Taiwan is going to be a great venue and late September will be a fantastic time of year to see Taipei.

You may also be interested in the AIC’s new colour journal. It’s online and free to publish in and read. For further information see

And whilst we are add it – please make a note in your diaries for the AIC 12th International Congress which will be held in Gateshead (UK) in 2013 (8-12th July.

traffic lights for everyone

About 8% of men are colour blind. In the past I have written about how designers may not adequately take this into account effectively ignoring 4% of the population. I also wrote about how in Korea the problem of traffic lights for colour blind people was being addressed by using different shapes for the different colours.

Now I am interested to hear about a development from Japan – Professor Ochiai at Kyushu Sangyo University has developed a clever modification that is not noticed by people with normal colour vision but helps those who are colour blind. Before the introduction of LED lights people often could tell red from green by the difference in brightness. But LED lights are so bright that they look rather similar in brightness, and for someone with red-green colour blindness they may look identical. Professor Ochiai has added a blue cross to the red light which is very visible to colour-blind observers but can hardly be noticed by the rest of us. Very clever!!

The new lights are being tested in Fukuoka and are due to go on test in Tokyo soon.

don’t go down dark alleys

A report in the Scunthorpe Telegraph describes a project where alleyways – traditionally dark, lined with brick walls or fences, with no colour and plenty of possibilities for crime – are being filled with plants to create a colourful and welcoming environment. A recent report by the Royal Horticultural Society shows that this sort of activity has a significant positive effect on communities.

For further information visit

I am not a gardener. I don’t particularly like gardens. But this does seem like a great scheme. And I do think that colour can have an effect on our well-being. Perhaps we should use it more carefully – whether it is to correct situations where we are bombarded with a myriad clashing colours that can be disorienting (for example, in a shopping mall or airport terminal) or where there is a lack of colour (for example, dark alleys or many hospital environments).

oldest work of art ever

I previously wrote about the finding of the oldest cave painting in the UK which was a 14,000-year old painting found in a cave in South Wales. You can read about that post here. Of course, the oldest cave paintings in the world are perhaps 30,000 years old; probably the Chauvet caves in France. Today, however, I read of a new finding: these are six paintings of seals that have been found in caves on the coast of Spain, about 35 miles east of Malaga, and thought to be about 42,000 years old.

The article claims that these paintings of seals are the oldest known works of art in the world. But are they? In 2000 the BBC reported that archaeologists in Zambia uncovered evidence that early humans used paint for aesthetic purposes far earlier than previously thought. The team found pigments and paint grinding equipment believed to be between 350,000 and 400,000 years old. The oldest pigments previously found were 120,000 years old.