Colour Specification, a Female Occupation….. Really?

I’ve never been particularly interested in gender traits and try to avoid stereotyping but someone made a comment to me last week that inspired me to do a little research around colour and gender.

I’m not talking about which colours males or females prefer – there is plenty written about this already, I was intrigued to read that throughout history, scholars have claimed that females respond to and feel colour more than their male counterparts.

However, when reading a little deeper on the subject, this theory seems to have stemmed or perhaps been reinforced by nineteenth century French art critics such as Charles Blanc who valued drawing skills over colour and as far as I can interpret,  assumed males to be the dominant sex and so ‘delegated’ colour which was of secondary importance in his eyes, to the female sex. In his book Grammaire du Dessin he writes, ‘drawing is the masculine gender of Art, colour its feminine one’ and goes on to state, ‘painting courts its own destructions and will be corrupted by colour as humanity was corrupted by Eve’ . Wow, strong opinions there then but on a positive note just shows how far we have moved on with regard to equal rights.

There are countless other texts written in a similar vein so I think it may help explain the comment made to me last week which triggered this research.

I was waiting in my local paint shop while the technician mixed my NCS paint colours. The very helpful and friendly manager popped out to chat to me and asked about my latest project. I told him I was specifying colour for a new restaurant and he responded, ‘ah, girly stuff then’. I don’t think he meant to be rude, and I  wasn’t offended, I was just curious that he perceived this type of work to be ‘girly’. If in the twenty first century, colour consultancy is perceived as a female domain, (and this comes as a surprise to me) could it really have just stemmed from sexism in the art world where colour was viewed as secondary to form and therefore dished out to the ‘weaker’ sex?

John Gage in his book, Colour and Meaning  highlights the fact that even the leading mid twentieth century German colour theorist Rupprecht Matthai actively left all judgements of colour harmony to his wife, again reinforcing the notion that colour somehow belongs in the female world. However, Gage also queries whether views on colour and gender may also have a biological as well as cultural basis. He refers to the work of M.Sahlins, ‘Colour and Cultures’,  where it was found that colour defective vision is nearly one hundred times more common among white males than among white females.

I think wherever our views derive from about colour and gender, they all need to be taken with a large pinch of salt. I certainly know many expert males and females working in colour specification so once again, I think I will steer away from any form of stereotyping and assume that there are talented people from both genders working in the fascinating and powerful world of colour.

14 thoughts on “Colour Specification, a Female Occupation….. Really?

  1. Very interesting post and links closely the the book Chromophobia by David Batchelor, the central argument being that “a fear of corruption or contamination through colour lurks within much Western cultural and intellectual thought and that it is apparent in the many and varied attempts to purge color, either by making it the property of some “foreign body” – the oriental, the feminine, the infantile, the vulgar, or the pathological – or by relegating it to the realm of the superficial, the supplementary, the inessential, or the cosmetic”. If you haven’t already read Batchelor’s book I strongly recommend it.


  2. Great comment Andy, thanks. Actually, I should have mentioned Chromophobia, yes I have read it and found it extremely interesting. I do however, unlike David Batchelor like white interiors but also love colour. It is curious though isnt it to delve deeper into where our views come from on colour. Huge topic, wish I had time to research more.


  3. What an amazing insight. I grew up in a culture that pink is for girls and blue is for boys. Then came the pastel which caused a bit of confusion to a lot of males. Is it cool like Miami VIce cool or is it too feminine? I wore pastels and I think its cool. As for pink…still not comfy with it. I guess its something I’ve yet to overcome. Have a wonderful day my friend.


  4. This doesn’t surprise me, I wrote my dissertation on the marginalisation of embroidery which went from a high art form and executed on a large professional scale, with most of the designing carried out by men, while women did the more menial task of sewing. Over the centuries this changed, embroidery became associated with domesticity and the decorative, it was a feminine task and was relegated from art to craft. Maybe it is the same with selecting paint colours, it is seen as something women do for the home, therefore a domestic activity.


  5. Wow, that’s fascinating, what a great dissertation. I would love to spend more time on this subject actually because I keep finding more and more information and quotes which really points to sexism rearing its head in the arts.
    On a biological front, I was reminded today by my father, a geneticist, that males are more often colourblind than females as red/green colour blindness is an X chromosome linked recessive gene. He wondered if this may be a reason why more women work in the field of colour. Wish I was back at Uni sometimes!


  6. Wow! That Grammaire du Desin was a piece of work! extremely interesting essay on colour & gender. Perhaps interestingly many males I know have a degree of colour distortion, if not true colour blindness. Maybe when things aren’t so cut and dried – colour is to my mind as much about perception as reality – men are less confident in their own decisions. Females tend to be more comfortable with the less than concrete. Or maybe I am revealing my own prejudices!


  7. Interesting point Kellie. I agree, colour is very much about perception which makes it such a difficult area to ‘make rules’ in and why its so important not to ‘dictate’ colours in projects. Basically there are no real rights or wrongs, individualism really matters. You are right, more men do have colour blindness than women as its an X chromosome linked recessive gene. Thanks for your great comment.


  8. Niki – your readers may be amused by a memory I have of buying paint in Edinburgh – I remember a well known paint supplier displaying the following notice above the paint mixing machine:
    “Husbands will not be sold tinted colours without written permission from their wives”
    Tongue firmly in cheek of course, and part of the essential ‘banter’ which lightens a tradesman’s day – but probably good advice…..


  9. This is a great post, Niki. I, too, find it fascinating that color is usually deemed women’s work in today’s society. Not always, but quite often. What I find most interesting is that historically, color was a science and art studied intensely by some of our “greatest minds”. Goethe, Da Vinci, Newton, etc.

    (You might be interested in this podcast on the subject:

    Happy weekend! And thanks for the great post.


  10. Thanks Kelly! I’ve just been listening to your fantastic podcast – I had forgotten how good they are, I love them, you all speak so fluently on great topics. The downside is that it makes me wonder why I blog because you cover the topic of colour so well! As you point out all those “Grand Fathers” of colour were men (probably because they were allowed to study sciences unlike most women in their day).
    Great comment and I will download some more podcasts to listen to as I am flying to Iceland tomorrow to do a bit of Northern Light chasing 🙂


  11. Thanks Kelly and Niki for revisiting the Color Theory podcast. I think part of the problem is that -for whatever reasons- in today’s society it’s become not only acceptable to dumb-down color but there is an unspoken backlash of sorts for wanting to explore and approach color intellectually as well as artistically. If one chooses color as their craft, male or female, the only way to hone that craft is by intellectual pursuit and purposeful experimentation. The intent of the podcasts is simple, we want to explore color and grow our understanding of color because it makes us better at our craft.

    And after reading your post, Niki, I will be exploring more about John Gage. I don’t understand nearly enough about his approach to color so thank you for bringing his work up for discussion. Bonne chance chasing the light!


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