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Liminality and Color

I have been working on a lot of art projects lately, and I’ve been thinking a lot about color, its uses, and how both of those things have changed over the last century or so. I have been purposefully watching for unusual and uncommon colors, when looking through bins and racks of mid-century items at the thriftstores, and even at the grocery store, looking at the produce, the faint differences in the browns through the serve-yourself Green Mountain coffee bins, and of course, general product packaging.

The other day, as I put a carton of regular, plain Silk soy milk into our cart, I realized it sports the same color carton as most dairy milk cartons—a bright red. Looking at the other types of Silk, I realized they too make use of the same color cartons as their dairy counterparts, namely blue for low fat.

Of course, I always knew both Silk and whole dairy milk came in a red carton (or more correctly, with varying degrees of red adornment,) but perhaps because of my purposeful rumination on colors, I began considering why particular colors are used to designate things that don’t necessarily seem obvious—and perhaps even ironic, as in the case of milk.

In the past, I have written about the color green in particular as liminal and Trickster-like: it is the great go-between on the color chart, both containing and separating the warm and cool colors, as well as culturally, with its linguistic-semiotic appointments within economics, ecology, and even within the occult and paranormal realms.

However, in thinking about color and symbolism on a more holistic scale, I feel color itself has its fair share of liminality and loaded duplicity.

There’s something about the perception of color that is very personal, wrapped up in identity. I remember when I was about seven or eight years old, I was waiting in the car while my mom ran into the drugstore for something. There were some college student/hippies parked a few spaces away in a bright orange Volkswagen bus.

They were wearing very psychedelic tie-dyed shirts, lots of beads, etc. Altogether very colorful. I remember the thought popping into my mind that if my mother came out right now and saw this same scene, she might actually see something very different—what if my orange was her purple? She would call the bus “orange”, certainly, but it wouldn’t be my orange.

Actually, what if everyone in the world had completely different perceptions? We could never know for sure. I was certain this was a deeeeeep insight. It’s not, of course, but one shared by many seven and eight year old philosophers poised at the edge of their first abyss—it seems to be a coming-of-age collective psychic meme. Since then, I have heard countless others, including my own son, report that they had this exact “insight.”

Simplistic and common perhaps, and it’s not really about color—color is just the device we use in this case to consider the Other vs. Self in psychological awakening. There are so many other things the Tricky psychic meme could center on: sounds, shapes, smells. But color seems a natural and easy target.

Why? Color natural embodies Trickster attributes, so it’s already there holding hands with us on the cliff as we look in. Color is an illusion—and even commonly referred to as a “trick” of the eye--based on reflected light, frequency, and biology.

Going back to the milk cartons, let’s consider why red is used to designate whole milk, and blue is for low-fat or skim milk. Superficially considering of the symbology of red, the attachment seems almost wrong to me. The first thing that comes to mind is heat, warning, danger, warmth, fire, blood, and heart—not something I would instinctively associate with a “wholesome” beverage, as milk is marketed. When I consider the meaning of blue, I think of cool, water, calm—nothing to contradict the use on low-fat, but nothing really to indicate it either.

The liminal nature of color comes in when considering color beyond its superficial meanings. Red not only stands for the things I mention above, but it stands for them without judgment. What I mean is—red is symbolic of a certain force--which is of course highly interpretable. Red’s fire energy is aligned with hell and damnation as well as the sweetness of Valentine’s Day--it’s as wholesome as it is bloody.

I couldn’t find any source indicating the historical or traditional use of red signifying whole milk on product packaging, but I assume it has to do with the simple notion of power and strength that red carries.

Photo credit:

Milk bottles, markhillary, via flickr

Contact Richelle Hawks

Visit Richelle's blog: Beamships Equal Love