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Color & The Cycle of Life- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Color & The Cycle of Life- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Color & The Cycle of Life


Spring is hitting us in full force, the air is redolent with a wild mix of perfume as everything blooms in a hurry. To a plant, it’s always late. They’re all trying to be first with the result that they’re all pretty much at the same time.


California blooming landscape


We are fortunate to live in a place where something blooms every month of the year, but March and April is the crescendo in the annually performed Symphony of Life.

By May things are already drying up, heading towards a universal color of golden brown, tawny hillsides under a ringing dome of blue sky, wisps of torn fog like cotton candy.

Ever so much more so in this year of unprecedented drought, the worst since the time of Charlemagne, and that reckoning is only due to the fact that it is hard to analyze tree ring data earlier than that.

A drought of such severity as this may actually date to pre-Christian times.

We are linguaphiles, people who love words and language. When we walk around and look at the flowering profusion, we wonder how plants got their names. 

Many of the specimens that we see have “overloaded” names.  That means that their names are also colors, like rose or lavender or heather or fuchsia or lilac or violet.


A rose by any other name is still colorful


It is an honor that few human-made objects can aspire to, becoming a generic noun. Xerox and Kleenex come to mind. But unlike a Xerox, flowers can copy themselves.


Copier, aka ‘Xerox’


Color is inextricably linked with the cycle of life. Like many human activities, flowers use color to attract attention, principally from pollinators like bees and hummingbirds. 


Hummingbird and flower


In a previous blog post, we discussed the perception of color and its uniqueness to both where we live (the third planet out from a modest star) and how our perception apparatus has evolved (rods and cones and all that).

Color is an evolved concept, but it is clear from the profusion of flowers and their use of color to distinguish themselves that it is more than just a human concept. 

Evolution and reproduction are costly in an abstract sense—it takes everything you’ve got, as an individual and as a species. Just about any capability a creature has is hard-won, refined in the fire of competition and selection, the mark of a survivor.

It is costly for a plant to manage multiple colors, it requires the synthesis of a greater number of chemical compounds than just being one color all the time.

Flowers are tangible evidence of an organism giving its all.


Owl displaying highly evolved characteristics


I believe that knowing color deepens one’s knowledge of life. It is an important component of how organisms communicate with each other and find their way in the world. 

Since art is about creating worlds within the world, doesn’t color have a place there, too?

With gratitude from my studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


P.S. Exciting News! We have a tradition to honor the arrival of Spring by exploring the explosion of color all around. On that note, we are running a Spring Special on our Experimenting With Color Course until April 16.  Check it out HERE. 



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