Sara Hartland Rowe: Colourful Research
June 9, 2016

Sara Hartland-Rowe in her studio, with her paintings arranged on the wall behind her.

By Emily Marshall

Colours are a group of tools painters carry with them, but how do they decide the ones they use?

Sara Hartland-Rowe was fascinated with this question. “How do you choose the palette you’re working with?” asks Hartland-Rowe. “This is how it all started.”

For example, did you use pink because you were painting a girl’s dress? Did you use blue to represent a boy?

“We tend to operate as if colour meaning is fixed,” says Hartland-Rowe. “But it’s not.”

Hartland-Rowe, painter and regular part-time faculty member in the painting department at NSCAD, is in the process of doing extensive research on colour. Not only on how or why painters choose certain colours, but also the historical and psychological impact of colour.

Take pink for example. “Pink was not a girl’s colour until the 1920s,” says Hartland-Rowe. “Pink does interesting things to the psyche.”

According to a research paper published in 1981, Baker-Miller pink, a shade which is "kind of like Pepto-Bismol, only deeper," was found to lower heart rate, pulse, and respiration.

Hartland-Rowe is referring to the tone ‘Baker-Miller pink’, also known at ‘Schauss pink’. Alexander Schauss did extensive research in the 1970s on the effects of the colour pink on emotions at the Naval Correctional Facility in Seattle, and named the pink after the institute directors, Baker and Miller.

He convinced the directors to paint certain prison confinement cells pink in order to determine the effect it had on the prisoner. Schauss monitored assaults before and after the cells were painted pink and it was determined that as low as 15 minutes of exposure was enough to reduce violent or aggressive behaviour.

All colours have a different story and a different history behind them. “It struck me a while ago that you can date a painting by palette,” says Hartland-Rowe. “In no art history class I have ever taken has anyone talked about colour and dating. It’s usually other things like imagery and the rise of abstractions and representations.”

The 1950s palette has soft pastel colours. Colours such as Harvest Gold and Avocado become popular in the 1970s.

Hartland-Rowe has come across other thoughts and ideas that have intrigued her interest along the way, such as Michael Taussig’s idea of colour being a “polymorphous magical substance” and David Batchelor’s theory of chromophobia (fear of colour).

Hartland-Rowe hopes to be able to teach her students about colour and dating, along with teaching her students how important it is to pay attention to colour palettes. “I’d ask people to become aware of each colour, pay attention to the way one colour affects and/or meets up with another. I’d also suggest people try to become as aware as possible of the colour around them in clothing, advertising, architecture, films and so on.”

As for her own work as a painter in the studio, “My work hasn’t made a jump, it’s continued, but I understand it better.”

Hartland-Rowe is still in the research stage and doesn’t plan on slowing down. “I am thinking at some point I might bring together all of the research I’ve been doing in a book,” says Hartland-Rowe. “But finding both studio time and writing time is a conundrum I haven’t yet resolved.”

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