Design // by Lisa Richardson, Photography by Angela Percival and Brian Goldstone
THE INVISIBLE MADE VISIBLE
Twenty-four year-old Isaac Newton, the father of gravity, calculus and the three laws of motion, was the first to discover that white light contains all the colours of the rainbow— by sticking a knife into his eye socket and wiggling it around.
It didn’t prove anything to his exacting satisfaction – he just saw coloured spots in his vision – so he pulled the blinds closed and began the less tactile work of bouncing a beam of sunlight through a glass prism. What projected was a 22 foot rainbow of colour, proving that white light isn’t white at all, but a composite of all the colours of the visible spectrum.
Newton also noticed that each colour was balanced by an opposing colour. Through the starkness of perfect contrast, an opposing colour is able to render its complement more beautiful, more essential, more luminous. His colour circle evolved into the colour wheel, revealing how blue complements orange, violet complements yellow and red complements green. Choosing which colours go together however, is not as easy as following a formula. At Arc’teryx, colour has its own department, a team of eight who, in their daily dedication to bringing richness and vibrancy to all products, dive deep into the collective unconscious of the colour underworld with nothing to guide them but their own insight.
“Colour preference is emotional and subjective,” says colour designer Trina Thompson, “and that makes colour prediction an art. But it’s also a science, because we need to balance and control each colour in each fabric.” Part psychology, part sociology, and a big dose of mystery; but at least there are no knives involved.
Colour is energy— literally. It’s a property of light, the radiant energy from the sun that streams towards earth at a speed of 299,792,458 meters per second. The visible part of this light energy sits on the electromagnetic spectrum in between longer radio, microwave and infrared waves and shorter ultraviolet, X-rays and gamma rays.
Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, these colours make up what Newton termed the visible light spectrum. White light. This is the toolbox for the Arc’teryx colour team. And their goal? Render the power of the sun, one bold colour at a time, onto the surface of a garment.
For every single collection, each and every product, the colour team works from scratch to make abstraction real. At the colour stage designs come in as samples first; although the fabrics are correct, they may be in odd colours and there is no direction toward where colour might play: in panels, trim or otherwise. An entire story has to be created, one that harmonizes colour with purpose, other selections and across the entire line.
For the aerobic Endorphin product collection, colourist Sybille Kissling honed in on bright, swift colours with pace and high visibility. Easy to spot against any background, the palette was chosen to convey energy. When completed, colour lights up a collection so it can catch the eye, transcend oblivion, stop us in our tracks, close the sale and get us all outside.
Up to 90% of decision-making is based on colour. In a crucial 90 second judgment-forming window, as one admires the effect of a dye and the way it illuminates, colour is actually bouncing into your eye to trigger a cascade of memories and associations and emotions. The surface is just the thinnest part of the story.
Dr I-Chant Chiang, a professor in cognitive psychology at Squamish’s Quest University, is interested in the way the brain and the mind interconnect, and how language and culture affect the way humans think. She says that humans are visual creatures. A quarter of our brain is devoted to visual processing; the eye is just an outpost of brain neurons.
“When light hits an object, it bounces different length waves to your eyes which are processed by the rods and cones in the back of your eyes,” explains Chiang. That “colour” information is then processed by the brain’s occipital lobe via the ocular nerve. Barring dysfunction or disability, we all experience the same physical process of light transfer to signals in the brain. Or do we?
“Colour is extremely subjective,” says Corey Bond, the colour team’s administrator. “A big part of our job is to understand how people prefer colour and then compensating for that preference. Do they like their whites more blue than yellow? Do they prefer really saturated colours? ” Bright clear colours best serve the Northern European blonde-haired, blue-eyed complexion, whereas North Americans favour more muddy tones. Yellow is risky because not many Caucasians wear it well. In Asia, red is so lucky it’s used for wedding dresses. Gambling with a bright accent can score or it can scare.
Spinning the colour wheel becomes a game of roulette.
The colour team reference trend reports, global sales, feedback, colour theory and hard-won experience. They look to Nature. But mostly, to render the invisible visible, they go with their gut.
When even the least complex garment requires a cascade of colour decisions, a rigorous process is needed to keep the imagination in line. Main fabric, logo, zipper, zipper pulls, pull cords, patterns on the pull cords, sleeve binding, thread – nothing can be overlooked. Should the colours blend? Should they be tonal? Does the piece need some spice, an accent that pops out and draws everything together?
It’s a Rubik’s rainbow, a puzzle of garments and colourways and fabric quantities unraveling into infinity. The solution is colour boards. “Every single item we make requires a colourboard,” explains Corey Bond. “The colourboard covers each dyed piece in a product. They can be anywhere from one page to six pages long.”
Final colour selections are based on lab “dips”, tiny pieces of sample fabrics custom-dyed to the team’s specifications. Using what Kristi Birnie, Colour Design Manager, calls “projection,” the colour designers mentally translate the tiny swatches up to full scale. “When I was newer to it,” she says, “I’d see the piece in the end and think, Woah! That’s not really how I envisioned it. It’s wa-a-a-ay brighter. Or wa-a-a-ay green. But you get good at it. Now I can see the colour at the small scale, measure it with a spectrumometer, look at it under four different light sources, and project it up.”
Ruthlessness and an eye-crossing attention to detail are required to finalize the colourboards. Typically, six out of eight lab dips are positive. From those six colours, perhaps only two can be used. Colour options are pared away, codes entered into spreadsheets. Series of numbers become jackets with eye-popping details and subtle harmonies. But when the difference between lemon zest and magma red is typing 535 instead of 553, the margin for error is no margin at all.
For an athlete, the basic performance applications of colour are to stand out or to blend in; provide protection through visibility or invisibility. Nature operates the same way, using colour as a strategy to either attract attention or avoid it. Sometimes, invisibility is the best line of defense.
For colourist Kavan Cronin, the focus of some of his colourboards is to create products that not only blend into their background environment, but where “as many external visible components as possible match each other so no ‘targets’ are left.” When working with the LEAF division of Arc’teryx, (Law Enforcement and Armed Forces) Kavan’s aim is always to achieve near-perfect invisibility. “It takes extreme colour scrutiny and attention to detail.”
For personnel needing urban camouflage, Cronin developed Wolf, a dark grey tone chosen from the grayscale that blends in with concrete, glass and steel. From distance or in situations of marginal light, the grayscale tone of most surfaces is dark grey. Wolf is an alternative uniform colour for environments where black stands out.
Black isn’t always low profile and white isn’t white at all. And colours are really just complex judgments rendered as sensations. The invisible made visible, colour is just one tangible way to joyfully interact with physics’ most complex concepts – power, energy, frequency – just as skiing, climbing, hiking, running, are the ways we play with gravity, geology, momentum. We don’t have to grasp the science intellectually, or poke out our eyes, to get it.
“All humans see colour, but when you really tune in and appreciate it in your surroundings, it gives you a whole new perspective,” says Trina Thompson. “Viewing the world becomes much more of an emotional experience.”
It’s in this layer of emotion that colour is most impactful and mysterious. Once you attune to it, colour can be consciously harnessed, as a source of energy or serenity or power. For Kristi Birnie, the original Arc’teryx colourist, that’s what her team serves up every day, as they immerse themselves in a sea of contrast, hue, saturation, luminance, theory and spreadsheets. Empowerment.
“If you feel protected, and are in a colour that gets you really amped up, in a place of true confidence, then you’re at the top of your game.”
And that’s the goal.