The Color of Tennis

When it comes to thinking about color the first thing to pop in to your mind is generally not sports. Sure there are team colors, home and away,  there are new architectural venues for viewing, but there haven’t been many color innovations coming out of the functional design of sports environments in recent years. This year at the Madrid Open, a professional tennis event held annually in Madrid, Spain, there was a big color shake up. For non-tennis fans out there a bit of back story.
Preparing the lawn in Court #1. RATC Wimbledon, London, UK byJorge Royan via WikiMedia
While most American and British tennis courts are grass or green acrylic hard courts, in Continental Europe they play on clay.
The red clay court of the French Open via Tennis5
The richly colored “clay” is actually not made of natural clay but instead consists of crushed shale, stone, or brick. After the powder is spread over the court it has to be a packed down into a level surface.
Aaron Spencer’s striking photograph of Pascal Courel, who used to maintain the courts for the French Open, working on one of the rare American clay courts. 
So where is the color scandal you are asking? This year in Madrid they tried out a brand new color: blue. As reported by PRI’s The World the color is what Canadian player, Milos Raonic, calls it “smurf blue”. From Wikipedia: “Ion Ţiriac, the owner of the Madrid Masters states  that since 2009 they have been a clay court tournament.   This year he  proposed a new color of blue clay for all the courts, on the grounds that it would supposedly be better visually, especially for viewers on television.”
The blue clay surface at the Madrid Open by A. Martinez via The New York Times
“Critics suggested that the adaptation of blue color is a nod to the titular sponsor of the tournament, the Spanish insurance giant Mutua Madrileña. … In 2009 one of the outer tennis courts had already been made of the new surface for the players to test it. Manuel Santana, the Open’s current director, has assured that aside from the colour, the surface keeps the same properties as the traditional red clay.” Many big name players like Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are against the change as well.

Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic removes blue sand from his tennis shoes with his racket during his Madrid Masters by Juan Carlos Hidalgo

The New York Times reports Nadal and Djokovic claim that the new courts play differently, throw off the rhythm of the players, and are an unnecessary innovation fixing something that wasn’t broken. Supporters say that visibility of the ball against the court is actually improved by 20 or more percent. But unfortunately the beautiful blue courts will not be back next year. The Jakarta Post reported that the Association of Tennis Professional, the people who regulate these things, officially disallowed the use of the new blue clay.

We decided to look into color theory to see the statistics on blue.  The visibility rating of blue in daylight is fifth, with red, orange, yellow and green ranking above of it.  In 1976, researchers, Porter and Mikellides, conducted an Estimation of Time study.  Two audiences were seated for twenty minutes in a red theater and a blue theater.  The audience in the blue theater felt rather bored and were under the impression the lecture lasted longer, while those in the red theater found that time passed more quickly and the content was more interesting.  We are not certain what visibility experts were being quoted, but  agree with the critics  – this is not a background color that supports visual acuity for players or TV viewers. It may be new, and beautiful as a field of color but not functional in this application.

– Emily Eifler, Writer, Colour Studio
– Jill Pilaroscia, Principal, Colour Studio

The Langugage of Color

Here at Colour Studio we do a lot of thinking about color. We are not alone, as  deep in the Brazilian rainforest there are people who can change the way you talk about color. The Piraha system of language is  based on just eight consonants and three vowels.  It possesses such a complex variety of tones, stresses, and syllable length that its speakers can sing, hum and whistle conversations. 
Dan Everett with a member of the Pirahã Tribe. Photograph by Martin Schoeller via The New Yorker
Dan Everett, a professor of linguistics from Bentley University in Massachusetts, found that the Pirahã tribe of Brazil has a very unique way of thinking about color. Instead of having color names like red or blue they use context significant comparisons. John Colapinto writes in The New Yorker about Everetts language expedition:

“Everett … learned that the Pirahã have no fixed words for colors, and instead use descriptive phrases that change from one moment to the next. “So if you show them a red cup, they’re likely to say, ‘This looks like blood,’ ” Everett said. “Or they could say, ‘This is like vrvcum’—a local berry that they use to extract a red dye.”

So if the tribe members speak about color differently do those words,  change they way they think about or even see color? That was the question Paul Kay, a Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, was wondering about when he designed a color observation study comparing how infants and adults see color. The study used Magnetic resonance imaging to see the activity of the brain when shown colors into one eye verses the opposite eye. When an image is only show to the left visual field that image is processed exclusively by the right hemisphere, and vice versa. Kerri Smith writes about the study in Nature:

“Adults reacted more quickly if the target was presented in the right side of the visual field, which is processed by the left hemisphere of the brain. For babies, the pattern reversed: they were quicker if the target was in the left visual field, which is processed by the right hemisphere”

Kay’s conclusions are a bit dizzying. He states that the study is evidence that language in the form of color labels, pink orange etc, transfers the primary observation of color from the right to the left hemisphere. But not everyone is one board, a quote from latter in Smiths article:

“The obvious conclusion is that language is constraining colour perception,” says Kay. Language certainly seems a good candidate reason for the difference, says Jonathan Winawer, who studies colour perception and language at Stanford University in California. But this is still a controversial idea, he adds, and not the only possible explanation. “There are other things that separate adults from infants,” he points out.

But many scientists agree with Kay. Steven Shevell, a psychologist who specializes on color and vision is also convinced that we are changing our perception with our language. Via

“Color is in the brain. It is constructed, just as the meanings of words are constructed. Without the neural processes of the brain, we wouldn’t be able to understand colors of objects any more than we could understand words of a language we hear but don’t know.”     

Who knew the science of color is at the forefront of understanding the brain. Next time your are gazing at some colorful trinket take a moment to consider just how your brain is translating that image and whether you can really see a color without labeling it.

– Emily Eifler, Writer, Colour Studio
– Jill Pilaroscia, Principal, Colour Studio