Vivid detail

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 3, 2013

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The last time you really thought about colour may have been during art class in primary school, where you learnt the magical wonders of mixing red and blue to make purple; blue and yellow to make green; and yellow and red to make orange.

Colour might seem like it belongs in the world of art, but the science behind it has been developing over time.

This year, American colour company Pantone celebrates its 50th anniversary. Founded in 1963 by chemist Lawrence Herbert, the company began when he created a system to identify, match and communicate colours for the graphic arts community.

His Pantone Matching System, a book of standardised colours put together in a fan format, has expanded since then to include versions for different industries, including textiles, plastics, interiors and paint. Specific systems, such as the Pantone Fashion And Home Color System, have 2,100 hues on record.

The company also developed a think-tank arm called the Pantone Color Institute in 1985, in response to customer queries about which colours were on trend.

"For professionals, the system made the world so much easier," Ms Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, says of the benefits of breaking colour down in a scientific manner.

In a phone interview with Urban, she adds: "People used to bring torn pieces of envelopes in and ask for these shades of white."

The institute that she heads has also been at the forefront of colour forecasting - predicting and suggesting what colours will be prominent in the near future. Since 2000, the Pantone Color Institute has announced Colors and Color Palettes of the Year.

Ms Eiseman explains that the Institute gathers feedback from a range of events and fields - including fashion presentations, trade shows, entertainment, concept cars, politics, jewellery and industrial design - before choosing a representative colour for any given year.

"Our antennae are constantly quivering," she says. Even global changes, such as the growing awareness of sustainability and environmental concerns, can be a factor, as they are for this year's colour, Emerald Green.

Buzz about the recent movie, Oz The Great And Powerful, with its fantastical Emerald City setting, played a role as well.

These forecasts allow retailers to freshen up their offerings and try new colour combinations to grab consumers' attention. More people are now aware of the power of colour and the effects it can have, she adds.

This sentiment holds true in Singapore as well, where colour analysis has stripped away the mysterious, and sometimes perplexing, nature of choosing what to wear.

The four Singapore-based image consultants Urban spoke to say more people are taking advantage of scientific colour analysis services to look better or to convey a certain image.

In general, such services consist of identifying a person's skin undertones as either warm or cool by examining his eye and hair colour, as well as draping fabric near the face.

Then, recommendations for make-up or clothing are given accordingly, based on a colour palette of flattering hues.

"It's all about extending the natural colours in a person's skin and hair so clothes are in harmony," image consultant Aileen Lane of Nutri-Style says of the science of colour consulting.

Ms Lane, who founded the image consultancy in 2006, charges $350 for a private consultation. While the price is steep, she says more people are now aware of its benefits as they find the ability to mix and match suitable colours helps them look younger, healthier, slimmer or even more powerful.

Three to five clients a month ask for a colour analysis, which makes up about half of the image consultation sessions she conducts.

Since 2010, she has also been offering 10-week training workshops for colour consultants at $4,900 a session.

Colour analysis is also useful for improving a person's professional image. Image consultant Denise Ng of Imago Image, who has been in this business for almost 20 years, says: "Colour is a powerful non-verbal communication tool, which says a lot about us and affects how others react to us."

Women who work in conservative offices can wear deeper colours, such as black or navy blue; or contrast black with white to convey a more powerful image. The graphic contrast is a look that calls for attention, she explains.

To create a more accommodating or friendly image, offset a darker jacket with a lighter hue, such as yellow or orange.

Image consultant Melissa Chor of Image Harmony says: "Colour is one way to achieve the look or style you're going for."

Ms Chor, who had one client each month for colour consultations when she started in 2007, now sees about five or six each month. She charges $250 for a colour analysis.

Many of the image consultants who offer colour analysis services also refer to Pantone's website or subscribe to its reports to keep tabs on on-trend hues.

Others, however, are more sceptical about Pantone's colour forecasting.

One such person is Mr Patrick Chia, design director of Design Incubation Centre, a research centre for industrial design that is part of the National University of Singapore's School of Design and Environment.

He says colour trend prediction is tricky, and that the references Pantone uses to pick its Color Of The Year are usually outdated by the time a new year rolls around.

Also, as colours go in and out of fashion all the time, he says it is "too arbitrary to tie a certain colour to a certain year".

Colours for products should depend on a different sort of science, such as what is appropriate for the object and its context, he adds.

He describes a line of maplewood bowls and vases the Design Incubation Centre produced that was partially covered in a matte pink paint.

"The pink accented and contrasted with the natural wood so it really popped," he says. "What's most important is that the colour is right for the product, not whether it is trendy."

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This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 3, 2013 

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