Blog Post

Color Walking

When I was in New York most recently, I had the opportunity to go on a color walk guided by a painter friend of mine, Munro Galloway. I couldn't actually go on the walk that afternoon; I was relegated to handbag-watching and acting (happily) as companion to a friend and her new baby. But, I sat and watched the group wander the park, and listened when they came back with their experiences. Munro sent the group out with a few bald instructions printed up on note cards—they amounted to: look sensitively and don't let yourself be distracted.

He had developed his assignment from a small passage of William S. Burroughs (“Another exercise that is very effective is walking on colors”). In “Ten Years and a Billion Dollars,” Burroughs described "following a color" through a cityscape. As the walker moved, his attention allowed him to see things he might otherwise have missed. The color walks catalyzed personal experience—for many participants, this linked to a memory. Many snippets of fractures sense, of course, could do this, but color can lead to quite mysterious, mind-logged revelation. Taste and smell seem to produce sensory wormholes: one plunges into a moment in one’s past when that particular taste or scent happened (and you could guess where one might go to find evidence of this habit in the literary canon). But, color works differently with memory. A hostile, vibrant pink sign might lead you back through your own personal history to a candy-floss tinted retainer, a piggy-bank, or an upset stomach long since passed. Color’s indexical aspect works differently.

When I tried out my own color walk the next day, I found my attention very quickly captured by tiny variations on color patterns. I did one walk following sandstone’s dusky orange, another following blue (just blue, no qualifiers), and a third following "artificial greens." In each, my vision eventually slipped into a flow state—so much so that I think a person on a color walk is likely to get into or cause an accident. One gets distractedly absorbed in a kind of expectant surveillance—you're looking for something, but you're also not sure where you'll see it, what shape it will be, what precisely it will look like.

A lot of the discussion in Munro's color walk group focused on the relative impoverishment of artificial colors, but that wasn't the experience I had. Sure, the fields of color made by pigment had a regularity that the natural world lacked, but the sheer plenitude of artificial color shocked me. Patches of artificial color, like bright flags, could be seen from quite far away. On the blue walk, in particular, I found glints of blue in windows, on the edges of cars, in bits of garbage. And this gets me to another aspect of my color walks that surprised me: walking for color doesn't force one's eye in a particular direction at all. I found myself casting my eye up and down rapidly, trying to seek out glimpses of my chosen color anywhere I could. I don’t remember the last time I took walks that dislocated my neck quite so much.

One of the painters at Munro's walk had kept his eye trained on very small patches of grass and bark—his walk followed a low bank very slowly, inching his way through a relatively small area over the hour. The looseness of the assignment allows the participant to adjust his or her practice so radically that each color walk is different as a matter of course. It's not just that each color seems to have a different rhythm in the field of vision, but that each body forces a different encounter with the world, which in turn adjusts the habits of the walk.

Our group that day featured a number of painters. All of them offered various pragmatic accounts of color walking: how would I paint that green? How much white are we seeing mixed into all of these blues? But, our group also featured a three year old, whose color walk also slipped somewhere along the way—she began following yellow, then orange, but then noticed an orange C. That alphabetic catalyst shifted her attention, and she began to follow Cs around the park. As we talked through the experience with her, it seemed to light up something about our own understanding of color as a given—as a supposedly simpler or more immediate aspect of lived experience. A toddler’s color walk showed me how much that idea of color is a construct of age, with adulthood’s nostalgia for immediacy we never really had.

I’ve added the directions—the recipe?—for Munro’s color walk below. Give it a try!


Color Walk

Take a color walk. Give yourself at least one hour of uninterrupted time. Do not plan your walk in advance or combine it with other activities (commuting, shopping, etc.) Try not to talk or interact with other people during this time. You will not need to bring a cell phone, journal, camera or iPod. You will not be graded or evaluated on your color walk.

You can begin your color walk anywhere. Let color be your guide. Allow yourself to become sensitized to the color in your surroundings. As you walk try to construct a color story or a narrative based on the color you observe. What are the colors that you become aware of first? What are the colors that reveal themselves more slowly? What colors do you observe that you did not expect? What color relationships do you notice? Do colors appear to change over time? We will discuss the color walks in our next class.

I'm an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Stanford, working primarily on Victorian literature and culture.