Tuesday, April 21, 2009


click photo to enlarge
In English schools pupils are assigned to "houses". These are groupings of pupils in each year group and across the school that are not subject or ability-based as classes often are. Rather they are mixed groupings used for sports competitions and other activities where it is useful for the whole school population to be divided into sub-sets. There are usually four houses and they can be named after almost anything. I've come across the cardinal points of the compass, archbishops, mountains, rivers, saints, and even British army generals. As well as a name each house has a colour, and in most cases these are red, blue, green and yellow.

My primary school (5-11 years) "house" system was the first time I came across the use of this particular set of colours used in combination. As I grew older I came to realise that it is frequently pressed into service where four strong colours are felt to be required. Designers particularly associate these colours with children. Games such as Ludo use them, my son's first two-wheeler bicycle used them, building bricks often feature the combination, play apparatus in public parks is frequently painted red, blue, green and yellow. Occasionally you see a designer make a desperate bid for freedom and use purple, orange, turquoise - anything but these four! But, invariably, the quartet re-assert themselves. Local authorities wanting to give a splash of colour to a building, to street furniture, or to a derelict corner seem drawn to this quartet of colours.

When I was in Cromer, Norfolk, photographing these newly-painted beach huts, it dawned on me how we got to this position. Red, blue, green and yellow have been so frequently used in combination that they've become "standard" and "timeless". Anyone using them knows that people will recognise the combination as of proven quality, and that they are unlikely to provoke any criticism. If, on the other hand, they combine four different colours they run the risk of attracting the public's disaproval. Or they can find themselves using a colour group that is fashionable, and hence one that will date quickly. The truth is, red, blue, green and yellow are a safe set of colours. But here's another truth - I'm fed up of seeing them!

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 53mm (106mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f8
Shutter Speed: 1/250 seconds
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -0.3 EV
Image Stabilisation: On