On the Colour Couch with The Colour File’s Martha Roberts

Little Book Of Colour On The Colour Couch With Martha Roberts

Martha (from The Colour File) and I first met when she was writing a colour column for Psychologies magazine and she emailed me to ask if she could ask me some questions. This became a monthly chat with each new colour she was exploring and I’d shared my insights into what different colours meant from a psychological standpoint. It was several years later that we finally met in person at the Dulux Colour of the Year 2020 launch event in London and that long overdue in person hug. Martha opens her heart in this interview and is quite the storyteller so you’re in for a real treat…

What is your earliest colour memory?

I loved the colour purple from a very early age and, apparently, I made my mum paint our front door purple and wear a purple crocheted hat (it was the 1970s – what can I say?…). I remember having gentian violet put on my forehead when I had a wound on it and being so happy to be daubed with purple – it made the accident not seem so bad. There’s a photo of me blowing the candles on my second birthday and it was a white cake with dark purple icing. I remember it well because I told everyone it was mine (as only a two year old can) and that they weren’t having any. Colour was clearly extremely important to me even then!

What does colour mean to you?

When I think of the things I love most in the world, people clearly come a collective first but colour isn’t trailing too far behind. Colour shapes everything in my life, from how I remember things through to what makes me sad, happy and cry with frustration or joy. Scottish football manager Bill Shankly famously said, ‘Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.’ I feel much the same way about colour. 

Do you have a favourite colour or a colour that you find yourself constantly drawn to? And why?

Although I was territorially crazy about purple when I was a child, I would now say I don’t have a favourite colour. The nearest I get to having a favourite colour is having favourite groups or clusters of colour. For example, I love pink and green together, then pink, green and yellow, or pink, green, yellow and purple. But then within each colour itself, I have favourites. For example, I love cerulean blue, mauve, seafoam, pea green and acid yellow. In other words, I don’t love just one colour entirely but specific ones give me joy.

Do you have a colour that you least like? And why?

Brown! Ugh! Brown! When I was a child, I had red hair so my mum would always dress me in ‘autumn’ colours like brown, burnt orange and sludgy greens. I hated it then and I hate it now. You are really unlikely to find me wearing brown and if I do it will be with candy pink or electric blue, but by and large it won’t happen at all.

When Dulux announced its Colour of the Year for 2019 – Spiced Honey – I challenged myself to have it in my bedroom to prove that bright colours could go with it. It did and I put up with it for a while but just a few days ago I painted over it with mauve and I couldn’t be happier. Recently, I bought some watercolour paints and they came with five different browns. I didn’t even bother opening them and instead replaced them with colours including rose madder, dioxazine violet and purple lake. If I want to paint trees, I’m guessing they might be purple.

What do you love most about working with colour?

I love the variety of scenarios that working with colour has to offer and I think this is reflected in my blog/Instagram account, The Colour File. I don’t just focus on interiors, fashion, art or any other one thing but I photograph, write about and look into colour in whatever scenario I discover it. For example, it could be arranging multi-coloured stationery for a Paperchase campaign flat lay, decorating one of the rooms in Colour File HQ or reading up on colour stories. For a while, this felt like a problem because I didn’t seem to ‘fit’ anywhere but now I’m happy with this plurality. It gives me the chance to rave about colour, wherever I find it, without being hemmed in by a genre.

What do you think your life would be like without colour? 

OK, so this might sound melodramatic but a life without colour wouldn’t be a happy one for me. I only have to walk into a shop that doesn’t have much colour, like a famous one that focuses on white interiors and clothing, and I feel slightly panicked and out of my comfort zone. I’ve tried living without colour, for example when I was in a relationship with someone who really rather liked grey, but I soon bungeed back to colour. Colour is bewitching and beguiling and I’m happy to be under its spell!

What’s your favourite colour story?

Oh my gosh, I don’t even know where to begin! There are so many colour stories that I’ve come across that I love. I tend to like serendipitous colour stories, where people come across a coincidence or event that was to do with colour that they could never have second-guessed, like the discovery by William Perkin of mauveine dye. He was working on finding a cure for malaria but instead discovered a colour that would go on to change our world.

Were you ever afraid or wary of colour? And what did you do to overcome this?

No, I’ve never been afraid or wary of colour. I guess when I was younger I was more inclined to listen to other people’s advice about colour and I regret that – for example, I wanted to wear some brightly coloured Emma Hope shoes to my wedding but at the wedding dress shop they dissuaded me and I ended up with ivory ones. If that happened now – well, it wouldn’t happen now. I wouldn’t listen to anyone else!

Do you have a favourite colour place that you visit (or have visited)?

My favourite colour places tend to be shops like Liberty’s where I can waft from floor to floor, drinking in colour, whether it’s from a Mary Katrantzou dress, a bolt of Liberty fabric or Manolo Blahniks in every possible colour. I don’t care where the colour comes from, just as long as I’m in the middle of it! I also love the glass section of the V&A – plenty of colour there!

If you could pick any colour and give it a name, what would that be?

Recently I found the mauve of my dreams, sitting in between purple and pink. It’s by Craig and Rose and it’s called Playful, so in some senses I think my colour has already been found and named! But I think it would probably be a fresh Spring green called Oscar’s Green named after my son’s twin who died shortly before they were born. I always wear something green for him (my eternity ring has an emerald embedded inside it for this purpose) and it’s a colour that gives me hope sprung from sadness and a belief that anything is possible.

For anyone afraid of colour what would your number 1 piece of advice be?

Don’t be scared to experiment with colour and get it ‘wrong’ – nothing is forever. The ‘wrong’ colour sofa can have a throw slung over it, the ‘wrong’ colour paint can be painted over. Like anything in life, it’s all part of a learning experience and by making mistakes you get that little bit closer to fundamental truths – in this case, colours that resonate for you. For example, I now know to never buy anything grey, having had loads of grey in my life at one point, but I’m not sure I’d have known that if I hadn’t experienced the greyness first.

Which colourful person do you most admire and would love me to interview for the On the Colour Couch series?

I’d rather like you to interview Iris Apfel. She gives me hope that if and when I reach my 90s I can wear colour upon colour with impunity and not give a damn!

If you have misty eyes after reading Martha’s connection to the colour green, I’m right there with you. How wonderful she is using colour to keep this beautiful memory and connection with her always.

I love Martha’s realisation that if she hadn’t experienced a life of grey she may not have discovered the world of colour and all the joy it brings. And it seems we both admire the one and only Iris Apfel who really does live a colourfully expressive life!

Today is also Martha’s birthday so here’s to wishing Martha a wonderful colour filled day of celebrations!

If you would like to discover more about Martha’s colourful world, then head over to her Instagram @the_colour_file.

Wishing you a colourful day,

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