On Black Gloss

On Black GlossBlack gloss is everywhere to be seen in modern-day Britain, and perhaps it is this very ubiquity that means its presence goes largely unnoticed in our day-to-day lives. From the iconic door of 10 Downing Street to those of many a tenement and New Town residence in Edinburgh; from the wrought iron railings that form part of the quintessential British streetscape to the gutters and drainpipes that channel the rainwater from the roofs of our homes; it is even to be found on the ceiling of a certain unnamed Edinburgh public house. In short, although we may be largely unaware of its presence, it is always there, lingering on the periphery of our consciousness. But is there anything whatsoever remarkable about such a seemingly mundane observation? Indeed there is.

Black: consisting optically of the total absence of colour due to the absence or total absorption of light. In a country whose winters are wont to leave many of us with little more than a distant memory of the sun, there is a bitter, and perhaps even tragic irony to be found here: just why do we coat so many surfaces with a colour that deprives us of what precious little light we have available? Perhaps north of the border this could be explained in part by the dour temperament of us Scots, yet national stereotypes aside, what does the choice of black say about us? Serious with a strong presence of authority; elegant and formal on the one hand, gloomy, defeatist and somewhat mournful on the other. It would seem then that the characteristics of black are a fair reflection of the personality traits common to the British Isles: black takes the unruly energy of life and tames it for us, making it sober, acceptable and predictable.

What then of gloss? Herein lies the rub. Gloss belongs to the family of oil, or alkyd based paints that dry to form a hardy, reflective surface. Indeed, it is a most practical finish for many items in our everyday lives: the higher the degree of gloss, the more durable the surface will be. Perhaps this too can be explained in part by our climate: cold and wet, harsh and unforgiving, what else could there be that stands up to the cruelty of the British weather? But that is not all: in a society that takes pride in cleanliness and appearance, a surface that does not trap dirt and can easily be wiped clean is a highly desirable one.

But let us pause and think once more about the optical properties of black gloss, for it would seem there is a paradox at work here: gloss reflects light; black absorbs it. Whilst black does its best to hold back light and keep it from reaching our eyes, gloss gives itself over to deliver it to us in all its shining glory. And it is this very paradox that cuts right to the heart of the national psyche: we are a reserved bunch; as a rule, if we do not altogether repress life’s jouissance, we are certainly most guarded about letting it show. What little we come across we keep to ourselves, taking the colour and warmth we find in the world and reflecting it back in our own peculiar way: hard and glossy, prim and proper, reserved and robust.

Perhaps then the prominence of black gloss is not such a coincidence after all.

Illustration © 2011 Studio Monik. All rights reserved.
First Published in The Radgeworks Miscellany, 2010



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