Notebook, 1993-


Introduction - Color Systems - The Color Wheel and the Natural Order of Colors - Color Interaction - Harmony - Contrast - Mutual Repulsion or Clash

[From: Harlan, Calvin. Vision & Invention, An Introduction to Art Fundamentals. Englewood Cliffs, NJ 07632: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1986.]

C o l o r

I N D E X:

Color Systems
Physical Qualities and Psychological Qualities

The Color Wheel and the Natural Order of Colors
The Afterimage
The Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Hues
The Acromatic Scale
Color Terminology
Chromatic Gradations: Tints and Shades
Chromatic Whites and Blacks
Broken Colors
Chromatic Grays: Warm and Cool

Color Interaction
Simultaneous Contrast
Chromatic Value Contrast
Spreading Effect [or the Bezold Effect] and Other Curiosities
Retinal Fusion or Intermingling


Contrast of Hue
Contrast of Temperature
Contrast of Intensity
Contrast of Extension
Contrast of Value
Simultaneous Contrast
Contrast of Complementaries

Mutual Repulsion or Clash
Uses and Abuses of Discord

It is said, even by artists and teachers, that color cannot be taught. It is said or insinuated that one has to be born with a certain mysterious "sense of color," a special gift. Perhaps it is true that color, like art itself, cannot be taught in the way arithmetic or even grammar can be taught. There are so many things that rush forward once the subject is entered into seriously: the nature of light and of materials and surfaces that affect light, the nature of color perception, the variable of color interaction, color and form, color and space, color and mood or expression, fad, fashion, taste, and so on. Moreover, color for the artist in the privacy of his or her studio cannot be dealt with totally in the abstract, as in a laboratory. No single aspect can be isolated from other aspects without depriving it of some of its unique power and appeal.

Where, then, does one commence with color? Is it any wonder that attempts to teach it often lead to no real awakening to color, nor to the enhancement of its use? The great nineteenth century French painter Eugène Delacroix [1798-1863] complained of the failure of art instructors of his day to introduce color effectively to their students, of their tendency to keep whatever they may have known about it to themselves. We may be sure that, had they possessed the least bit of Delacroix's passion for it, they would have presented exciting alternatives to academic dogma and obscurantism. It was, after all, a time of increasing interest in color ["Secrets of color theory? Why call these principles secrets, which all artists must know and all should have been taught?" . . . . "Give me mud, let me surround it as I think fit, and it shall be the radiant flesh of Venus." - Delacroix.].

During the first third of the nineteenth century, an intense interest began to be shown in color by artists and theorists in England, France, and Germany. Delacroix was struck by a new, lively way with color discovered in works by certain English contemporaries, John Constable [1776-1837] and Richard Bonnington [1801-1828]. And there is the story of the occasion, in 1824, when Delacroix, having seen an oil painting entitled The Hay Wain, submitted by Constable to the prestigious Paris Salon of that year, decided immediately to rework parts of his very large Painting The Massacres at Chios, intended for the same exhibition. [See Hugh Honour and John Fleming, The Visual Arts: A History [Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1982], pp. 482-89.. This story, whether true in every detail or not, signifies the beginning of a renewed interest in light and color in French painting that would point to Impressionism 45 years later and beyond.

In seeking the roots of this color revolution, we must look back to the Romantic movement, in which Delacroix participated with distinction, to the nature poetry of William Wordsworth, to the charged imaginations of Bryon, Coleridge and Blake, to the emergence of landscape as an important pictorial subject in its own right [curiously simultaneous with the appearance of railroads and factories upon the land]. We would look especially to the singular achievement of J . M. W. Turner -1775-1851]. His was a daring treatment of atmospheric light and color, often allied to favorite themes of fire, water, violence, and the sublime. His radiant and grand effects, obtained by means of mere paint, have remained unique even after Impressionism. In one amazing leap, they transcended the use of color in Renaissance and even Baroque and Rococo paintings. They replaced the old mode of light and dark contrast with the finest gradations of colors, all or nearly all raised very high in value [see Discord in this chapter]. While rejecting traditional chiaroscuro, Turner also put aside the representation of solid forms arranged in stage-like settings. In painting after painting, he created resplendent effects permeating landscape forms and very deep, dilated space.

Several things converged in England during the last decades of the eighteenth century to prepare the scene, at least, for a great colorist and landscape artist like Turner: the art of topography; the increasing use of watercolors in topographical studies and as an aid in observation of color in nature in all kinds of light and weather; the ideas of "the blotmaster" Alexander Cozens; the eighteenth-century respect for the amateur and an interest in "picturesque color" [affective coloring]; the sudden increase in the number of colors available; the interest in color theory [Turner was probably the first person to acknowledge the natural order of colors by placing yellow at the top of his color circles].

"The watercolor medium," writes Diana Hirsh, "provided subtler and more versatile than anyone had dreamed."

Watercolors were eventually to be known in Europe as l'art anglais, in recognition of the special English flair for the medium. Various reasons have been advanced for this, among them that the pale tones and soft contrasts of watercolor are unusually suited to record the delicate qualities of England's landscape and to reflect the vagaries of its moist climate. Whatever the case, the work of the English watercolorists came to be unmistakable. Out of the three homely ingredients of paper and water and colors were wrought marvels of jewel-like purity, almost like miniature stained-glass windows in their quiet glow and authority. [Diana Hirsh, The World of Turner, 1775-1851 [New York: Time-Life Books, 1969], p. 36.]

Color, like key elements in the other arts, has its own set of terms, some of which should be introduced briefly here to facilitate matters. The term hue, for instance, denotes color, any color. It is used interchangeably with color ["This is the color purple," "that hue is a sort of green"]. Value denotes the lightness--darkness factor, ranging from black to white. Values may be totally lacking in the dimension of color, may be totally achromatic. Of course, they exist where color is present, to greater or lesser degree in, for example, chromatic whites [whites with the tiniest traces of color in their bodies], in tints [mixtures of greater or lesser quantities of pure colors with white], in shades [mixtures of greater or lesser quantities of colors with black], as chromatic blacks [blacks with the least hints of color in their makeup], and in greater variety in chromatic grays [light, medium, and dark grays containing much or little color energy]. Colors in their pure state range in value from light [approaching the supreme lightness of white, as does yellow], to dark [approaching the condition of black, as does violet]. This introduced the factor of intensity. Pure colors, whether light, medium, or dark by nature, exist in full intensity, saturation, or chroma. When mixed with white or black or with white and black [gray], or with other conflicting hues, they lose chromatic intensity and often some of their hue identity [see Broken Colors in this chapter]. Colors may also appear to lose or gain intensity when placed alongside or within one another. Here the peculiarities of human color vision enter in surprising ways. Colors trigger the psychological peculiarities known as afterimages, and these may cause adjacent colors to alter in hue, value, and/or brilliance: A pair of complementaries [colors and their psychological opposites], or two colors in a discord relationship, will interact toward greater vibrancy, aliveness. These qualities pertain to pigment colors, paints of all kinds, and to what is called subtractive mixture. A different set of phenomena come into play with light colors, luminous colors, pure chromatic radiance. Whereas pigment colors, mixed physically, are subtractive of one another, if chosen knowingly, adjusted carefully, and placed very close together as tiny dots [points] in the manner of Georges Seurat [1859-1891] and his friend, they may result in effects rather similar to additive mixture or luminosity.

M. E. Chevreul [1786-1889], the French chemist and color scientist, published his findings on color interaction On the Law of Simultaneous Contrast in Colors in 1839. [See M. E. Chevreul, The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors and Their Application in the Arts, with a special introduction and explanatory notes by Faber Birren [New York: Reinhold Publishing Corp., 1967].] His observations were known to Delacroix, to the Impressionists, and to Seurat, who, in the 1880s, developed his method of painting with points of almost scientifically adjusted colors [pointillism or divisionism, or "optical painting," as Seurat preferred to call it], a method not very different from reproduction techniques in common use today--photomechanical techniques, such as the 3- and 4-color process for color pictures in books and magazines and the halftone process for black-and-white pictures [examine any reproduction with a magnifying glass and you will see it is composed of tiny dots that the eye perceives as solid color or black or as gray]. Seurat's mosaics of carefully thought-out colors were meant to create the desired effects in the eye of the viewer by retinal fusion; that is, pigment colors were now being used in such a way as to behave like colored light. Instead of blending colors physically on the palette and then applying them in flat areas on the canvas, Seurat and his friends sought a method more scientific and more "advanced" than that of the Impressionists, even, to make mere pigments yield to optical mixture exclusively. Color luminosity, not color intensity, was to be a quality inherent in the very fabric of a painting. Colors were divided into their components [hence "divisionism"], and these components were placed side by side as small points [or dots]; green, for example, instead of being made on the palette by mixing yellow and blue paints, would be "made" in the eye of the observer by a juxtaposition of yellow and blue dots. [It is very important that we know the difference between color used primarily for the sake of hue in all its dimensions--emotional, associative, structural, descriptive, and the like--and color used mainly or exclusively for the purpose of luminosity--see the following pages. Examined separately and together, these may yield some of the secrets of color.]

The artists referred to here [Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists] were not taught color in any academic sense; yet they did manage to learn very quickly what they needed to know about color. The times were right. There were new theories to consider. Scientists and artists had found a common interest for the first time since the Renaissance.

Our understanding of color would not differ greatly from that of the Impressionists and the Neo-Impressionists and their favorite theorists Chevreul and Ogden N. Rood, [1831-1902], the American color scientist and amateur painter, [His two books being Modern Chromatics with Applications to Art and Industry [New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1879] and Students' Text-Book of Color [1881], both translated and published in France as Theorie scientifique des couleurs [1881] and known to Seurat.] even if our use of it since the 1890s would have much more to do with hue intensity, symbolic expression, and spatio-plastic structure than with the "additive mixture" of colored light given off from pigments [less intense therefore than vibratory light in nature--nature's unmatchable luminosity]. The change of direction and emphasis may be found in the works of two groups of artists: in those of Seurat's friends Paul Signac and Henri Edmond Cross, and in those of Paul Gauguin and his friends and followers Paul Sérusier and others. Signac and Cross continued to work out the implications of Seurat's discoveries and, after Seurat's early death in 1891, "enlarged the size of their brush strokes and at the same time made their colors much purer and more intense than Seurat's." [William Innes Homer, Seurat and the Science of Painting [Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1964; paperback, 1978], p. 255.] Matisse was impressed by Signac's book From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism. More important, he worked with Signac and Cross at Saint-Tropez on the Mediterranean in 1904.

Matisse, the future leader of the group of artists called "The Wild Beasts" [Les Fauves], acquired a painting by Gauguin, Head of a Boy, in 1898 and, in 1905, the year of the first Fauves exhibition, studied a number of Gauguin's South Pacific paintings in a private collection. He saw, in these works by the leading Symbolist painter and theorist, broad flat areas with few gradations, indifferent to what is called local color; instead, colors of a poetic quality denoting the emotional climate of things, rather than the optical-luminist or atmospheric climate of things. In about 1896, Gauguin wrote: "Color is thus determined by its own charm, and is not determined as the designation of objects perceived in nature." So, then, colors would be seen as having many qualities of their own, and these qualities would make it possible for us to use them in contexts that range from the primarily structural to the primarily emotional, as in music.

It is helpful at times to compare color with music. Both are based on vibrations of measurable length or frequency, both express themselves in mathematical ratios [the prismatic spectrum; the tonal spectrum], both therefore lend themselves to theory and structure, both are capable of very affective powers in certain combinations or sequences, both appeal to rational and intuitive faculties in human beings. Need it be said, then, that artists would do well to know something about color, as musicians--composers especially--must know acoustics: tuning, intervals, scales, harmony, musical forms and constructs, ancient and modern, and more? Learning about color is an endless process that advances on more than one level of mind and feeling. One of the unique things about color is, in fact, its appeal to both analytical and intuitive, left-brain and right-brain, modes of knowing--or total-brain knowing and doing? [pp. 83-86]

[Harlan, Calvin. Vision & Invention, An Introduction to Art Fundamentals. Englewood Cliffs, NJ 07632: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1986.]



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