Color Theory - Lesson #4
To this point we have talked about
color and its relationships to out right-left brain modes. You will recall
that when we began this discussion on color, I said that the effective
use of color depended upon knowing and trusting our right hemisphere along
with a complete understanding of the basics of color.
We now undertake the task of understanding
the latter. This is a typical left brained activity and just the sheer
volume of it may cause the analytical left brain to tell you that it is
a waste. The left hemisphere may say, "We have seen all of this before,
I understand it, so let's move on to something that doesn't bore me to
death." But remember, the left hemisphere thinks it knows
all about drawing and painting, however, we now have ample evidence that
it does not.
So, to listen to our verbal, analytical
left brain, and skip this important issue will lead to failure. Let us
Those who do not understand
history are doomed to repeat it.......
Earliest Use of Color
Man probably became truly different from
other mammals, when he began to wonder about the strange, often frightening,
phenomena around him, and when he first attempted to control these phenomena.
He felt he would have power over anything he could make with his own hands
in the form of an image. He molded clay, or carved bone or stone, into
forms resembling huge beasts; and he drew pictures on the walls of his
caves. He believed that he would thus acquire power over all such animals.
The more realistic the images were, the greater his power. He soon found
it possible to add color to these three dimensional figures and to outline
drawings by employing the diverse colors of the earth on which he walked.
Earth has many shades of buff, yellow,
brown, gray, green, and red, almost exactly the colors man saw in the animals
that meant so much to him. Some animals were threats to his safety; others
became his friends; he needed many of them for food, clothing, and tools.
Manifestly, the first purpose of color was to make images more realistic,
and, thereby, to imbue them with more magic power. Color appears in human
handicrafts since the most ancient times. Besides the color he found in
the soil, early man also used the colors of fruits and plants. He added
water to all colors in order to be able to apply them to walls and articles.
As he learnt to roast meat, he found
that the fat dripping from the meat gave the soil an interesting and practical
quality: the paint this fat created was easier to apply and did not deteriorate
the way fruit and vegetable juices and just plain water mixed soil did.
The fat acted as a binder: a substance which makes the color, what we call
the pigment, adhere to the surface on which it is applied. In the course
of time, he discovered, accidentally, or deliberately, other binders for
color, such ass egg-white, wax, linseed oil, glue, gum arabic, casein,
and polymer. Some binders worked on one surface only; others caused the
colors to stick to several surfaces. Some binders proved to be permanent,
others turned out to be unreliable. Thus, some colors remained intact through
thousands of years. Others have vanished or pealed off, with only a few
traces left in the corners or crevices. The search for permanent colors
and binders is still going on.
Color in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Far East
In ancient Egypt, colors, like all other
features of art, were strictly connected with religion. They had to be
used in an absolutely prescribed manner, without any personal freedom.
Unaware of, and unconcerned with, light and shadow, Egyptian artists used
flat, bright colors to paint their statues, architectural decorations,
furnishings for the living and dead, mummy cases, papyrus scrolls, hieroglyphics,
and countless figures and objects on the walls of their tombs. Indoors,
the bright colors were easier to see. Outdoors, on temple walls, the bright
hues broke up in the blinding brilliance of the sun. The medium they used,
as far as we know, was egg tempera; or at least they used an egg varnish
over water-thinned colors.
In the less extreme climate of Mesopotamia,
Babylonia, and Assyria, artists employed color on the glazed brick facades
of their palaces and temples. They also had much color in their fantastically
ornate and heavy ceremonial garbs.
In the Far East, too, colors were
magnificent in garments worn by priests, the aristocracy, the warriors.
Much color was employed in furnishings. Paintings were mostly scrolls of
ricepaper, or silk, in black lines with only a few spots of color. Such
paintings were to be enjoyed in small, intimate homes, or shrines, by the
light of soft lamps or lanterns. Subtle colors added to the elegance of
rich, intricate, diversified designs.
Color in Ancient Crete
It has taken Western
artists more than thirty centuries to discover all the ramifications of
color in every field of art. The search for color and art in the West began
with the Cretan civilization, in which art was created for art's sake,
without any religious connotation. Paintings were to make the interior
of a house brighter; they served as picture windows. The style was free,
the colors were always cheery, whether they applied to remarkably realistic,
almost impressionistic themes, such as flying fish, or to bold, spiral
patterns of pure ornamentation on walls, pillars, and ceilings.
Color in Ancient Greece
Although we usually trace our ancestry
to classic Greece, painting, as we understand the term, was never as great
in Greece as sculpture and architecture. True, their murals have disappeared;
all we have are descriptions by contemporary travelers, and small-scale
reflections of their pictorial achievements in the thousands of beautifully
decorated vases. Many of the superb figures are known to have been inspired
by Attic muralists. Those vases seldom have more than two or three colors,
besides the black glaze on the red brick clay.
The Greeks, however, had color for
painting their stone, bronze, and marble statues realistically. They painted
the triangular wall of each tympanum, and the flat background of every
high-relief on their temples, a deep blue or red, in order to make the
statues stand out clearly. They left the white marble or yellowish stone
of the building unpainted; the shadows between the columns broke up the
dazzling white or pale yellow.
As great philosophers and theoreticians,
the Greeks understood the rules of perspective, but they did not turn this
theoretical knowledge into practice. Practical knowledge came with ancient
Color in Ancient Rome
With their magnificent temples, palaces,
and luxurious villas, the Romans demanded paintings and mosaics on walls,
as well as mosaics on floors. Most of their paintings were done in encaustic,
pigments mixed with hot wax. The mosaics were made of stone or marble in
a vast number of colors and shades, almost like full color paintings. We
have found many wall paintings in Pompeii, and Herculaneum, and also in
the city of Rome. Above all, we have discovered huge numbers of mosaic
floors in perfect condition, especially in North African colonies of the
Roman Empire. Those mosaics depict urban and rustic scenes, mountains and
harbors, battles, civic activities, business, commerce, sports, mythological
and historical subjects, all executed with supreme skill, incomparable
craftsmanship, in a great diversity of colors.
The mosaic chips are often so tiny
that, from a few feet away, the work appears to be a painting done with
brushes. The mosaics were situated in rooms where they could be seen and
admired like paintings in our own living rooms. Subtle shading and fine
details were of paramount importance. These pictures were conversation
pieces and, judging by the similarity of certain themes and craftsmanship,
one can easily guess that ancient Rome had some popular artists, whose
work all the citizens "in the know" tried to own. The purpose of pictures
in color was twofold: to brighten up the usually small rooms, which, like
present-day houses in hot climates, had only a few windows, if any, and
to make the rooms look fashionable by providing them with elaborate pictures,
whether those were executed with paint and brush or in mosaics.
Color in Early Christianity
The early Christians of Byzantium (Istanbul)
worked with glass mosaics, rather than stone and marble chips. Their sole
aim was to make the supranatural visible to illiterate pagans and Christians
alike. No longer were the mosaics intimate pictures of worldly scenes.
They were usually placed high above the floor, done with bold outlines,
less detail, and more striking color combinations. Biblical personages
and scenes had to be viewed from a distance, in a semi-dark place, or at
night by flickering oil lamps. The stronger, less realistic color contrasts
and patterns, the sparkle of glass mosaics -- many of them backed with
gold leaf -- the glittering gold halos, bejeweled crosses, and crowns created
an atmosphere of mystery and awe.
In the western half of the defunct
Roman Empire, Roman temples, baths, and basilicas (meeting halls) were
transformed into Christian churches. Painters of the new era imitated Roman
art, Roman apparel and facial expression in Christian subjects. Colors
were as natural as artists could make them, but perspective and proportions
were naive, childlike. Here, too, painting served strictly religious purposes
for many centuries.
With the solidification of Christianity,
the Gothic period brought forth daring experimentation in painting, and
in architecture. Gradually, there appeared a belief that life can be joyful.
There was a wealth of detail and increased variety of colors in Gothic
painting. Done on wood panels, these paintings were again on a small scale,
to be viewed from nearby. Facial resemblance to donors, the richness of
gold embroidery, rugs, garments, and furnishings were now more important
than the mysterious quality expected by the early Christians.
Color in the Renaissance
It was not until the fourteenth century
that artists began to explore new approaches, new vistas in painting, first,
merely by achieving more and more realism. They evolved an amazing knowledge
of perspective, light and shadow, correct proportions, and they used colors
with an increasing artistic freedom. Still, the procedure was largely a
matter of preparing a perfect outline drawing, and coloring each section
in the neatest possible manner.
In an age when art was in great demand,
artists had assistants and apprentices. Technical as well as esthetic knowledge
was handed from older to younger men. Painters were experimenting with
new pigments and binders, just as clothmakers were always looking for newer
and better dyes for the sumptuous garments worn by the church hierarchy
and the aristocracy.
The High Renaissance, around the turn
of the sixteenth century, was the culmination of all these efforts. Individuality
in art was at last established. Composition, color, the entire concept
of a painting, were more and more individualized. You could see the mentality
and temperament of the artist, as well as his talent and his skill, in
Color in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
In seventeenth century Holland, Protestantism
all but eliminated biblical, mythological, and historical paintings, and
restricted artists to easel paintings designed for the walls of small rooms
in narrow houses. Landscapes, still lifes, genre pictures, and flattering
portraits of individuals and groups were produced in all possible detail,
in bright colors, in a somewhat idealized style. The purpose of art was
to delight the middle class taste. In subject matter, color, and technique,
the artist strived for the commonplace, the average, the unsensational.
The one painter who eventually defied this trend, Rembrandt van Rijn, almost
literally starved to death.
Everywhere else in Europe, the seventeenth
century means the Baroque, a period of unrest, turmoil, experimentation,
the beginning of what we choose to call "the age of reason." Dramatic,
flashy paintings were required by uninhibited churchmen, erotically inclined
aristocrats, and the expanding capitalist class which now had the money
that enabled it to live on a high scale. Collecting art, attending auction
sales, became a hobby among those who could afford it. Powerful personages
were not afraid of kidnapping, hijacking, or plain stealing, in order to
acquire the works of celebrated artists. There was no limit to subject
matter, color, fantasy, and taste, outside The Netherlands.
The second half of the Baroque, the
eighteenth century, is called Rococo, a veritable explosion of forms, colors,
ornamentation. Everything seemed to be in perpetual motion. Ceilings were
torn open, visually, by bizarre effects of perspective. Walls were painted
to resemble terraces. The trompe-l'oeil (eye-cheating) method
came into vogue after it had flourished in Pompeii and Herculaneum some
eight hundred years before, but now it appeared on a colossal scale.
Color in the Classic Revival Period
The French Revolution was predicated
on ancient Greek and Roman ideas of freedom of speech, the rights of man,
the right to vote, the right to complain, the republican form of government,
"The Senate and the People," the abolition of kings and tyrants. Painters,
as well as writers, used scenes and concepts from classical history to
spread the revolution. The end of the eighteenth century, and the first
quarter of the nineteenth, constitute the Classicist, or Classic Revival
period. Paintings were again meticulously drawn, and systematically colored.
Subject and draftsmanship were all-important. Every article, each person
had to be purified, idealized.
The Academie Francaise established and
promulgated through Europe the belief that great art can be reduced to
formulas which any intelligent artist can learn by heart. This so-called
academic concept tried to turn all forms of art into a kind of definite
procedure, a concept still in existence, despite the many events that occurred
in the world of art during the past hundred and fifty years.
Color was subservient to outline drawing
in this classical period. Perfect realism of the most ideal kind was the
goal. In the United States, the Hudson River School, in the first half
of the nineteenth century, was an outgrowth, or development, of this Classicism.
Fortunately, however, the Hudson River School concentrated on the beauties
of nature. Its idealized, spotlessly clean, dreamlike rusticity had, and
still has, a charm not shared by the spotless nudes and other classicist
figures mechanically created by European and New World artists of the Classic
Color in Impressionism
There is constant change, a continuous
overlapping, in history. Early in the nineteenth century, when the Classic
Revival period was still rampant, John Constable and Joseph Mallord William
Turner were painting in England. These men, like all true Englishmen, loved
fresh air, and went outdoors to paint on the spot, rather than in the cold
sanctuary of their studios. Working from direct observation, they omitted
small details and concentrated on color, motion, and mood. In the 1820's
Constable's paintings, more sparkling with colors than anything seen before,
were shown in the exhibition of the Salon de Paris. Young French artists
suddenly became aware of new possibilities of turning to nature. Constable
and Turner are generally considered the founders of Impressionism.
Previously, painters made sketches
outdoors in silverpoint, pen-and-ink, or crayon. Later, they added washes,
usually sepia (a rich, brown pigment prepared from the secretion of various
cuttlefish); but occasionally they used some other colors to achieve a
better light-and-shadow effect in their sketches. All major works, however,
were executed in the atelier, never outdoors. Colors were mostly pure;
highlights and shadows on green, red, and other surfaces were merely lighter
or darkend shades of the same hue.
Stepping back to the Renaissance for
a moment, few people realize that the true significance of Leonardo da
Vinci's famous Mona Lisa lies in the fact that the master
pioneered in the use of color: there are no outlines in this painting;
the cold precision of much early Renaissance and pre-Renaissance painting
is gone. Leonardo introduced the gentle blending called sfumato.
Despite the strange errors in perspective, and the curious lack of coherence
between the two halves of the blue-green background, the painting is a
milestone in Western art.
Tiziano Vecelli (Titian), the most
"painterly" painter of the Renaissance, worked in the same style as did
da Vinci. El Greco, in a slightly later period, was not afraid of painting
flaming yellows against ominous grays and vivid purples in bold strokes,
not at all in keeping with the age in which he lived.
But it was the Impressionist school,
around the middle of the last century, which discarded lines and decided
to work entirely in color. Impressionists would depict the same view three
times on the same day and paint the view again in different seasons, in
order to show how colors change from the cool yellow of the morning sun
to the warmer yellow of midday, becoming the orange tint of the setting
sun. They showed how different colors appear on a rainy, snowy, sunny day.
Critics and public alike deried and denounced these "paint throwers" as
freaks or fakers. Artists, however, went on with their new idea: color,
painted alla prima (at once), trying to put the right colors
on the canvas directly, without changes, without blending. All they wanted
was a general effect, an impression of what they actually
Color in Post-Impressionism
not satisfied with the spontaneous painting of the Impressionists, returned
to careful composition, the deliberate arranging of color as well as forms.
This is what we call Post-Impressionism. Cezanne was the first artist consciously
trying to achieve effects by juxtaposing certain colors. He found that
a lemon looks brighter with a blue outline, and a red apple appears to
be more brilliant if you paint green around it. The climax of this search
for color effects was reached by Georges Seurat, who introduced Pointillism.
In this quite scientific approach to color, the artist doesn't paint the
grass green. He paints hundreds of blue spots and hundreds of yellow spots
with the tip of his brush, and from a short distance away, the grass appears
Color began to inspire many artists
from this point on. Paul Gauguin went to the South Seas and rendered the
natural beauty of Tahiti and its inhabitants in brilliant hues that seemed
crude to his contemporaries, who were accustomed to the subdued, traditional
tones of Classic Revival paintings. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a finer
draftsman and designer than he was a painter, created marvelous posters
by applying uncommon color combinations to interesting, though simple drawings.
Artists became fanatical about exploring the realm of color, not only in
representational paintings, but in abstract, cubist, futurist, dadaist,
and nonobjective works as well.
"Isms" in art overlap each other,
come and go so fast that the critics, the public, and the artists themselves,
are bewildered. What happened to prospective, composition, proportions,
recognizable subjects? Now we see them, now we don't. But there's one thing
we do see: colors. Strong, baffling, frightening, if you will; hard, repulsive,
perhaps even nauseating in some paintings; delicate, poetic, entrancing
in other paintings......but color, color is everywhere; color in which
the artist achieves results never seen before; colors that sing, shout,
whisper, or just speak. You merely have to listen.
But you must learn the language of
colors, exactly as you have to learn any language. The first lesson is
to let your eyes be the judge. Artists who create paintings and people
who look at paintings should give their eyes full rein, instead of shackling
them with brassbound ideas that were conceived before Galieo Galilei discovered
that the Milky Way wasn't made of milk!
In the next few weeks we will learn
the language of colors. lift them up and turn them over and look underneath.
Examine not only what they are called but WHY we use them. All you need
is an open mind, a heart willing to let it all come in, and a will strong
enough to endure the sometimes boring details.
That will do for this session but
there a few things I feel I should discuss before we go. Teaching on the
internet, unlike in the studio, presents a very different atmosphere. I
usually feel no particular need to explain my methods to my in-house students.
After all they are here to learn AND they pay me for the leadership. The
web is a bit different.
In order for a student to learn about
each aspect of art he, or she, must first understand how we arrive at the
present day knowledge. Hence the "history lessons" that I so frequently
post. Remember that I do not call my site "Art Tips On Line" or "Art Tutorials
On Line" or even "Art Lessons On Line". Here we are looking to learn about
art in all of its facets, considering all "parts" to make up a "unified
So, my dear friends, expect to spend
some time here. Do not look for a "quick fix" in the pursuit of art. That
is best left to the television artists who promote "one size fits all"
lessons. Until next time....
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