Have you ever looked at the glowing orange
setting sun? When you look away, you see purple and green suns jumping
in front of you. Similar spots act like jumping beans of diverse dark hues,
when you turn toward a shaded wall, after having looked at a bright sunlit
building. Notice what happens when you stare at a brilliant neon sign for
a few minutes at night. When you turn toward the dark sky or toward a dark
building, you'll see a shape similar to that of the illuminated sign, or
to its brightest feature, only in a different color. These spots and shapes
are called after-images. Among the most memorable ones I've ever seen were
purple and green sailboats floating in the sky, after I had gazed at a
couple of white sailboats, brilliantly illuminated by the sun against a
cloudless summer sky, on the bright blue Mediterranean Sea off North Africa.
According to physicists, the colors
of after-images are the complementary colors of the original objects. Two
colors which give white when combined through a prism are called complementary
colors. Greenish-yellow and blue are a pair of such complementaries. Since
there are countless colors, there must also be countless complementaries.
Let the physicist pair them all. Artists, as a rule, merely see the colors
of the actual objects.
The question is: should we, can we,
paint such after-images? One celebrated artist who did paint them was Vincent
van Gogh. He employed swirling brush strokes, many colors, and, in a later
period, he painted spots in the sky. We know from Vincent's letters to
his brother, Theo, that his aim always was to paint exactly what he saw,
and every now and then he reported with great satisfaction that he had
succeeded in doing just that. We must assume that he painted the dark spots
in the bright sky because he saw such spots. He literally saw them, even
though he knew they weren't actually in the sky. He also saw swirling forms
in the almost tropical sunlight of the Arles region, where he lived.
This doesn't mean that we ought to
paint such spots, too. We'd only be imitating Vincent van Gogh. But the
after-image effect can inspire us to select our colors according to the
fact that a very brilliant form might be repeated elsewhere in a very dark
color, and thus give the onlooker a sense of life, a feeling of vibration.
Surely, a bright sail will look even brighter if you paint the sky just
a little darker next to it, and if you paint a less bright sail next to
it, or if you paint a dark spot, perhaps a clump of land with dark green
trees, in the same picture.
COLORS AND MEMORY
Most painters know the difference between
two kinds of yellow; between cobalt, ultramarine, and phthalo blue; between
alizarin crimson and cadmium red; between a blue-violet and a red-violet;
a yellowish orange and a reddish orange, and so on. But we remember colors
the way we remember anything else: vaguely, often incorrectly. There are
so many shades of so many hues that it's literally impossible for anyone
to recollect each of them.
A smart seamstress doesn't go to a
store to purchase a piece of material to match a specific color without
carrying a swatch of the required color with her. We recall with certainty
only the names of colors, and the fact that they are dark, or light, very
dark, or very light. As for color perspective, we recollect only that distant
hills that we have seen were violet in tone. It's especially difficult
to remember changes in colors caused by illumination.
Practically any artist with modest
experience knows how to paint an ordinary little landscape, with a bright
blue sky, white clouds, brown and green ground, a few trees, and a red
farmhouse. Depicting a more definite theme from memory, for example an
early morning scene, a late afternoon scene, or a landscape as it looks
just before a shower, is far more complicated. Usually, when such scenes
are painted from memory, the sky, the ground, the trees don't go with each
other. Such paintings remind me of a clown dressed in striped trousers,
highly polished boots, a torn sweater, a patched up lumberjacket, a tophat,
and a green umbrella. It's fine for a clown, of course, but you
wouldn't want to be caught dressed like that.
Unless you are truly experienced at
painting from memory, or unless you don't mind working like an amateur,
make on-the-spot sketches in pencil and in color. Use watercolor, casein,
crayon, but have something to refresh your memory when you paint a serious
picture. Above all, try to return to the place later and compare your finished,
or nearly finished, painting with the actual scenery.
One of the problems of memory-colors
is a lack of variety and accidental flaws, peculiarities you always find
in nature, but cannot invent. No wall, no door, roof, rock, tree, or road
is perfectly clear, clean, and undamaged. You notice and paint these odd
features when working from observation, but you forget them, or misplace
them, when painting from memory. An experienced artist can immediately
tell whether you had painted a picture from life or from memory. A sound
combination of on-the-spot sketches, notes, photographs, and memory will
help you paint successfully, and in a professional style.
THE MEANING OF COLORS
In his endless search for causes, reasons,
explanations, and in his equally endless hope of finding answers to all
questions and meanings in all phenomena, man must have stumbled on meanings
of colors at an early date. Didn't a blue sky imply a pleasant day? Didn't
dark clouds announce a storm or rain? Wasn't the green pasture more pleasing
to the eye than the dried-out, dirty-brown vegetation? Wasn't red the color
of blood? Wasn't white the purest possible color? Didn't darkness frighten
people? Didn't the radiant sun resemble a huge disk of gold?
Later on, certain colors became associated
with facts, events, ceremonies, titles. What may surprise us is to find
that some colors have different meanings in various parts of the world.
We have ample evidence that colors began
to have special meanings a very long time ago, and that those meanings
were clear to the entire population. One of the most famous edifices of
antiquity, the Ziggurat of Ur, built between 2300 and 2180 B.C. in the
Tigris-Euphrates Valley, consisted of four main stories. The first story,
rising from a white court, was black, symbolizing the underworld; the second
was red, representing the earth; then came a blue shrine with a gilded
top, symbols of heaven and the sun. We cannot be sure these colors were
applied at the time the Ziggurat was erected; they may have been added
later, during a reconstruction. Nor have we absolute proof, right on the
spot, of the meaning of the colors. Judging by the use of similar colors
elsewhere, though, there can be no question of an accidental, or whimsical
juxtaposing of colors. Those hues were selected for symbolical reasons.
WHAT DO COLORS STAND FOR?
Most colors have several meanings, but
they are closely connected with each other. Here are a few examples:
Blue stands for sky, heaven, and water.
Green may also be water, but it generally means hope, the
color of spring, the renewal of life, feed for animals, and thus, food
for humans. Green also means poison, because arsenic, known in most ancient
times, is green, and so are many poisonous sulphates. In more recent times,
many poisons were manufactured in green powder form, in order to differentiate
them from flour or sugar. Green also symbolizes jealousy, and fear, both
of them deadly poisonous emotions.
Red is the color of blood; hence, it represents courage,
Black is death, the underworld, mourning, desolation.
White is purity, chastity, but it's the color of mourning
in the Far East. Isn't white as pure, or as empty as black? It's also the
color of surrender, because a piece of white on a pole could be seen from
a great distance, and could not be mistaken for any kind of flag. White
means cowardice, too, because some people surrender for no other reason
than to save themselves.
Gold or yellow means the sun, sungod, wealth. Yellow, however,
also represents envy, treachery, cowardice. A yellow flag on a ship signifies
contagious disease. In the Western world, yellow is the symbol of a certain
type of sensation seeking, destructive journalism, because the most vicious
kind of news was printed on colored (yellow) paper to incite the curiosity
of the public.
Purple is emblematic of rank and authority. It's derived
from the ancient, expensive dye prepared from the purple fish (purpura
in Latin, porphyra in Greek). Purple robes were worn by Roman emperors
and, later, by high ranking prelates of the Christian church.
Scarlet, a yellow-red hue of very high saturation, is also
a sign of dignity and high rank. Originally, it was a kind of Persian broadcloth,
used for tents and flags. The textile was often dyed this particular red
and, eventually, the name of the cloth became synonymous with the color.
Scarlet, however, is also applied in an opprobrious manner, to women of
ill repute. This association is due to Revelations XVII, 1 - 6.
Blue, scarlet, purple, and gold are the colors of the priests'
garments, as listed in Exodus.
Gray means colorless, figuratively as well as literally.
As you can see, a color is unlikely to
have one rigid meaning. actually, it may be more accurate to say that a
color has a variety of connotations - or implied meanings - which the viewer
may think of consciously or unconsciously.
Symbolical paintings are not as fashionable
today as they used to be. Still, colors have their connotations, and most
people have learnt these connotations in their childhood, just as they
learn prejudices and superstitions. A great many buildings have their fourteenth
floor right above the twelfth, because countless persons consider thirteen
an unlucky number, and would not live on the thirteenth flood, or in room
number thirteen. To many people, black is invariably the color of death.
An artist may or may not be superstitious; he may not believe in actual
meanings of colors; but he ought to consider color connotations when he
paints. The generally accepted meanings of colors often have a distinct
bearing on one's liking, or disliking a painting.
At this point I will let you mull
over what we have said, but just briefly. I expect to list another lesson
in just a day or two. I stop here because we next discuss the psychology
of color. This is a bit of a complex section and I want to give it to you
all in one setting. I sincerely hope that you are using these lessons in
your everyday painting sessions. You ARE painting every day aren't you?
The finest watercolorist I ever knew painted 10 watercolors a day, every
day. Repetition is the best formula for art.
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