Art And Color – Part 1

IT has been for many years the teaching of the Classicists and the Academicians that the chief features of a picture is its drawing ; that either the winding line, or the straight line, or the broken line, as the exigencies of the ease require, is the one and only thing of beauty; and that other features of painting, such as color, atmosphere, light, shadow, are but after-considerations, mere decorative effects. So deeply rooted in the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris is this teaching that a saying of one of its early defenders has passed into a proverb : “Line is absolute ; color is relative.”

As a matter of fact there is no such thing in nature as line. Objects may appear in strong relief when seen against opposing backgrounds, or they may be so blended as to be almost imperceptible ; they may have a round edge, a square edge, or a flat edge,. but the supposed line is nothing more than the distinction between different colors. A human hand resting across the front of a black coat may appear to have its sharp outline, but this is because of the contrast between the coloring of the flesh and the coloring of the cloth. Still we need not push that point too far. For in the art of painting line may be said to have a real existence, and its correct drawing is certainly of importance ; but the statement that this is primary, and all other features secondary or subordinate to it, is only one of those extravagant assertions which occasionally emanate from partisan lips. It could as well be said that the human skeleton is absolute, and that the flesh, muscles, and skin, the blood that brings the glow into the cheek and the lustre into the eye —in short, the very life itself are merely ornamental nothings. Without color the whole universe would appear but the dry bones of inorganic matter, like that dead satellite the moon whirled on-ward in its passive way, airless, colorless, soundless, lifeless. Color may, indeed, be considered the symbol of life. For so associated is it in our minds with animation, virility, growth, power, that its absence means to us the presence of death. But while color gives the show of life it is perhaps little more absolute or independent than line itself. True, form may exist in a way independent of color, as in charcoal work, etching, and engraving ; and so the blue of the sky, the gray of the atmosphere, the drift of smoke and cloud, the greens of the ocean, the sheen of a silk or a rug, may be expressed with little or no line ; but in the main one is dependent upon the other, and both are necessary features of painting.

In the eyes of the painters, as distinguished from the Academic draughtsmen, color is esteemed the very highest quality a painting may possess. By it one may suggest lines, lights, shadows, perspective, and in it one may show his individuality, his sentiment, his mood or passion, his painter’s enthusiasm. In music harmony is for the present at least the final word. There is nothing beyond it. And so color-harmony is now the loftiest pitch to which the painter may attain, the consummation of his art. Good drawing is not infrequently met with among all schools, but how difficult of achievement is color-harmony may be indicated by simply reciting the names of the colorists during the last four or five centuries. From the years one might think the number would be large, but in reality among the thousands of painters who have lived and produced and died, we may count the great colorists on our fingers. They are Titian, Giorgione, Tintoretto, Paolo Veronese, Rubens, Velasquez, Delacroix, and perhaps some few others who had the color-sense–the inclination rather than the con-summation —like Rembrandt and Chardin. The small number may be accounted for perhaps on the score that there is always a paucity of genius ; but it may also argue another point, namely, that color-harmony is not yet fundamentally comprehended, and hence is exceedingly difficult to produce even by men of genius. Claims have been put forth at different times by different people who have thought they possessed its basic secret, but no one of them has yet given a satisfactory working explanation of it. The French say that though the laws of color should be studied, yet theories cannot produce the colorist ; and the colorists have all taken precious good care not to explain anything, if indeed they themselves consciously understood the working of their own faculties or instincts. Nevertheless there is some truth in the theories, and we would better glance at them a moment in passing.

For some of these color-theories we are indebted to science. It has done much toward establishing certain ground principles. It has, for instance, demonstrated that color is made apparent to the eye by waves of light in a manner analogous (in its general result at least) to that of music brought to the ear on waves of sound. The sound-waves set vibrating the delicate fibres of the auditory nerve and affect us pleasurably or otherwise as the fibres, like harp – strings, are harmoniously touched or swept by the rude hand of discord. The light-waves, as they are long or short, set vibrating the no less delicate fibres of the optic nerve, or to speak more accurately, the nervous substance of the retina whereby we see color, and produce in us the sensation of pleasure in a like manner. Whether it be a luminous wave striking the eye, or a sonorous wave striking the ear, the effect is similar though the sensory organs be different, and though sound and light themselves be different in construction.

The motive or travelling power of light is an inherent quality, and the component parts of light or light-waves have certain proportionate velocities which have been scientifically tabulated. Thus, when the light-wave is 1/39000 of an inch in length, it produces red to the eye ; when 1/41000 of an inch in length it produces orange, and as the waves de-crease in force we see yellow, green, blue, and violet on through the spectrum. It is these waves of light varying in length that produce color for us, and the different substances which we have come to regard as colored possess no color in themselves, but only the power of reflecting waves of light of certain lengths. But though colors have no actual existence outside of our eyes they practically may be said to exist and to depend upon the reflecting power of objects. When the tree dies the green of the leaf fades through loss of vitality, in the same way that the sound of the harp-string is hushed when the propelling force is removed ; or, to speak scientifically again, the light-wave which produces in us the sensation of green is destroyed by the leaf losing its power of reflection. Dulness of color is due to a loss of vitality either in the reflecting substance or in the light-wave ; brightness of color is due to a high vitality or a stimulated energy, as we shall presently note when we come to speak of complementary colors.

So far so good. This is a clever and doubtless a true explanation of the manner in which our nervous organization is effected and sensation produced; but we are still far removed from the cause of harmony. Science successfully analyzes light, motion, and sensation ; but what notes, how many, in what proportion shall they be struck to produce a physical sensation of pleasure ? We know Hamlet’s pipe is capable of discoursing most eloquent music, and we may analyze the sound of it and our own sensations of pleasure in it ; but the art of the player baffles us again. The stopping of the frets here, and the opening of them there, so that they produce melody ; the putting of a color in this place, and a color in that place, so that they produce harmony, is this governed by an unalterable scientific law, or is it simply a matter of individual feeling in the artist? M. Charles Blanc, speaking for the theory of Chevreul, says the former ; but though the law of complementary and contrasted colors has been known to artists since the days of Delacroix, yet the race of that rare manner of man known as ” the colorist “is no more plentiful on the face of the earth today than before the law’s discovery.

The substance of Chevreul’s theory as set forth by Blanc is this. White light is the union of all colors. Its decomposition or dispersion makes the different colors apparent as one or more of them are separated from the whole and reflected. Thus the rays of light falling through a glass prism are broken into the colors of the spectrum ; falling upon a Jacqueminot rose they pass into and are absorbed in the rose itself with the exception of red, which is rejected and reflected ; falling upon grass they are again all absorbed with the exception of green. A piece of coal absorbs all color and remains black or colorless ; a sheet of white paper rejects all color and therefore remains simply white, or colorless again.

There are, correctly speaking, six colors. Three of them—red, yellow, and blue—are primary or simple colors ; and three of them—green, orange, and violet —are binary or composite colors, because they can be formed by mixings of the three primary colors. Each color has what may be called its complementary opposite, or that color by union with which white may be produced. Thus green and red are complementary and seek each other because each contains the elements needed by the other to make up white. Being complementary their identities are destroyed by mixture—that is, by mixing they become white ; but, on the contrary, if placed side by side they heighten each other’s brilliancy by reflection. This is for the reason that every color will cast about it a halo or flush of its complementary color. Thus red is always bordered by a faint tinge of green, and green by a faint tinge of red. A shaft of sunlight passing through a hole in a yellow curtain will throw a light suffusion of indigo on a sheet of white paper, indigo being the complementary color of yellow, or that color which yellow needs to make up pure white. The scientific reason for the appearance of these halos of complementary color would require too much time to explain here, and besides it is not very important to us ; but you need not doubt the fact, for it has been fully demonstrated. Again, it has been demonstrated that the shadow of a color does not show the color itself but a complementary color—a fact which has given some show of scientific reason for the purple and violet shadows of the Impressionists. It is also well known that colors placed upon canvas appear to change somewhat when contrasted with other colors, through what is known as optical mixture.

Three conclusions may be drawn from this law of color contrast. First. That brilliancy is obtainable by placing colors complementary to each other side by side, because each lends to the other its favorable halo of color and thus tends to increase the brightness.

Secondly. That dulness of color is obtainable by placing uncomplementary colors side by side, because each dulls the other by casting an unfavorable halo of color. Thus yellow, if placed beside green, would throw a slight, almost imperceptible, indigo upon the green ; and the green in turn would throw a suffusion of red upon the yellow. The result upon both colors would be a loss to some extent of their resonance, their brilliancy, and their transparency.