Art And Color – Part 2

Thirdly. That an optical mixture may be obtained by the employment of complementary colors. If we look at a red spot for a few moments, and then shift the sight to white paper we shall see a faint green disk appear. Applying this fact to landscape a painter wishing in a shadow a faint tinge of green might, by the use of red in the object, create the appearance of green in the shadow.

Here again we have a valuable scientific demonstration of the manner in which the brightness, the dulness, the partial destruction, or the mixture of colors is produced ; and yet we are not nearer to the cause of harmony. :Brightness is no nearer to it than dulness, and both of them were known to the ancients centuries ago. Rubens revelled in prismatic brilliancy, but was he more of a colorist than Velasquez with his broken reds and silver grays ? Delacroix had a considerable knowledge of optical mixture and made practical application of it, but as a colorist he falls short of Paolo Veronese, who probably knew nothing about it. Science would seem to have beaten about the bush because lacking in power to go directly into it. It tells us how. we are affected, how colors are mixed, augmented, or dulled, how they live, die, and travel ; it has also builded some theories founded upon the constants of color, purity, luminosity, hue, and their uses ; but it does not tell us precisely what is harmony, nor analyze the motive of the colorist in his placing of hues. Perhaps it is more the affair of art than of science to tell us this, yet should the same question be asked of the painters their answers would be even more indefinite than those of the color-theorists. For they, too, are in ignorance of any positive law or formula for its production. They follow certain practices taught in the studios, but these may or may not produce the desired results only as the practiser has, or has not, the color-instinct. Much depends upon the temperament of the artist—in fact almost everything. The subjective element—the genius of the individual, working unconsciously, perhaps—must never be lost sight of for a moment.

It is a quality of art that makes a law unto itself. Homer’s poetry may form rules of Greek prosody ; but all the Greek prosody in the world would not make Homeric poetry. The works of the great colorists furnish chromatic teaching for the guidance of their imitators, but the observance of the teachings does not make the imitators great, though it may greatly improve their talents.

The most common of all the studio teachings is based upon the division of the colors into warm tones and cool tones; the warm ones being the reds, oranges, and yellows ; the cool ones the blues, greens, and violets. They are regarded as warm or cool as they approach or depart from the color of fire or sunlight, because of the sentiment or feeling they convey, and because of the effect they produce upon us. Thus white clouds, purple or snow-clad mountain peaks, and dark-green foliage give us the feeling of a Scandinavian landscape because they reflect the coloring of a cold clime. Yellow sands, heated air, heavy shadows, and warm skies bring us upon the desert, because they reflect the coloring of Sahara. So again a summer sky affects us with a sense of coolness or warmth as it is blue or flushed with yellow ; and, in a similar manner, the blue-greens of the ocean speak to us of cold and storm, while the opalescent tints reflective of the sky, intimate warmth and calm.

In painting, the relief of warm colors by cool ones, or vice versa, has been the practice more or less of all the painters, and is to this day. Some artists, following Correggio, build a picture in circles, making the centre warm and the surroundings cool ; while others, following some of the Florentines, reverse this plan of action by making the centre cool and the surroundings warm. Some intermix warm and cool tones in the body of the work, as did the Venetians ; and some place them side by side, as did Rubens. The manner is a matter of individual taste and cannot be reduced to rule. The effect of this intermixture, and contrast of warm and cool tones can scarcely be called a color-harmony, but rather an agreeable sensation arising from the moderation of the temperature of the picture, so to speak. The extremes are avoided, or rather they balance one another, and we are neither chilled with cold nor irritated with heat. This is, however, more of a negative than a positive quality, and is not sufficient of itself to account for harmony.

Next to the relief of warm colors by cool ones comes the practice of contrast, or the placing of primary or complementary colors by the side of their opposites. The Italians, down to the time of the great Venetians, used the opposition of primary colors, such as red and blue, so continuously that today a Renaissance picture with one saint wearing a blue robe and another saint wearing a red robe may be set down with considerable accuracy as of Italian origin. The simplicity of this coloring, Sir Joshua Reynolds maintains, comported well with the biblical themes the Italians painted, because it gave dignity and severity to the characters. The contrast, though harsh, was exhilarating, stirring as the blast of a trumpet, and appropriate to the subjects depicted as are the quick sharp notes of martial music to the marching host. But there is some doubt if they employed the primary colors with that aim solely in view. Sir Joshua, like a Shakespeare-Browning editor, credits his subject with a full quota of ideas, and then puts his own ingenuity into the bargain. It is quite as probable that the Florentines knew no other color-method, for these same primary tones appear in almost all of the early Italian and Renaissance pictures without much regard to the subjects chosen. In the attempt to avoid monotony a contrast was produced little short of a discord. To be sure the pictures do not appear violent to-day, owing to the mellowing effect that disintegrating time and many coats of varnish have had upon them, yet they are not now remarkable pieces of color-harmony, however excellent they may be in line and composition.

The Bolognese painters—the Carracci, Guido, and others—made the discord less apparent by sometimes washing out the primary colors, or breaking them into lower tints, the effect being that the jar of sudden transition was partially removed but harmony not yet attained. In modern times the revivers of Florentine methods, like Ingres and his following in France, and the Pre-Raphaelites in England, have only succeeded in reproducing, phonograph-like, the same shrill tones. Harmony by contrast of the primary colors, with some notable exceptions, cannot be accounted a success by the experience of either the past or the present. Such a color-scheme is too palpable, too crude, too violent ; it lacks cunning in its design, depth in its sentiment, refinement in its feeling. There is a certain rhythm or flow of color, as there is of line, which the free use of primary colors abruptly checks ; the eye feels the interruption and recoils from it as from a sudden shock.

The contrast of complementary colors in its use has been attended with more pleasing results than that of the primary colors. Orange placed beside blue appears not out of place, nor red beside green. They move together, each borrowing from the other some of its light and beauty. Delacroix, well versed in complementary colors and their play, used them perhaps more effectively than any other painter of his time ; and today the French and Spanish painters are fond of them for the production of brilliancy. MI painters affect them somewhat. Even those who paint gray skies and early spring landscapes will occasionally put a blue-frocked man in a picture to tone down its greens, or a redshawled woman to brighten them. Where bright hues are sought the contrasts are sometimes made very strong. An Arab dancer, for instance, may be robed in orange and blue, or a woman on a green side-hill may be dressed in red, or have over her head a scarlet parasol. The effect of vividness is certainly obtained in this way, and there is undoubtedly some harmony about it arising from the affinities of the opposed tones.

Generally speaking the contrast of the primary colors is too violent ; that of complementary colors, while equally vivid, is a closer approach to harmony for the reason I have just given, but does not yet fairly strike the mark. Now, if we do away with contrast altogether as the chief color-aim, and examine the accord of similar or closely related colors, we shall, I think, be nearer an understanding of harmony, though we shall not wholly account for it by any process of reasoning or logical theory. Color appears at the best advantage when treated in a manner analogous to that in which light and shade are dealt with. A portrait which shows the shadow under the eyebrow dull black or brown, and the light on the nose pure white, is “forced,” and quite intolerable, except in the hands of a Rembrandt. The change should be gradual, and neither dark nor light used in extreme measure. So the transition from the pink of the cheek to the ivory-yellow of the throat should be by stages of progression, not abruptly or violently. This gradation by very delicate, at times imperceptible transitions, is characteristic of all nature. There are few sharp breaks or changes in landscape, but rather a gradual mingling, a blending of all colors into one harmonious tone. The green of a tree seen against a blue sky appears to be a harsh contrast of opposed colors ; but the light through the branches of the tree changes the green to a shade of gray, the atmosphere helps the graying-down process, until, between the two, we have not a green but a greenish-gray ; or, if there be sunlight, a greenish-yellow, either of which colors makes an agreeable transition to blue. And for a more delicate gradation of color consider the petal of a rose with its imperceptible blendings, or the flush of an evening sky leading upward toward the zenith, or the eastern sky at sun-set. This succession of tints following each other so rhythmically is one of the most charming beauties of nature, appearing not in the countless shades and tones of landscape alone, but in all things of visible life. Nothing is too small or too insignificant to have its gradations and changes of colors, and the more delicate they are the less likely we are to see them. The opal in a ring kindles, flames, and color-fuses as we turn it ; but the unnoticed pebble at our foot, the scales of a fish, the coat of a tiger, or the cheek of a child will change and shift, blend and intermingle in a no less wonderful and beautiful way.