Art And Color – Part 3

In painting it is not at all necessary that the whole register of color from red to violet should be travelled through in the attempt to gain a harmonious result. The accord of similar tints may be sufficient, provided each tint holds its proper place in the scale. By ” proper place” is meant not the position of colors as they stretch across or up and down the canvas, but as they recede in the background. This involves what is known in studio parlance as “value,” the meaning of which I shall endeavor to explain more fully hereafter. It is sufficient for the present to say that the faithful maintenance of values requires that every shade or color in a picture shall be placed as it would appear in nature, and shall hold its proper relationship in the scale of light or dark to other shades or colors. Fromentin, himself a painter and a high authority, has said that the whole art of the colorist lies in this knowledge, and in employing the exact relation of values in tones.” At the present time value to some painters has come to mean, primarily, the slight difference in light pitch between similar tints or tones, as, for instance, the difference in whites between a white handkerchief and the white snow upon which it may be lying, between a gray house and a gray sky, a pink flower and a pink dress, a green tree and a green hillside seen at slightly varying distances. The bringing out of these delicate tones of color by giving them their just value in light or dark is considered by the best modern artists to be the great secret of color-harmony. Alfred Stevens, who as a painter has a refined color-sense, says : ” The painter who does not know how to ` detach’ a lemon on a Japanese plate is not a delicate colorist.” Here we have the problem of values again—the giving of the relative importance to the coloring of both the plate and the lemon which shall place them in proper relationship— and here is the problem of color-harmony by gradations of similar tones, the solution of which Stevens seems to think the manner in which delicate coloring is obtained.

We have now before us the principal methods of handling color employed by the painters, the relief of warm colors by cool, or vice versa, the contrasts of primary and complementary colors, the blending of similar tones and colors by gradation and values ; yet we are still somewhat in the dark as to what is harmony and how it is produced. Perhaps the blending of colors by gradation and values, of which I have just spoken, produces the nearest approach to a sought-for effect which when seen we recognize as harmony. At least we would better so consider it. In the meantime, while we are unable to solve the entire problem, we shall not go astray if we class the colorist with the poet as a person born and not made. And harmony we must regard as a pictorial poetry, the product of a special faculty or individual feeling, a something which cannot be brought to book nor ruled into method. For our practical use in trying to judge of harmonious coloring in pictures, perhaps we should pay less heed to theories than to our senses and our taste.

Man has two kinds of taste, a natural taste and an acquired taste. In a state of barbarism the natural —the physical—man outbalances the mental, rejoicing in the strong, the violent, the unrefined. He knows neither delicacy nor grace, neither tenderness nor sympathy. Animal force, limited skill, crude instincts are his chief possessions. In the civilized state all this is changed. The mental man out balances the physical, and education eradicates the natural taste in favor of an acquired one, which is stronger and more suitable to cultivated life. The mind under training becomes tempered like a Toledo blade, it has fineness, keenness, subtlety ; the trained taste is but a reflection of the mind and requires skill as well as force, and depth as well as height. Thus it is that in a matter of color our Western Indian rejoices in crude ochres, flaring reds, and poisonous greens; decorates his implements of the chase, his moccasins, his leggings, his tent-skins with these colors ; and when he goes on the war-path stimulates his courage by applying to his person an extra quantity of them. The old civilization of the Eastern Indians shows quite the reverse of all this. With it delicacy of shade and richness of hue predominate, primitive colors are seldom used, and broken tones are so placed that they do not jar, but blend like the bleached foliage of late autumn or the delicate harmonies of a summer sea.

We would do well to take a lesson from the Orientals in this matter, for they teach us what is undoubtedly true, that there is a difference between color and colors, and that good color does not exist in brightness, sharpness, and contrast alone, but appears more frequently in mellowness, richness, and accordance. It is not the upper treble that pleases the cultivated taste so often as the lower notes. Yet the startling beauty which bright color possesses when well handled, as in some of Rubens’s pictures, is undoubtedly a very high type of art, and naturally it is one much affected by young artists. The inference of many of them is, perhaps, somewhat like our own, namely, that color means bright color, and the brighter it is the nearer is the painter approached to a colorist. As a result we find the modern art world abounding with canvases checked and counter-checked by contrasts, and so discordant with flaring hues as to give a well-trained eye a temporary attack of ophthalmia or strabismus. Doubtless the producers of these canvases try as best they know how to follow the Fromentin formula of choosing colors beautiful in themselves and arranging them in appropriate and beautiful combinations ; but, unfortunately, they do not know the beautiful in color, and, judging from the manner in which their pictures are admired, one might say that we know even less about it than the artists.

Now when there is a very small percentage of the world of painters made up of colorists in high keys, perhaps the wisest thing we can do in looking at pictures is not to spend our time in searching for examples of these exceptional men. Rather should we try to get some enjoyment out of those pictures which deal with a less florid and a less ambitious color-gamut. We shall not make a mistake if, as a general rule, we give our attention to low-toned pictures, or even those that are almost monotone, to the neglect of those which are vividly set forth. Our gain will be in more ways than one.

First. The low-toned pictures with few colors may be simpler and broader in color-composition, and simplicity and breadth serve a purpose in aiding comprehension by directness.

Secondly. Their color is never irritatingly conspicuous, nor are they solely dependent upon it for success.

Thirdly. A certain percentage of very good painters use only dull and faded hues for the very reason that they are not conspicuous, and because they lend to the portrayal of other beauties, such as atmosphere, light, shadow, and their kind.

By choosing first low-keyed pictures and pictures simple in color-composition, we . shall not only rid ourselves of a great many crazy-quilt affairs, but among them we shall be more likely to find good pieces of work than among those of brighter and more variegated hues. To be sure, the successful management of high diversified color evidences a wider scope, a more masterful command, and hence a more complete beauty than may perhaps be found in the lower notes ; but we would be in error did we infer that all beauty lies in the upper scales and that the lower notes are simply negative. The red rose may be thought the most perfect of flowers, but is the pale violet less beautiful in consequence there-of ? The crimsons and golds of sunset flame and glow with brilliant splendor, but turn about and see if the pearly grays of the eastern sky have not their color-charm as well. Among the Gobelins it is not the brightly colored but the low-toned, pale-keyed tapestries which are the most sought after, and there is a method, not a fashion, in the preference. It is the charm of accord—the unity of color—that pleases. And so in the dull clouds hanging over the Jersey marshes in November, in the volumes of silvery smoke thrown up from factory chimneys and loco-motives, in the reflected grays of the pools and the creeks, the faded yellows and browns of the rushes, there is a wealth of color-beauty which only the trained eye can appreciate. Such a scene may have infinitely more refinement about it than the scar-let foliage and blue sky of an October noon-day. Sunlight colors, and it may also discolor by too great an intensity. There is often more charm in twilight than in sunlight, and more beauty in storms than in fair skies. Witness the heavy lowering days of spring that hang over the North Atlantic like a veil, the trooping clouds, the swirling rains, the whitened foam, the cobalt blues and emerald greens of the waves. Such a scene does not perhaps appeal to us so powerfully at first as that vivid sunset on the rim of the iridescent plane of water, the sun itself sinking into the depths like a great wheel of fire ; but its very sombreness may be its charm and its sullen mood a note of power.

The chief reason, however, why we should first look to low-keyed pictures is not that they are, by themselves considered, better or worse than high-keyed pictures ; but that in proportion we are likely to find more good work among the former than among the latter. It need hardly be said that every picture painted in low colors is not, in consequence thereof, a masterpiece of art. Worthless pictures may be painted in grays as readily as in starlets ; but, as I have intimated, the low colors have an advantage over the high ones in that they are not. so pretentious, and therefore, not so flagrantly offensive in failure. Bad grammar in a dialect may be irritating enough, but bad grammar in a court language like the French is quite unbearable.

Again, it is hardly necessary to infer that every bright picture, is in consequence of its brightness, a bad picture. On the contrary, the Venetians, not to mention Rubens, were famous for their high keys. But it will be readily understood, I fancy, that their works belong among the exceptionally good, and we are not now considering the few but the many. If red and blue in their primary intensities are quarrelling hues—and they do quarrel in many pictures by the old masters—it is apparent that they will be less antagonistic if their intensities be reduced. Pale blues and reds placed side by side will not jar so violently as bright tones of the same colors, and dull tones like brown and gray will not jar at all.