How To Judge A Picture – Color And Harmony

In looking at a picture the first question we should ask ourselves is regarding the material, or technical, features of it; is it well executed?

This is a consideration that forces itself upon us in examining any art. The musician who knows not pitch, scale, and fingering will scarcely be able to interpret Wagnerian passion; the poet who knows not grammar and rhythm will not move us to tears by flights of sublimity or depths of pathos; and the painter who knows not how to draw, model, color, and, in short, paint will never excite our emotions by dramatic effect or poetic feeling. If none of them knows the language of his art it is quite useless to inquire further what he may have to say. That which is said is undoubtedly the higher and the nobler aim of art, but it is attained only through the manner of saying ; and if our artist stammer over his alphabet how shall he tell us of great truths and beauties, or reveal to us his power of imagination ? It is necessary, then, that one who ad-dresses us should be technically skilled in order to command our attention to his ideas; and it is necessary for us that we examine this technical side of art first.

Should we begin the examination rightly it would be by taking up the skeleton, the foundation of painting—drawing ; but I am aware that you are somewhat like the art-students in the leagues and studios. You wish to get into painting at once, and handle a brush full of color before you know how to draw a line with a pencil. Good ; let us begin at the ending and work backward. Thus we will plunge into painting at once and without preliminaries.

The two leading features of painting are form and color, and, as distinguished from the other fine arts, principally color. Upon entering a public gallery this latter feature will likely be the first to catch your notice, since the eye is naturally very susceptible to color. If your art education has been neglected (and I might say that the education of the most of us who have been born in America has been neglected in that respect) you will undoubtedly look down the long rows of pictures and the gayest colored canvas there will attract your attention, very much as in the autumn woods you look about and center admiration on the most scarlet maple in sight. The fancy for things gaudy is quite characteristic of the Americans. Our immediate predecessor, the noble red man, has it strongly developed. Nothing delights the Indian soul quite so much as a frescoing of crude war-paint and a red blanket. His nature revels in anything flashy, and the same gaudy effects that please him please in a less degree those of higher intelligence. The taste is primitive, and very natural, but not at all artistic or well-founded. Natural likings give place to those of acquirement which are stronger, better, and more enduring. This is one of the differences between nature and art, and we shall have to note and emphasize many of them before we have finished with our subject; so we may as well begin by saying that nature is one thing, and art is another thing, and that if they were placed one at the North Pole and one at the South Pole they could not be further apart, and if they were both placed on the imaginary line of the Equator they could not be closer together—a seeming contradiction which we shall explain anon.

It is my purpose to point out what I deem to be false and crude in art, as well as to indicate what is good; so that the first caution I may offer regarding color is: Beware of your natural taste ; beware of bright pictures, for they are generally bad. You will understand me now not as saying that every bright picture is bad. On the contrary, some of the greatest masterpieces, especially among the Venetians and the modern Spaniards, are highly keyed in color and brilliant in effect. The caution is used only regarding the great majority of pictures, and is to be taken with its exceptions. In fact, throughout these talks al-most every thing I shall say will be subject to exceptions, and if I attempt to lay down a rule you will understand it as a general one only. I say, then, in a general way : Beware of the gaudy pictures, for they are bad. You ask if bright colors, such for instance as those of an autumnal wood, are not natural and harmonious without gaudiness, and I answer, ” Yes ; ” but there are many things in nature beneath the artist’s notice, and there are many things quite beyond his powers of realization. To the latter class belong mountain ranges, cataracts like Niagara, mountain lake views, and highly colored landscapes. The attempted portrayals end in success not once in a hundred times. The number of painters who have lived runs up into the thousands, and many of them good painters ; but you may count on your two hands those who have been ” colorists.” Titian, Tintoret, Paul Veronese, Rubens, Velasquez, Delacroix —you may add perhaps a few more, like Rembrandt, Fortuny, and Regnault, who had more the and then those trees at the right which you think ” too splashy,” and which you fancy you could paint just as well yourself, would appear precisely as you would see them in nature, if looking at the center of light, color instinct than its strong development; but the list is nearly complete. Lest you misunderstand, let me say at once that ” color ” does not mean brightness alone; and that a “colorist” is not one who deals in flaming colors with the recklessness of a crazy-quilt maker, but one who justly regards the relationship, the qualities, and the suitableness of his colors one to another, whether they be in shadow, half-tint, or bright light.

Now, to unite these features and produce color-harmony is one of the most difficult things in all painting, and just because it is difficult of accomplishment almost every youthful painter attempts it. Youth is ever ready to scale the walls of the ” brightest heaven of invention ” where age is con-tent to look in at the door. The college sophomore uses sentiment freely, the aged writer is afraid of it. For some years the young artist fancies himself a ” born colorist,” very much as your stage-struck youth imagines himself a tragedian. Nothing will answer but that both must have their day of trial, and learn wisdom by experience rather than by precept. After a time each grows weary of failure, and awakes suddenly to the conclusion that he has mistaken his calling. The one is perhaps a good draughtsman, and excels in low tones; the other discovers that he can be respectable, at least, in comedy. When the idea that he is a ” born colorist ” begins to grow mightily less in the artist’s mind he looks about him to see what those have done who are not colorists—those who have tried and failed before him. He then discovers that they continue to use colors, but not bright ones or those high in key ; he finds out that colors regarded as antagonistic to one another are less antagonistic and less conspicuous if put in in half-tint than in full light ; that ” toned-down,” ” washed-out,” and ” faded” colors are easier to harmonize than the fresher and purer ones. Instead of harmony he now begins to talk about ” tone,” and where formerly he thought to win by positive affirmation he now makes his color negative or neutral, and strives that it shall not offend. Vivid hues are things he avoids. The well-blended, low-toned Oriental rug becomes his pattern of color-harmony, and if he is a landscape painter he seldom now essays the scarlet and yellow foliage, the golden haze and deep-flushed skies of October. Failure after failure has taught him the comparative uselessness of the attempt, and so he waits a month or six weeks until overhead drift dull gray clouds, and the sunlight is white instead of gold ; until the trees are bare, and underfoot is barren ground and the grass is faded with frost and rains. Then, when nature seems shrouded in a garb of melancholy, he paints his landscape and tries to make it express the spirit of the scene before him. It is generally marked by a somberness or perhaps absence of color, and excels by virtue of other features—such as perspective, atmospheric qualities, gray tone, or poetic feeling.

You will now see why the caution regarding bright pictures was offered. They are generally the work of young painters who have yet to learn that they are not divinely gifted with an eye for color, or perhaps the work of those who never will Iearn their shortcomings in that line. Nine times out of ten, if not amateurish, they are rankly bad. The instances you may cite of Gerome’s ” Tulip Folly ” * and Vibert’s scarlet-robed cardinals are simply cases in hand to prove my assertion. Gerome is in many respects an excellent artist, and it weighs not heavily against him that he is no colorist, though his lack of self-knowledge on that point spoils many of his pictures. None of the great Florentines, Leonardo, Michael Angelo, or Raphael, knew very much about color. They were great artists, draughtsmen, poets, thinkers, but their color was crude and their painting thin and flat as compared with that of Titian, Rubens, or Velasquez. If they were faulty in color it need not be surprising to us that the Geromes, the Viberts, and the Meyer von Bremens furnish good examples of badness in this line.

Do not be led astray, then, by glare or glitter, or tawdry effects, but in the gallery of pictures follow the same good judgment you perhaps display in daily life. If we see one on the street dressed in bright stuffs, with much tinsel, ribbons, and jewelry about her, we say to ourselves that she has bad taste, or perhaps that she is ” loud ; ” but if after her appears one dressed in well-matched goods, with hat, gloves, and ornaments to correspond, the whole inconspicuous yet uniform, we talk about ” style ” and ” keeping.” By all means pass over the ” loud ” and the extravagant wherever they are met with, and center attention on the modest products of good taste. Look to the grays and browns ; the low-toned and half-tinted pictures—look at them not once only, but several times, for there is likely to be something in them that you do not see at first glance. Of course you will understand that there may be nothing whatever in them, and that they may be bad in spite of inoffensive grays and browns ; but that they are not repellent with contradictory colors is to their advantage to start with. This small picture, with its silver sky and green-sedged river, you have just passed over, is a fine example of Daubigny, than whom, in his peculiar line, a better painter never lived. There were no flaring reds nor blues nor scarlets nor purples in it, and you thought it was not much of a picture ; but now stop and look at it closer. Do you not see that the absence of high color pleases by negation, and gives you an opportunity to see other beauties ? First, it is good in tone, or possesses a uniformity of tint that is refreshing to the eye ; second, it is good in atmosphere—something you doubtless never thought could be expressed with a paint-brush ; third, it is well composed, and a landscape re-quires composition as well as a figure piece ; fourth, its “values ” are well maintained, its qualities good, and its poetic feeling excellent. These latter terms I shall explain further on.

In the same way you would be likely to pass over a gathering tempest by Courbet, simply because it is not bright, when the atmosphere may be laden with the hush of the storm, and the mutterings of the thunder may be almost heard in the heavy clouds. If you are wise you will not turn away from the gray and brown landscapes of Corot, Rousseau, Troyon, and Diaz to admire the theatrical horrors of the Dusseldorf school the gigantic mountains with pink-glowing peaks, the enormous plains with flaming sunlight darted through rolling clouds ; nor the stupendous panoramic productions of our own Hudson River-Rocky Mountain school—the bird’s-eye views of gorges, valleys, rivers, and oceans flashing with many colors. These latter may appear the more wonderful and startling at first ; but the second time you see them you will find your wonder somewhat abated; and the third time you will begin to see through the glitter to the tinsel behind them. By all means choose the quieter, more subdued pieces —those that do not rack us like a cataract, but rather soothe us with the gentle murmur of the woodland brook. They will grow and improve with acquaintanceship, and in them we shall find the true poetry of the commonplace, the most satisfactory and sympathetic of all.

The same rule of color that guides you in pictures of landscape should guide you also in marines, still-life, and figure compositions. The emerald greens of the ocean twisted and contorted into the thou-sand fantastic shapes of the maelstrom, the rolling clouds laced with the lightning’s streak, the laboring ship in the storm with flying colors, and the floating red buoy with the artist’s name upon it are not likely to make up so good a picture as the dull sky and water of some lowland or harbor where the fog rolls in by night and the smoke from a hundred factories rolls out by day.

In still-life pieces it is much the fashion among artists nowadays to paint tables, vases, bronzes, cabinets, jewels, glass—bric-a-brac, in short—and this is well enough so far as it goes, if the pieces be well painted ; but even here bright colors should not deceive you, though subjects like these are often chosen for their color alone. A dead fish painted by Vollon * may be worth more as a work of art than any dozen of the brilliant canvases of Second Empire furniture which prove so wonderfully at-tractive to many of our society women.

Again, in figures, you would better not be borne away by the gladiatorial scenes and pageants of old Rome, the flash of jeweled swords and helmets, the gorgeousness of robes, the sheen of silks and fabrics, and the heroic pose of people who are trying their best to represent characters in history. These people of Roybet, with their washed-out court velvets and dull-brown costumes, who are holding a musical concert ; t Dannat’s quartet singing in a Spanish cabaret, with but a speck of color shining here and there upon dark ground; or Munkacsy’s “Studio Interior,” with the painter sitting on a table examining, with his wife, a canvas on the easel, the whole brushed in with dull color, are likely to be much better. There is a method in all these low tones, and you would better try to find the key to it. Roybet, Dannat, and Munkacsy knew the color-gamut when the pictures I have instanced were painted—knew it very thoroughly —and their choice of half-tint was not the result of ignorance nor of chance, but of design.

Next to the low-toned pictures you should consider the ones that are marked by depth and richness of coloring, because these again are more numerous and usually of a better quality than those pitched in high keys. Draw the line of distinction sharply and clearly between raw, unrefined coloring, such as characterizes the cheap American calicoes and ginghams, and rich warm coloring, such as characterizes the silks and stuffs of the Orient. The one is flaring and devoid of taste, the other has refinement and elegance. Beware of the calico-colored pictures ! The art-world is full of them. They are produced by some of our older American artists, and may be seen by the score any spring at the National Academy of Design ; the English artists of the Holman Hunt stamp turn them out in quantity for the admiration of Royal Academy habitues; and the followers of Dusseldorf, from the pictures they paint, would seem to have been born in a brimstone atmosphere under a brick-red sun. Instead of wasting time on these crude products, look to the pictures with deep tones of color-the dark browns, greens, and maroons. This picture by Millet of the woman ” Gathering Beans ” will illustrate my meaning. The color is not conspicuous, yet what appears is of a rich, substantial quality. This is true of almost all Millet’s paintings, and in fact of the whole school known today as the Fontainebleau-Barbizon school, to which he belonged. The wood interiors of Diaz, with their luminous browns, greens, and blues ; the cattle of Troyon, with patches upon them possessed of a coloring almost as deep as mahogany ; and the marines of Dupre, with a bluish green depth in the sea and an old wine quality in the shadowed sails of the boats, will any of them exemplify richness of coloring. The pictures of Decamps and Marilhat, remarkable for a certain Oriental lusciousness illumined by warm light, are again good instances ; and in many pictures of the old masters which have been mellowed by time, especially in those of Titian and Rembrandt, the reds now glow like melted garnets and the yellows gleam pure gold.

It is worth while, then, to give more attention to low-toned, deep-toned, and rich-toned pictures than to those pitched in high keys ; yet among the latter you will very often find excellent work. And when high color is harmonious and has richness at the same time it is undoubtedly the acme of art in that respect. The work of the modern school, known as the Spanish-Roman, which includes Fortuny, Zamacois, Madrazo, Boldini, Rico, Villegas, and others, is remarkable for its high keys of color handled effectively and harmoniously. How you shall recognize the good from the bad among these pictures I cannot tell you. Harmony of color is a much-talked-about and a much-misunderstood subject, and, so far, what has been written about it is little more than the expression of individual opinion corresponding to individual like or dislike. Of course these opinions differ widely. Two people will hardly ever agree about the color of a picture, one being pleased with it and the other displeased, one thinking it harmonious, the other declaring that each tint in it quarrels with its neighbor.

The color-theories are innumerable, but there are two generally prevailing among artists, who use them quite unconsciously and doubtless think they follow only a blind artistic instinct. The first is that harmony is produced by the blending of closely related colors, such as red, orange, yellow; the second, that it is produced by the contrast of opposite or complementary colors* softened, toned down, and run together, such as green and red, yellow and blue. A very simple and practical classification of color is made by dividing it into two groups—warm and cold ; the warm colors being the reds, orange, and yellows, and the cold ones the blues, greens, and violets. You will understand the tones to be respectively warm or cold by association in our minds, and by their effect upon our senses. Thus the reds, starlets, and golds belong to a landscape of the tropics, or to the desert, while the blues and dark greens are appropriate to the colder climes. In a similar manner, the blue room of a house seems cool, and well fitted for summer weather, while the red room is quite the reverse. I believe it to be a generally accepted theory that harmony is produced by the predominance of warm colors relieved by cold ones, or cold colors relieved by warm ones. Should I venture an opinion of my own it might be quite different from this ; but theories of color, however interesting they may be in the abstract, will not help you much in the gallery, for no rule, be it ever so well founded, will be without many brilliant and startling exceptions.

There is only one true way to acquire an art-knowledge of harmony, and that is to study the works of the great colorists with a determination to understand and appreciate them. This will educate the eye (practically speaking), and teach you to note many beauties you do not see at first glance. It is said that the people of India are able to perceive three hundred different shades of color not perceptible to European eyes, and it cannot be doubted that their years of association with varied hues has trained them to this keenness of vision. The detection of beauty in color is not a thing that can be argued or learned from a book. As the handler of silks educates the sense of touch, and the musician and the poet the sense of hearing, so the artist develops the sense of sight without rule or reason, and oftentimes quite unconsciously. And if we would comprehend their arts we must study them in a not dissimilar manner. By familiarity and association with harmony we finally grow to appreciate it instinctively, and we will often note its presence in pictures where the position and the relation of colors are quite contrary to our fondest theories.

Aside from this special knowledge of experience that comes only with years, it is well enough to apply the good taste which we may display in the affairs of every-day life. That which is distasteful to the color-sense in reality should not be treated with high and lofty consideration simply because it is reproduced on canvas. Sobriety, ” good keeping,” and ” style ” are as apparent in art as in the fashion-plate, and did we study them in the former with one half the assiduity we do in the latter we should have no trouble in recognizing their presence.