Colour and Theories

Colour Theory  versus  Painting Practice


What is colour? 

A simple question that is so very difficult to answer. Colour is light, colour is mood, structure, matter, elusive…..many theories  offer a range of explanations. This range of explanations are the cause of deep misunderstandings when it comes to colour as matter.
I remember vividly an incomprehensible event during drawing lessons when I was at Primary School. The teacher had told us about light, the rainbow, about colours,  their names and how to mix them to create new ones. And, a miracle, how a mixture of all the bright colours turned into white! Well, I tried hard but after an hour working my colour-pencils I never got anything other then a drab brown. And no explanation from my teacher.

Here we encounter one of the big pitfalls in the thinking about colour: colour is light but paint is matter. White light is the sum of 7 bright colours but white paint is not made by mixing these 7 colours. Nevertheless, this unworkable theory for painting is still taught at schools and universities today as an integral part of colour in art. But the artist’s colour systems and schemes are based on other principles and characteristics. On opaque versus transparent, warm versus cool, dark versus light, complemented with the interactions of various groups of colours. In western thinking known as primary and secondary colours.

Isaac Newton’s (1642-1727) prism on top of his manuscript on the properties of light.
Photo Lessing Images
Therefore, using colour as paint requires a different approach.
Firstly, the three so-called primary colours don’t exist as such. These colours offered in basic sets of paint are also not the base for mixing ‘all’ colours, as suggested. More than once I have heard a customer in an art supply shop inquire about these basic sets, whether they would provide the whole range of mixed colours. They would get the answer ‘yes’ ……………….this scenario takes me back to my fruitless struggles with the colour pencils.
A basic set like the one below is a nightmare to work with because these colours don’t work together. The only possible mixture to be made with this particular set is a rather opaque orange. Other combinations will turn out dull or brownish.
The reason is it’s lack of cool colours, which leads us to the often underestimated effect of the Temperature of Colour.
Basic paint set, with mostly warm and too opaque colours


Warm Blue and Cool Red

 Knowing the temperature of colour is an essential part in the handling of one’s palette. 


The art-historic interpretation of a colour-wheel, however, useless in painting

For anyone working with paints and inks, a workable set of primary colours contains a warm and cool variety of each colour. The colour wheel above is used on a website by a blogging art-historian explaining it’s use in painting to create perspective by using cold colours, the blues, in the back-ground. Hence it’s division in cold and warm colours. This highly popular theory is based on the misunderstanding that blue is cold and red and yellow are warm.  Anyone familiar with paint knows differently.  The vibrant warm ultramarines, the cold reds and  yellows, and warm and cool emeralds do not fit into this theoretical thinking. Ergo, this colour wheel is useless as a tool to understand the temperature of colour in paint, in matter.

Talking paint the wheel is divided  as seen below, with warm and cool (cold)  distributed in both sections. I prefer to add the neutral colours which are neither specifically warm or cool(cold), like the original cobalt blue or a regular yellow ochre.
In colour wheels like this one the broad range of natural earth-colours is absent, although they are the backbone of painting.

As well are black and white, which for a painter are not the simple two (non-)colours as generally presented, but who in itself cover a wide range from warm to cool.    


The colour-wheel as seen by painters.
To make the matter even more complicated, each colour is defined by surrounding colours. Thus a cold blue indigo seems warmer when it’s neighbour is the even colder Prussian blue. This effect is called the relative colour temperature.


  Temperature and Meaning 

Colour temperature in it’s original historic sense plays an essential part in the use of pigments and dyes throughout history.
The temperature of a colour had (and still has)  a symbolic value and played an important role in signalling the good or the evil.
As an example we can look at the temperatures of two historic blue pigments, lapis lazuli ultramarine and indigo which were both available in southern Eurasia. The first is in it’s purest form a brilliant, vibrating warm blue, the second a deep, cold night-blue. Both were associated with the powers beyond, ultramarine with the heavenly powers, indigo with those connected to the darkness of after-life and the underworld, with grieve. Each was used in this specific way to emphasize the role and meaning of the deities depicted.

Dürer’s (1471-1528) unfinished Christ and the slightly older 14th century Tibetan Buddha share the  warm blue as the symbol of divine, positive power. The Tibetan creator of the Buddha lived much closer to the source of the rare and extremely expensive lapis lazuli then Dürer, which explains why Dürer modelled Christ’s tunic first with the slightly cooler, more available and cheaper, azurite before he would finish with a glacis of lazurite, the purest ultramarine.

These two works of art show us as well that the availability of  pigments determines the possibilities of it’s creators. Uncountable are the Buddha’s and Christ’s which have to do with lesser or substitute colours and pigments. Or even completely lack colour due to the poverty of the community they were made for.

Summarizing, understanding the temperature of colours in painting is much more complicated than cutting a colour-wheel in half.      
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The Paint under our Feet


Ochre Point Soth Australia, where land meets the ocean

Standing on reds, yellows, whites, and purple by simply taking a walk, effectively walking on pigments, is a strange experience for someone like me; I was raised in Holland, a rather colourless country below sea-level, dominated by the greys of clay and clouds.
Other countries offer quite a different palette, full of flamboyant oxides in a range of hues from deep red to brilliant yellow.
Colours which are the Cradle of Art.

The colours of the earth were the first pigments handled by humans to recreate and create. Recreating the game they hunted and creating symbols which still hold their hidden meanings from us. The impressive wisents, wild horses and sheep, lions, rhinos and even elephants in the prehistoric European paintings we know today, were painted with the effective limited palette based on earth-pigments. It is a palette uniting mankind. hand stencils depicted here were found on three different continents: Europe, America and Asia. The oldest have been created around 40.000 years ago. They are evidence of the creative drive of the oldest of what we call humankind. Some may even have been made by Neanderthals, as more scientists are now willing to conclude. 
These images were all made using the same technique: by spitting a mouthful of a watery mix with red earth over the hand. The oldest form of spray-painting. 

The dominant role of red in all of them is no coincidence, and is not connected to an abundance of the pigment in the surroundings of the caves. Red was, and still is in some ways, synonymous to blood, to life. A sacred colour connecting man with ancestors and the after-life.

Blood varies in colour. Fresh blood coming directly  from the body, is a light red, bubbling with energy. Dead blood is dark, almost black, and in thin layers brown. 
Red ochres come in a richer variety of hues: from a light pink, to a full tomato red, a shy brown, and modest violet. 
The pigment-box below is a collection of ochres  (and at the right some charcoal) which I gathered on the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia, complemented with one warm Outback ochre (centre).

 Paint, the Story of Art

Despite this range of hues, the reds commonly used in prehistoric painting are of a similar tone, a strong, often bright, red earth.
Research on the reds in various caves showed they were rarely locally found, but brought in from specific, often distant deposits. Hues which must therefore have had a special, symbolic function in the palette used to decorate the caves and sacred objects. 

The tradition of selecting  pigments for their specific colour and attributing a symbolic meaning to them, is universal. In this case of red earth, the seemingly archaic tradition has survived unchanged into 21st-century Australia. 
For more then 40.000 years the Australian Aborigines have been mining ochre deposits such as those of Wilga Mia, ochres of a particularly high quality. High quality meaning a strong, brilliant red, distinctly different from the red earth covering most of the continent.  
Ochres, red and yellow, were and are a vital ingredient in Aboriginal religious practices. The higher the quality of the red earth, the greater the distance it was traded. The mining of the quarries was restricted to a small group of experts of the tribe on whose land the ochres were found.
Red earth was traded with other clans and transported over distances of more then a 1500 kilometres to serve in rituals and to be transformed into paint.

Ochre Cliffs, SA. an ancient and deserted aboriginal ochre quarry

Unfortunately the aggressive attitude of modern man’s mining companies has little respect for ancient traditions. During the last two centuries many of these prehistoric quarries have been mutilated to extract the ochres and accompanying minerals like copper and gold in large quantities for commercial and industrial purposes. 
The majority of historical pigments used by humans, share a similar history of mining and long-distance transports. With a growing demand, and loss of ancient symbolic values, the impact of mining on the environment has become, and remains, enormous. 
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