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
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.
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.|
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 Dürer, 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.