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Lecture Notes on “Use, History, and Composition With Color – Part 1”

Paintings for Lecture

Paintings for Lecture
1.  " Times Square Bus” oil on linen, 30x 40.
2.     “Yellow Meadow” oil on linen 30x40.
3.     “Madison and 73rd and the Dog Shadow” oil on linen 12x22.
4.     “Pastel Berkshires” oil on linen 12x22.
5.     “Red Behind Green Wetland” oil on 23k gold leaf on linen 12x22.

Other Sources
 Other Sources used in Lecture:
1.Principles of Color; By Faber Birren.
2. Color and Culture; by John Gage.
3. The Pocket Guides book on Color.
4. Bright Earth; by _________.
5. Della Pittura; by Leon Battista Alberti;
6. Il Libro Dell Arte; by Cennino Cennini.
7. Da Vinci's Treatise on Painting.
8. Johannes Itten's Book on Color.
9. There were also references to works by Eastlake and Gombrich.

Section 1
1.           Cennini’s Color System in 1396.
Beginning with the Renaissance (too little time to expound on the history of color as concerns Greeks, Romans, Persians, Egyptians, Chinese etc.), in 1396 Cennini describes a system for coloring all subjects in his artist’s handbook. He stresses that coloring follows design. For example, for darker colors that can be found in the folds of  drapery, the color should be more heavily saturated or pure.  As the color moves toward the highlights, the purity of the color should be reduced and supplemented with white.  The color moves from a highlight of weak whitened tint into darker pure color.

Section 2

2.           Da Vinci and Alberti.  
 A century latter DaVinci would note that the primaries consist of yellow (earth), red (fire), blue (air) and green (water), which correlate to the 4 elements. The other two remaining colors he identified as white and black. White for light and black for darkness. Da Vinci agreed with Cennini that white could be added to color for increased light. He further agreed with Cennini that upon a light ground a pure color could be thinned and appears lighter.

  Forty years after Cennini writes his handbook,  Leon Battista Alberti finishes his treatise on painting “Della Pittura” and considers the relationship of light to dark and  complementary colors (he notes that the relationships of certain colors are more pleasing). Alberti gives his advice on coloring a painting. He emphasizes that color is subordinate to design in importance. The historic battle between the “Design” school and the “Color” school is raging now in Renaissance Florence.  Alberti recommends that the artist (a) first scribe a rectangle for his design to lie within,  (b) create the design (contour drawing only), and (c) color that design.  Alberti disagrees with Cennini on the shadow areas for color. First, he asserts that values (gradations of light and dark, black and white) take priority over color. He then recommends that for coloring the darks black may be added to the pigment to give deep shadows (as in the folds of the drapery).   Cennini feared that this would be a waste of the pure and expensive colors. 

  Da Vinci would further develop both these systems in his own amalgamated color theory. Da Vinci proposed a s’fumato (smoky, or soft blended edges) system and a chiaroscuro (light from dark) system as a part of his theory for coloring/valuing painting. He agrees with Cennini that an undertone (preferably a light to white tone) will help enrich a color, especially a glazed color. And, that a thin color applied to a smooth light surface will give appear to give off a light. The Chiaroscuro system as practiced first by DaVinci and latter by Caravaggio, the Caravaggiste and the Netherlandish tenebrists all depend upon pulling light out of the darks, concentrating the light, modeling with the light and the dark and giving the painting a feeling a volumetric space through the modeling of forms with shadow, darkness and light. The thinner or more translucent the paint and the smoother the surface the greater the range of nuanced light and dark that could be developed. Too much color would flatten the space. As a result Western European painting would rely heavily on the chiaroscuro limited palette system and create terrifically realistic sense of space, even atmospheric space. Persian artists would use a broader palette (actually the palette itself was just being developed) with strong pure colors and a flattened design space. Da Vinci noticed that light and context affected color. He, like others of his time, still held to an idea of intrinsic color, but he was suspicious and commented on colors’ variability in light. He therefore recommended that artists (for example) paint their portrait commissions in ambient soft light…to insure a constant color, with the direction of the light from the North.

Section 3

3.            Chinese Intrinsic Color.
Chinese landscape painters of the Tang and Sung Dynasties (approx 1000 years ago) believed in intrinsic color – the concept that all things had a specific color which might be lighter or darker, but a red was always a red. It would not be until Newton’s “Opticks” published at the beginning of the 1700s that we would understand that all color was the result of light. Change the light and you’ve changed the color.

Section 4

4.            Newton.
Even Newton had a difficult time digesting that something green could later be blue or yellow or…all depending on the color of the influencing light.  Newton devises the first color wheel as a consequence of the colors that are divided by the prism.   He described the colors and their complements and arranges them at first into a line then, a circle. However, it would be Morris Harris and George Field who would publish these color wheel ideas and apply the new knowledge of color and light to paint. 

Section 5

5.            Turner.
Turner would rely heavily on these two as well as Goethe’s book on color for painters (Goethe could never accept the Newtonian light/color ideas  (a good poet, a decent, but wrong scientist). Turner too, never would buy into the idea that changing the light changes the color.  Turner would stay rooted in the “Intrinsic“ school of color but he did play with color and light and atmospheric effects.  He converted solid forms into atmospheres of light and tone.

Section 6

6.            Impressionists.  
Monet would later comment that while at first he loved Turner, he later realized that Turner did not understand the ephemeral nature of color and light. The impressionists did however.  They took their cue from Michel Chevreul, who in 1836 develops a codified system of pigmented color, a 64 color color-wheel, a theory of complementary and analogous harmony and simultaneous contrast and sets the world of painting on its head.  From Ruskin to Seurat, the science and art of color would be combined and explored like never before.

Section 7

7.            Twentieth Century.
 In the early part of the twentieth century new symbolist theories (actually medieval spiritualist ideas of color) would preoccupy the new modernists like Matisse. In another camp at the Bauhaus a group of “scientific” color painters would try to determine the symbology and science of color in painting. Now we come to artist educators like Joseph Albers, Johannes Itten, Faber Birren, and Paul Klee.  They would not agree on their systems but all advanced useful insights.

Section 8

8.            Faber Barren’s “Principles of Color.
Probably the most immediately useful and smallest of the books on color by this group is Faber Barren’s “Principles of Color.   In his book is a good explanation of what Delacroix noticed from his hotel room -  the scaling of adjacent colors as a shadow moves from its light to darkest areas.  It discusses that as light moves from light to darker areas, the colors shift through what are known as adjacent colors.  Let me explain. The lightest and brightest of all colors (in terms of the sensitivity of our eye) is yellow (red registers more powerfully on the visual cortex, however, which is how the Greeks came to mistakenly think of it as the brightest color). The complement to yellow is a dark violet. This is also the after image color of yellow.  To determine the exact complement of the color you are using do not rely on a color wheel, they are overly simplistic and inaccurate; instead place a sample of the color you are using on a white sheet. Stare at that color intently for 40 or more seconds then shift your vision sideways to a clean area of white. You will see the complementary color. Whenever you wish to intensify a color simply juxtapose it against an area of its complement. Both colors will appear purer and stronger. Mix these two colors and you get a dull brownish neutral. They kill each other. But, mix them in a grid or tapestry of small touches and then, they make an optical neutral.  Seurat thought he would get more intense color and feeling this way only to discover he created serenely humming optical neutrals. The corona of a color will be its complement (see Grunewald).

Section 9

9.              Scaling Through Adjacents.
Let’s return to scaling through adjacents. If you wish to follow the light at its most intense it will be bleached and favor yellow; then as the light diminishes (here you can look at your color wheel) you see that the adjacent colors to yellow are yellow green and yellow orange to either side.   That is how the color will flow toward the dark along a path of the adjacents until you reach the darkness that is a dark violet - the opposite color to yellow.   You will notice in my painting “Yellow Meadow” that the reedy darker cornfield in the frontal area scales from dark blues and violets in its shadowed areas up to greens, reds and then oranges before it dissolves into the yellow band signifying the meadow. That is scaling through adjacents. You then may notice a violet band at the base of the tree line at the top edge of the yellow meadow. This violet band helps amplify the yellowness of the meadow. You will also notice that the yellow is getting lighter and brighter. This is not with the addition white. It because the yellow is a translucent Gamboge yellow and I simply thin it to allow it to give a greater sensation of light. No white is used in the lower part of the painting. White is only used in the distance on the distant hills and in parts of the sky.   White is used to create tints which is a color reduced with white.   Color diminishes in intensity (hue) over distance unless reinforced by a fortifying light source.   The contrast ratio of light to dark also diminishes over distance. These were observations that Da Vinci made as well.

Section 10

10.  Discussion of Effects in the Paintings.
 Certain complementary colors have a value difference that is large (yellow/violet); others have a value difference that is about equal (red/green). There several light qualities which I am exploiting in these painting examples: the reduced palette chiaroscuro painting which can be seen in the work “Madison and 73rd,” or the oil on gold leaf painting “Red behind Green Wetland.” “Madison and 73rd” uses no white, only pure transparent colors (ultramarine blue and transparent red oxide - think burnt sienna). The edges of the figures and the edges of the shadows seem to glow and offer a sense of volume. This is because they are softly blended. You do not see precisely where the edge of the road is, the edge of the shadow is; that allows you to project volume into the ambiguity created by the uncertain edge.   This is the trick of s’fumato. The chiaroscuro effect presents areas of more light as advancing and less light as retreating into space. This observation is often referred to as the heritage of Apelles, the great ancient Greek painter. Chiaroscuro depends on the tendency of light to advance and expand and dark to contract and recede. Caravaggio and Rembrandt would make their reputations based on their ability to persuasively nuance this chiaroscuro effect. Rembrandt learned that by consolidating the lights and then allowing them to subside into darkness he could create conditions of iridescence, luster, and glow.  In his skies we find luminousness created by grayed (whitened) tones/colors of equal value but complementary colors with soft blended edges. Sparkle on gold or scabbards or fabrics was made by creating dark fields which surrounded small touches of light.  The sharper and smaller the prick of light  - the more it would sparkle. And so, the twinkle in the eye was born.

Section 11

11.            Contemporary Color Use.
With the neo-impressionists from Bonnard to Wolf Kahn and, I’ll put some west coasters in here too, like Wayne Thiebaud,  we can see color used as a true design force. A field of yellow which ought to logically be in the bottom (or front) of the picture space is used as a pusher in the mid ground to push a violet territory toward the viewer.  The Dynamic space of the painting is now controlled not just by the shape of the design but by the location and intensity of color fields.  My “Red Behind Green Wetland” is a subtle example of this. The red territory in the water and top of the marsh grass would usually be found in the front of the picture space but here it is used to gently push the bulging shape of the marsh grass toward the viewer - thereby creating a more alive picture space, a moving space. And, as Da Vinci insisted: for a painting to succeed,  it must have coherent design, unified light (color) and movement.

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