Color is King

“The orgiastic moment is the laying on of the color.”

– Kurt Vonnegut (he says he hung out with a lot of painters…)

I’ve begun reading a new book, “Color Codes” by Charles A. Riley II. The subtitle is “Modern Theories of Color in Philosophy, Painting and Architecture, Literature, Music, and Psychology” – whew! Quite a range of topics to cover. So I’m sure this will generate a few postings in the near future…

One thing that has struck me already is the importance color has had in intellectual thought over time. For example, it turns out that many important philosophers spent a lot of time investigating color. I believe this is due to the fact that color is such a common phenomenon (everyone knows what red is … or do they?) so it provides a rich opportunity to explore a wide range of issues related to how we experience and understand the world around us.

Many books have been written on the subject of color – there was Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgement (1790), Goethe’s Theory of Colors (1801-1810), Hegel’s Aesthetics, Schopenhauer’s Theoria colorum physiologica, and Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Color (1950). That’s a lot of brain power aimed at understanding color (and other items related to aesthetics). In particular, I am impressed that Wittgenstein spent his last days working on the issue of color – he gave it that much priority.

Just to start the ball rolling, here is an interesting question to contemplate – one which as artists we face on a daily basis. Wittgenstein talks about the difficulty of matching or comparing colors since they are so dependent on their surroundings. He asks you to consider a painting cut up into small pieces, so small that each one is essentially a single color. Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle it is only when they are put together that they become the sky, or the vase or the figure. So, he asks, do the individual pieces show us the real colors of the parts of the picture? They do make up, by definition, the color elements in the painting, but we only see the real colors in the context of the entire painting.

At a practical level, as painters we all understand that colors take on different qualities in the context of other colors. We use that knowledge intentionally as we paint. But it certainly makes the effective management of color more complex. Take the number of colors we might create and then multiply exponentially to account for the subtle differences created by surrounding colors – it’s a dizzying palette!

I have a feeling that color is a somewhat slippery thing. Maybe that’s why we artists are so fascinated by it!

7 responses to “Color is King

  1. I really like the painting at the top of the post Bob! It looks like some kind of lino-cut printing process? I like the colors, the texture and the lines, very earthy. Speaking of color I wonder what i would be like to be color-blind, I wonder if any famous artist’s were color-blind?

  2. Great them again, Bob! And before I forget in the heat of my thoughts: I like your painting very much, and especially the colours! 🙂
    I did not know that Wittgenstein was bothered with colours, Perhaps because I was not myself bothered with colours as I read him (I had not started painting yet…)

    Yes, colour is a slippery thing… a powerful one! I said it to Susan in the past, I have noticed by my clients that colour is extremely important in the decision to buy a painting. It went even further: I knew, just basing on the colours, which painting who would like! And I even had a client who bought from me everything which had a lot of bright yellow in it!!! When you have understood that, this is the way to become rich as an artist!

    In colours and everywhere else too, it is extremely difficult to define or decide what is “real”. Reality itself is slippery, in the moment you believe to catch it intellectually, it runs through your neurons net, doesn’t it?
    But it is surely interesting to observe the search for reality, and as such it is a great intellectual adventure to read Wittgenstein and the other philosophers!

    I don’t know if artists generally do some colours management. Do YOU? I never think about the colours myself (except when i am trying to catch some client like the yellow addicted one!), I just use what I like at the moment. But I always start a fantasy painting with colour, not with a line or a shape. Just one colour, and then another colour follows, and then , perhaps, shapes and lines.

    I think colour is a very basic element of life, beyond rationality, and I guess this is the reason why human beings react instinctively to colour.

  3. Wittgenstein’s jigg-puzzle seems very much alike the PIXELS we can see and manipulate on the screen of a computer, in soft like Photoshop or alike…

    People are very passionate about colors (our friend swallows started a controversy on his blog, about color and design….) and no doubt it takes on us through mysterious ways…

  4. I don’t know of any well-known painters who were color blind – I googled it and came up with some hits on painters, but none very well known. I would be a challenge!

    Miki, I do try to put some intention in my color choices, I think because I am not very comfortable otherwise. I refer to a color wheel often, I must admit. When I don’t I usually end up with a muddle. I suspect you’ve painted for so long that color is second nature to you.

    There is this divide in art between line and color – Susan recently took a workshop from a very well known successful painter who felt each artist was dominant in one or the other and felt you should recognize that and play to that strength. You can’t ignore the other but it’s good to know where you stand.

    From what you say and from seeing your paintings I would guess you’d be more on the color side – do you agree? I don’t intend to put you in a box, but what do you think?

    Interestingly enough, she felt Susan was more of a “line” artist. I would guess that I am also in the line camp. I often start paintings with shapes or lines, often in black. The color comes later to complement that shapes.

    Danu, pixels is a great analogy – or more in the low-tech world the pointillist painters took advantage of color context to create the “real” colors we perceive in their paintings.

  5. I would say too that Susan is a “line” artist. And I am definitely a “colour” artist. And I think that you are a “shape” artist… you are not like Susan and you are not like me… not easy to say, really…

    And Danu? Difficult to say… I would like to know what you think, Bob, and what Susan thinks, and what Danu himself thinks.

    Hum… I am perplex now… Does that mean that men are more difficult to classify? Or is there something else than lines and colours and shapes? I think there is… there is that stuff, of which time and movement is done…

  6. I don’t believe in that “divide”, bob. I think an art work – a painting in our case – is such an intrinsec thing, so intermengled (?), interwined (color and line and texture etc) that you CANNOT separate them. Just as well you cannot take the anima of a person without killing it…

    So, I can understand Miki’s perplexity and the difficulty of “dividing” a person in either a line artist or a color artist… Sure, one can have dominants…in one work you are more of a line person, in another more of a color one…

    Yesterday I was a public amuser (caricaturist – cartoonist) in a neighborhood party and I’ll be damned if I could chose what kind of an artist I was… A lot of expression through lines but the color was occasionally quite strong (see on my blog samples)…

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