All About Color
( Originally Published 1913 )
It was mentioned in the previous chapter that artists may be divided into two classes : those who are particularly interested in the shape or form of what they see, and those who see the world as an arrangement of " colored masses." It is the latter way of seeing things that we are now going to consider.
We know that everything visible to the eye has color. When we think of a garden lawn, an im pression of green comes into our mind. Green, an artist would say, is the local color of the lawn—the general hue which distinguishes it from the paths and flower beds. There may be dandelions spotted about the grass; indeed it is a lucky lawn that is not overrun with them; yet, notwithstanding the yellow patches, the local color of the lawn is green; And this is true, although here and there the grass may appear yellow in the warm sunshine, or, where the shadows of the trees lie, may have a bluish tinge; or again, in the distance may appear to be almost gray. You see then, that when we begin to talk about color, we do not think only of the general hue or local color, but also of the changes which take place in its appearance, according as it is subject to light and shadow or is seen near or further off.
Now let us take another case. A woman, we will suppose, has a quantity of white cotton material which she proposes to dye blue. She buys some indigo, and puts it in a tub of water. Into this dye-bath she plunges the cotton, and then hangs it on a line to dry. When she has taken it down and ironed it, it presents a uniform hue of blue, its local color. But what happens when she has made it up into a dress? The local color remains the same; but the appearance is no longer of a uniform hue. In some parts the blue is paler or whiter than the local color, in other parts darker; for now the material is not spread out smoothly, the light no longer falls upon every part of it in the same way. The skirt, for example, hangs in folds; and the full light strikes directly only on the raised edges of the pleats. Into the hollow of the fold less light penetrates, and at different angles..
Just what do we mean by angle of light? We must remember that the rays of light coming from the sun, radiate or travel outward in straight lines, as the spokes of a wheel radiate from the hub; except that the spokes of light are not confined to a flat circle, but radiate in all directions from every part of the sun's orb. But to return to the wheel. Let us suppose that it is a buggy's wheel, and that the buggy is jacked up, so that we can turn the wheel easily. We will do so until one of the spokes is pointing straight down to the ground, and, to make sure that it is exactly vertical, we will suspend in front of it a string with a weight attached to its lower end. If the spoke follows exactly the direction of this plumb line, then we know that it is pointing down directly to the surface of the ground. We know, in fact, that the direction of the spoke is at right angles to the surface of the ground; or, which amounts to the same thing, we may say that the surface of the ground is at right angles to the direction of the spoke.
But what about the direction of the other spokes of the wheel? With them the plumb line will not help us. We must get a straight stick, say the handle of the stable broom. If we hold this along the direction of either of the spokes, nearest to the center one we shall find that when the handle touches the ground, it will be at a point further off from the hub, and not at a right angle to the ground but at an acute angle. If we try the same experiment with the next spoke, we may need a longer stick, for the point where it reaches the ground will be still further from the hub, and the angle of direction will be still more acute. If we follow on to the next spoke, we shall probably find that its direction, when extended, does not reach the ground. It points above it. Perhaps it hits the barn wall; and then again comes the question: does it hit the wall at a right angle or at an acute angle ? The answer to this, if you think a moment, will depend upon the position, not only of the spoke, but also of the wall. For example, the spoke may point directly at the wall, so that when you stand at the corner of the barn and run your eye along the wall, the spoke will make a right angle with the wall's vertical direction. But the wall has another direction—a horizontal one; and this may slope away from the direction of the spoke, so that if you stand in front of the wall, your stick makes with it an acute angle. Evidently under some circumstances a single direction may make with the surface of the wall both an acute and a right' angle.
By this time our experiment, which started out so simply, has become perhaps a little puzzling to follow. But I don't mind if it has; for I wish you to realise that, although this matter of direction and angles is simple in principle, it works out in a very complicated way. The more we realise this, the more we shall realise the wonderful effects of light upon color. As a beginning, let us imagine that the hub of the wheel is a center of heat, white-hot, and that the spokes are rays of light, not stationary like the woodwork but travelling outward at great speed. The shaft of light that runs straight down and strike the ground at right angles to the surface, would make the spot where it touches very bright. The second shaft, however as it reaches the ground further off from the hub will illumine the spot with less light. Moreover, since it hits an acute angle and is travelling fast, some of it will glance off the spot. It will be reflected from the surface back and forth, somewhat as a ball is tossed backwards and forwards from the hands of a group of children.
This fact of reflection and the fact that the so-called angle of reflection is the same as the angle of incidence, or, in other words, the angle at which the light falls upon the object, explains a familiar sight. Have you never seen, late in the afternoon, when the sun is above the horizon, a blaze upon a hill side, so bright that your first thought is it must be a house on fire? You saw it suddenly ; and, if you walk a few steps to the right or left, it as suddenly disappears; to reappear, however, when you resume your former position. By this time you know it is not a fire, but the reflection of the sun from some window or tin roof. The light, striking dawn upon it, glances off, and, as you happen to be in the line of its angle of reflection, strikes you full in the eyes. But move your position, so as to get out of the " line of fire," and the reflected ray passes you by without attracting your notice.
Here is another example of reflected light, which you yourself can control. Do you remember the fairy Tinker Bell, in " Peter Pan "; how she appeared as a patch of light, dancing over the walls ? Very likely when you returned from the theater you made her appear on the walls of your home. As you sat at the breakfast table you picked up a tumbler of water, or a bright bladed knife, and moved it about until it caught the light and tossed it across the room on to the wall, where you could make the fairy hover by gently shaking the glass or knife. On the other hand by changing the position of the glass or knife you could cause her to disappear; to reappear if you wished it, on another part of the wall.
Now after considering the difference between direct and reflected light, let us go back to the blue dress. We were saying, you will remember, that the skirt no longer presented an appearance of uniform hue. For the local color of the material had become affected by the way in which the light reached the folds. On the raised edges the blue appears almost white ; in the bottom of the hollows, where no light penetrates, it appears to be almost black. Meanwhile on the sloping edges of the folds there are varying degrees of lighter or darker blue, according as the material approaches nearer to the light or recedes further from it. In other words, the light strikes the surfaces of the dress at different angles; there are varieties of reflections, and some parts of the skirt are almost entirely re-moved from the action of the light.
But all this time we have been speaking of light, and yet the subject of this chapter is color. Well, the reason is, that color is light and light is color. If we were shut up in a cellar from which all light was excluded, we should see no color. Our eyes would experience no sensations of sight whatever, and, if we were left there a long time, our eyes, not being used, would probably lose their sense of sight. But, if after we had been in a cellar a little while surrounded by " thick darkness " as the old English expression is—meaning a darkness so opaque that the eye cannot penetrate it—the window shut-ter should be opened a trifle, then immediately our eyes would experience a sensation of color. The shaft of light, cutting across the darkness, would look white ; but, if it hit upon a shelf of apples, our eye would receive a sensation of green or red or yellow. If light is color, why should it seem white in one case and some other hue in another ? It is because in the whiteness of light are contained all the colors of which we are conscious. Very likely you know the experiment by which the truth of this is shown. Supposing you are still in the cellar and place in the pathway of the shaft of light a prism—that is to say, a bar of glass not round or square, but triangular—what will happen? The glass being transparent, the light will pass through it. But not in a straight line; for, as it hits one of the sloping surfaces of the prism, it will be bent out of its course ; and then, as it reaches the opposite sloping side, it will again be bent into another direction. So the light in its passage through the prism will have been twice bent out of its original direction; and, when it emerges, it will be no longer a single shaft of white light, but will appear as a broad band of many colored lights; red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet. We may call this succession, a scale of color lights. They correspond in hue and order to the bands or scale of colored lights in the rainbow, for the latter is the result of an act of nature, which on a very large scale is like our , experiment with the prism. Only nature's prism is formed by a bar of rain on which strikes a shaft of light through a slit in the thick upper clouds.
With this scale of colored lights scientists have made delicate experiments. They have analysed the colors more exactly; discovering, that is to say, the distinct degrees of color, for instance, between the red and the orange, as the one passes into the other ; and again between the orange and the yellow, the yellow and the green, and so on. Then, after discovering the succession of monochromatic tints, as they call them, by optical instruments, they have tested the power of the human eye to discriminate, or detect the difference between these various tints. Notwithstanding that the difference between the latter is so slight, they have found that the eye is sensitive to something like two million monochromatic tints. I mention it not to trouble you with figures but to stir your imagination; for such a fact should fill us with admiration not only of the marvellous qualities of light but also of the marvellous capacity of the human eye. It helps us to begin to realise the miracle of light and the immense field of study that lies open to the artist who is a colorist, to whom, that is to say, it is the color of the visible world that most appeals.
Light, then, contains within itself all colors. When light falls upon an object, for example, a leaf, the latter absorbs some of the colors of the light and throws off others. The part thrown off in the case of the leaf is what we call its color : green, or it may be greenish yellow, or a bluish green, or in autumn, crimson. Every substance has this power of absorbing some of the light and of throwing off the rest; and it is the different chemical properties of different substances that decide which of the colors of light they will absorb and which they will throw off ; or, as we say, causes them to be a certain color.
We have spoken of the human eye being sensitive to an immense variety of colors. Let us consider the meaning of sensitive. In the first place, the eye receives an impression that causes it to telegraph to the brain a record of the hue; but it means more, for the word sensitive implies a capacity to feel. In some way or other the brain receives an impression of feeling. Just how it does, I understand, is not known; but scientists tell us that these impressions of sight, while they are not quite similar to the feelings aroused by sound, have something in common. Just as some sounds give pleasure while others are disturbing, so with colors—we receive from them sensations of pain or pleasure. According to the degree of our sensitiveness to sound or color our feelings are aroused. It may be only slightly, or it may be more intensely. It is pleasant, for example, to hear the sound of the robin's note, and, as we peep out of our bedroom window to look at him, we may catch sight of the yellow or red notes of color that the tulips are beginning to make against the dark earth. They too will give us pleasure. And in both cases our pleasure may go no further than just a little enjoyment of their note of color or sound. Or, on the other hand, they may stir our imagination. We recognise their notes as the first signs of spring. Nature in her mysterious way has whispered alike to the robin and the tulip that the rigor of winter is over ; that spring is come with its birth of new life, bringing beauty and happiness in its train. And in ourselves, as we recognise the notes of spring, life leaps up with a new sense of the beauty and happiness of living. Those notes, in fact, which began by giving only simple pleasure to our ear, have stirred ideas in our minds; they have become associated in our imagination with a fuller and higher sense of life.
On the other hand, some notes of sound distress us. The unexpected discharge of a gun may strike us unpleasantly; the roar of the wind and the rain against the window fill us with melancholy; the cry of a creature in pain, even before we know whence the cry comes or the reason of it, may cut us like a knife. I mean, that sounds, quite apart from any definite thoughts that we associate with them, may hurt us. So may colors. I might illustrate this by saying that sometimes when we enter a room the color of the carpet, perhaps green with red roses as big as cabbages, and the color of the furniture, which may be of gold upholstered in blue, seem to start up and hit us a bang in the eye. But perhaps you like smart colors, so I will offer another example. Shakespeare said
She never told her love,
Shakespeare's opportunity of seeing pictures had been very limited. In fact, I am sure that he was not thinking of pictures when he described melancholy as " green and yellow." Either he had an instinctive dislike of this combination that probably he could not have explained; simply he felt it to be disagreeable; or he may have associated it in his imagination with something he had observed. Perhaps for instance, since he speaks in the next line of a " monument," he may have been thinking of the green and yellow stains on old tombstones, so that " green and yellow " suggested to him the very opposite of " damask cheek " with its rosiness of healthy life; in fact the signs of wasting and decay. Anyhow, to Shakespeare's imagination these colors represented something disagreeable. That is the point. Colors, like sounds, may excite feelings of distress or pleasure.
And, if single notes may give pleasure, how much more a number of them. It is when a number of them are combined into a composition that a harmony is produced. The musician creates a harmony of sound, the painter a harmony of color. The secret of a harmony is the relation that the separate notes of sound or color in it bear to one another.
If I try to explain this, it is not because I wish to tell you how to make a color harmony, but because I hope the explanation may help you to enjoy it. Perhaps we may get an idea of what relation means if we think of a football team. It consists of a number of individuals with separate duties. Some play forward, others half-back, quarter-back, and so on. When each member not only does his own work as well as possible but plays well into the hands of the other members, we speak of the excellence of the team work. And in nine cases out of ten it is not brilliant individual play, but fine all-round team-work that wins the game. The different members are so well related to one another, that the whole team works harmoniously.
It is similar in a harmony of colors. For perhaps you see that what I wish you to understand is not that a few bright colors make a harmony, but that it is the result of a combination. There must be team-work among the colors. They count as individual spots of color, but still more in relation to all the other colors. There may be one or more crack players—I mean predominant 1 notes of color, —but they will have colleagues or assistants-colors of the same hue but differing in degree—which will repeat or echo their effect, with variations all over the canvas. These subordinate colors and the crack ones will play in and out, backing one another up, and, as it were, passing the ball backward and forward into one another's hands; acting in such exact relation to one another, that their efforts result in a perfect harmony of effect.
But so far we have been thinking only of one team, working out its scheme of attack and defense in practice play. There is a more complicated play, namely, when the team is pitted against a rival team. So in color. An artist will introduce rivalry, or competition into his color scheme; namely, two crack notes of color that, seen by themselves, would produce a disagreeable sensation. Why does he do so ? Because he knows the value of contrast and discord; just as you know it is more fun to watch a game of football between two well-matched rival teams than the merely practice play of one of them. For now the artist is pitting one set of colors against another set; the crack players on both sides and their backers-up---the colors of different but closely related hue; and the game between them is fast and furious an interplay of likes and unlikes, of repetitions and of contrasts. The excitement of the game results from the even balance of the two rival sets of colors, swaying backward and forward over the gridiron —I mean the canvas—massing here and there, then scattering in a burst of animation—the two teams so evenly matched that their rivalry only makes the give and take of the game more brilliantly harmonious.
Such, in a way, is the harmony of color, as it appears in the pictures of a true colorist. It has a focal point of intensity whore the effect is massed, but all about it, scattered over the canvas, is the interplay of related similarities and contrasts, all of which combine into a harmonious whole.
It may help you, as it has helped me, to under-stand the combination of these numberless repetitions and contrasts of color, if I tell you of an experience of sound that I remember. I was one of a party walking in the Swiss mountains, and at a turn in the path we came upon a man, sitting with a gun across his knees.. For a small amount this mountaineer was prepared to let off his gun. We paid, he fired. There was a sharp report—a focal point of sound—then a neighboring mountain side sent back an echo, which was caught by another that sent it back, whence again it was re-echoed from another mountain peak, and so on, back and forth, until in a moment or two, the whole mountain world resounded with a wondrous roar. From a single note of sound, which made a very slight impression had grown a multiplication of slightly differing sounds. For the first echo was slightly different to the original note, and then again the echo of this echo differed slightly, so too the echo that came next and the one that followed that, and so on through a scale of slightly varying tones, that finally merged into one huge swell of throbbing sound, as of some mighty organ music—a harmony of tumult. It was a wonderful sensation, and has helped me to realise the wonder of color harmony. For an artist generally founds his color scheme upon one or two notes of color, and then by representing the echoes of these colors, as they are reflected at different angles from the various planes of surface, gradually elaborates or works out a maze of related colors that merge into a harmony.
On the other hand it is not only by painting the interplay of reflections that an artist produces a harmony of color. There is a less complicated way, represented in Japanese prints and paintings, and in the work done by some of our artists who have adopted their method. In this case the color is flat; the objects, that is to say, are not modeled by lights and darks. The form, instead of being actually represented is only suggested. Consequently there are no reflections and the colors are laid on flatly and smoothly. But they are most carefully related to one another; both in quantity and tint. The artist, for example, may use only rose and lavender and black. But his sense of color is first shown in his choice of the particular tints of rose and lavender and black, and then secondly, in his distribution of these on the white paper. Perhaps he determines to make the black his crack player. But he wishes to produce a balance of harmony of all his colors, so he carefully considers how large a space the chief spot of black shall occupy, and then what quantity of the remaining spaces shall be occupied by the rose and lavender and the white paper. Having thus worked out the ground plan of the scheme, he may elaborate it by repeating some of the black in other parts of the picture, and by introducing echoes of the rose and lavender in the large spot of black. The echoes, in this case, you observe, are not reflections, they are simply repetitions in smaller quantities of the colors of the main spots. His composition, in fact, is a pattern of main spots, and their echoes; the whole presenting a unity and harmony because the colors are in exact relation.
And when this has been done either in a simple harmony or a more elaborate one, with the true feeling of a colorist, no alteration can be made in any part of the picture without producing a discord, destroying, that is to say, the exquisite balance of the whole. I mean, that if, for instance, you were to cut off a part of the picture in order to make it fill a frame, you would destroy the harmony of the whole. For now the relation of the colors will have been disturbed. There is no longer the same balance in the quantity of each, nor do they occupy the same related position in the composition.
In a word, as we said above, the secret of color harmony is the relation of the separate colors to one another and the whole.