Color - Values And Subtlety
( Originally Published 1913 )
So far in our talk on color we have laid stress on three points: first, that color is light; secondly, that color is affected by light; thirdly, that the painter who is a colorist arranges color in relation to other colors, so as to produce a harmony.
The reason was, that I wished you not to think of color as paint. Paints, or as artists call them, pigments, are only the materials that man has invented to imitate the real thing. The real thing is nature's color. Pigments we will speak of later.
From early ages man has been attracted by nature's colors and has tried to imitate them in order to brighten up his own person and his surroundings. He began by smearing his own body with some form of dye or pigment, either to make himself more attractive or to strike terror into his enemies. As he became more civilised and learned to weave wool and cotton and flax, he dyed his blankets and clothing, and added gay borders and patterns to the local color. Growing more skilful in the fashioning of clay pots, and bows and arrows, and other articles of war and domestic use, he decorated them with colorel' designs. Little by little he learned how to imitate the beauty of nature's coloring. But, at first, it seems to have been the brightness of color that attracted him; just as to-day, a great many children and, for that matter, grown-ups as well, prefer gay colors. Manufacturers and merchants know this. Accordingly, to suit the taste of a great many customers who still have the primitive child-man's love of gay-colored things, they fill the markets with gaudy-colored carpets and wall-papers, and gaudily upholstered furniture, gaudy curtains, cushions and so forth. And people buy them, so that thousands of households are furnished in a way that to any one who love's nature's coloring, seems horrible. Yes, this is a strong word. But if you will believe me, not too strong to express the feelings of distress that such parlors excite in people whose taste is more civilised. They are as much distressed, as if the parlor were filled with roosters, parrots and monkeys, all crowing, and screeching and chattering together in a horrible discord of sound.
Perhaps you do not like my hinting that people who prefer these noisy colors are not yet fully civilised. You have been taught that we are living in a very civilised age, with all sorts of modem improvements that the people of the past never thought of, much less enjoyed. This of course is perfectly true. Science and mechanical inventions have made living easier; travel is cheaper, education has advanced, books are within the reach of everybody and, best of all, we have more pity for the poor, and the sick and the ;I cted, and try to make their lot less terrible. Yes, and in thousands of other ways we are more civilised. Yet, even so, we may be far from enjoying all the opportunities of civilisation that this wonderful age offers.
How many girls and boys, I wonder, who have enjoyed the benefits of a good education, when they reach the age in which they can choose for them-selves what they will read, select the best books ? I mean by the best books, those that in history, poetry, biography, travel, science, and fiction, really give us the best kind of knowledge of men and life. Are there not thousands of readers who are satisfied to read nothing else but the latest novel, no matter how trashy it may be ? Thousands, indeed, who are not bettering their minds and lives, as really civilised people should try to do ; but allowing the garden of their hearts and souls to become laid waste and barren, just as your flower garden would soon be, if you turned loose in it the poultry and the pigs.
The truth with such readers is, that, though they enjoy the blessings of civilisation, they have missed one of civilisation's finest products. They have not good taste, their taste is bad. And bad taste is like a poison. If it is allowed to remain in the system it will in time affect the whole body. None of us can make a habit of reading trash without sooner or later becoming trashy and cheap and common-place in our thoughts, conversation, choice of friends and conduct.
However, as you are reading this book, I hope it is a sign that you do not care for trashy reading. So let us get back to the subject of taste in matters of color. If one looks back over the past, there is no doubt that as people became more civilised, one of the ways in which they showed improvement was in color taste. They gradually ceased to be attracted only by the brightness of color; they began to find beauty in the relation of one color to another; to try to produce a harmony of colors.
I wonder whether, as you have been reading, it has occurred to you to think: Why does the author object to bright colors? Ile says we learn to love color by studying nature's coloring. Are there not bright colors in nature ? Is it wrong to like them?
Certainly not; nor do I object to bright colors. I am often delighted with them. But, in the first place, bright colors do not look the same in nature as they do in a parlor. Secondly, art, as we have said before, is different to nature. The artist does not imitate everything he sees in nature, but from it selects this and that to make his work of art.
Nothing in our garden makes a brighter spot than the giant poppy. Its wide and flaring crimson cup, stained with the purple of its stamens, burns like a flame. I love the brave show poppies make, ranged at intervals along the borders or massed in a clump with a setting of greenery around them. For, to prevent their brilliance overpowering the garden, they need plenty of space and abundance of contrasting colors. I cannot imagine anything more noisy and gaudy than a little yard entirely filled with them. The reason they need space is that they may be surrounded with plenty of atmosphere. It is this which makes so great a difference between effects of color out of doors and indoors. Out of doors the atmosphere acts like a veil, softening the sharpness of colors and forms and helping to draw them together into a unity of effect. It is indeed, more like a succession of veils, for between us and nearby objects is a certain amount of atmosphere; while objects further off, and still further off, and further off still, are separated from us by continually increasing quantities of atmosphere. And these planes of atmosphere, as we called them in Chapter IV, act like veils of gauze through which everything is seen. As I have said, they help to subdue the colors and draw them into relation with one another, and so suggest an effect of harmony. In a room, however, especially a small one, we can-not get far enough away from objects to permit much atmosphere to come in between. There is not so much distance to lend enchantment to the view. Consequently, though we may enjoy the beauty of a few of those poppies in a bowl on our table, we should find a carpet or curtains or sofa of the same color much too gaudy and overpowering. The effect would be much as if, while the piano was being played, someone should blow loudly on a tin horn. The noise would disturb the harmony of the music; we should shut our ears or turn the tin horn disturber out of the room. So when we enter a gaudily furnished room, we should like to shut our, eyes to the discord of color, and, if we had our way, would banish the disturbing objects to the junk-shop.
But now for the second reason why some of nature's colors, beautiful in themselves, may be less so when introduced into a room or picture. For the furnishing of a room, like the composing of a picture, should, as far as possible, be a work of art, and the artist, as you recollect, does not. imitate nature. He selects from nature. Out of her unlimited storehouse of form and color he chooses for his purpose some few effects at a time and combines them in his work of art; guided in his choice and arrangement by the principles of beauty he has discovered in nature, particularly by the principle of harmony. And in this respect he has an advantage over nature. For the light and atmosphere cannot choose the colors and objects which they help to harmonise. Even after they have done their best, there may be so many of those poppies that, while their colors are subdued and brought into some relation with the other colors, the relationship is still too distant—the difference between the two colors too wide—to produce a perfect harmony. But the artist, since he can pick and choose what he will put into his picture, is able to avoid this difficulty; just as a young couple when they start housekeeping can generally avoid having things that will disturb the harmonious arrangement of their parlor. I say "generally," for sometimes, notwithstanding their own taste, they receive from some kind but tasteless friend, the present of a piece of furniture that plays the tin-horn to all their ideas of harmony. This is a hard case. They do not wish to offend Mrs. So-and-so or Aunt Jane, and yet they do not like having to live with something offensive to their own feelings !
We have said so much about the artist working for a harmony of colors, that I ought to warn you that you will not see color harmonies in all pictures. For a great many painters are not colorists. Bouguereau, for example, was interested chiefly in form. If he represented a young girl, drawing water from a well, he painted her flesh pink ; her dress, perhaps, blue; the stone-work of the wall, gray ; the wood work of the bucket, brown; and, if there was a bush in the picture, of course, painted it green. His only purpose in choosing this color or that color was to represent the general appearances of the figure and other objects. He only saw color, never felt it. He never even saw it, as it really is; or he would hardly have painted all his girls and women the same kind of pinky or creamy china-color. In fact, color to him was quite unimportant. If he could draw the girl beautifully he was satisfied. So it is beautiful form we must look for in his pictures; the color does not count.
Then there is another kind of painter; Vibert, for example, whose pictures were popular in this country. He liked to paint a cardinal in a scarlet cassock, either in or out of doors. The scarlet makes a big bright spot in the pictures. Vibert was evidently fond of color; but in a very crude or unrefined sort of way. He had the primitive man's or child's fondness for gay or brilliant hues; and since there are many people with the same child-like instinct, he sold his pictures easily. He too, for the most part only saw color. Or, if he felt it at all, only in the very simple way of liking one color better than another. Color never stirred in him deep feelings. He never felt it as a musician feels sound. He never wove the related colors into a harmony. He was a gay painter, but not a colorist.
I wonder whether you are beginning to under-stand the difference ? What I have said may help to point the way to an understanding, but no amount of reading can make you feel the beauty of color, or enter into the feelings of an artist who is a colorist; and enjoy his work. This you can only do for yourself by using your own eyes. Nor do I mean by this that you should now and then look at a picture, or once in a while open your eyes to the beauty of nature. What I suggest is that you should get into the habit of keeping your eyes open to the beauty of the world. If you do, you will have your reward. And the more you watch out for beauty, and so train your feeling and taste, the more you will discover beauty in unexpected directions. Especially you will find that some of the most beautiful color harmonies are made up of colors, that a little while ago you would not have felt to be beautiful.
It is not difficult, for example, to enjoy the beauty of nature's coloring when the sun is shining brightly. But, because it is so easy, some painters who are same value as a certain quantity of cheese, so may a certain tint of red have the same value as a certain tint of yellow. But what is the standard by which one kind of color can be compared with another ?
The standard of value adopted by a painter, is light. The value of any color depends upon the amount of light reflected from it. Thus, if you look at a man dressed in black, you will notice that the black upon the shoulder, or the chest, or whatever part receives the greatest quantity of light, will seem less black than those parts which receive less light. And it may be only in the hollows or shaded parts that the black looks really black. Well, each one of these separate degrees of black represents to the painter a separate value of black.
Perhaps you will say—Why this is only a repetition of what was said about the painting of reflections of light and the shadows on the blue skirt! You are right. Then—why, you ask, this new term —values ? Well, it was when the modern man discovered that the painting of these reflections and shadows could be made a means of producing harmonies of color; that, indeed, harmonies could be produced out of the reflections alone, that they in-vented this new name. They had discovered a new principle of harmony, depending upon the varieties of light on color, and they gave to these varieties the new name of values. Not that the principle was really a new one. It was an old one discovered by Velasquez and at the same time by the Dutch—Vermeer among them. But about 1860 some modern artists from studying the works of these men made a new discovery of the principle.
Before discussing the importance of the rediscovery, let us turn back to the other use of that word values. If you remember, the word is used not only of the differences in degree in tint of some one color; for example, the different values of black, of green, of red and so on, but it is also used as a standard to compare a color of one hue with a color of another hue. let me remind you of that Dutch treat picnic to which everybody brought a contribution of equal value. I need not tell you that the ten cents' worth of soda crackers will make a bigger parcel than the ten cents' worth of cheese, while ten cents' worth of 's " fine chocolate " would make a very small parcel indeed. Now, colors differ in the same way. All colors throw off a certain quantity of light, but the amount varies.
You remember, we said that the cause of color was the fact, that light which is made up of all colors penetrates every object in nature; that each object absorbs a certain quantity of the color and throws off the remainder. And that this remainder is what appears to our eyes as the color of the object. But while we think of this remainder as color, do not let us forget that it is light. And, recollecting that color is light, we can understand that one color has more or less light in it than another.
I wish to make sure that you do understand this, so let us try to illustrate it. We are in the habit of estimating things by percentage. Suppose then that we think of the light of the sun as representing one hundred points. Scientists hate discovered that objects which we call yellow absorb only some twenty of these points; that, in fact, the quantity of light thrown off by what we call yellow, or in other words its value, is some eighty per cent. What we call red, however, represents some sixty per cent. of light; green, about forty per cent.
Now supposing an artist wishes to combine these colors in a Dutch picnic; if he wishes, that is to say, to combine these. colors, so that they will con-tribute equally to the whole composition of color. He will use a great deal less yellow than red, and less of either of these colors then green. The packet of green, like the crackers, will be bigger than the cheese, or red; the yellow, or chocolate, smallest of all.
Let us imagine a picture that will illustrate this. But before we do so I must remind you that what we are talking about is color harmonies, and particularly those harmonies of color in which the modern artist delights. He learned them, as I have said, from Velasquez, who was debarred from using brilliant colors, he learned them also from the old pictures of the Dutchmen, like Vermeer; lastly he learned them' from studying the pictures and prints of the Japanese. The effect of all these examples was to make him prefer subtlety to splendour.
I have already explained the meaning of subtlety and subtle. Both are derived from a Latin word which means ," finely woven "—fine spun threads of silk or linen, woven closely together into a strong but very delicate and thin fabric. So when we speak of a subtle distinction we have in mind a distinction that is very slight; as between two tints of yellow. To many eyes they will seem the same ; whereas an eye more subtly sensitive to degrees of color can distinguish the difference. We may say of such an eye, that it has a very delicate sense of sight, or subtlety of vision. Subtlety implies delicacy; and when we speak of the subtlety of an artist's color harmonies—how subtle they are—we have in mind a delicate, exquisite, refined use of color. He has not used many colors; nor obtained his effects by force of strong contrasts. On the contrary, it is by subtle relation of a few colors, by the subtle differences in their values that a harmony, distinguished by its exquisite delicacy, is produced.
Our own American artist, the late James McNeill Whistler, was one of the first of the modern artists to paint this sort of harmony. He painted four pictures of a girl in a white dress, which he after-wards entitled " Symphonies in White," numbering them one, two, three, and four, just as a musician's works are distinguished by a number. For Whistler felt that there is some similarity between the harmonies of color and those of sound notes, and tried in his pictures to produce subtle effects as musicians do. In one of this series he represents the girl in a white dress, standing on a white rug, before a white wall. The only variation from the white is afforded by her dark hair and the flesh coloring of her face and hands. These are what we may call " accents "—notes of color that stand out with prominence and decision. The rest is a symphony in. white.
He might have made his problem easier by throwing a strong light upon the figure from one side. This would have made some parts of the dress shine out with the brightness of very high lights, and would have caused the figure to cast a shadow on the wall. This would have produced a harmony of contrasts ; a bold contrast of color values, easier to paint. But 'Whistler was intent on something very subtle—a harmony of similarities. So he placed the figure in a dull light, that was evenly distributed over the rug, the figure, and the wall, with the result that the distinctions between the color values were very slight, very subtle. This means that it was difficult to make the different masses of white distinct from one another. The artist, you see, had to make it appear that the girl's white figure was nearer to us than the white wall; to make us feel that, while the wall is flat, the figure has roundness and bulk; and that, while the wall is an upright surface, the rug represents a horizontal one. Yes it was indeed a very difficult problem, because the only possible way of solving it was to render the very slight differences in the quantity of light, reflected from each and every part of the white surfaces, ac-cording to the angle at which the light reached any part, and the distance each part was from the eye of the artist. And no doubt the keen mind of Whistler was interested in the subtlety of the problem. But this was not all. His feeling as an artist was equally subtle. It delighted in the subtleties of color values.
However, he also enjoyed effects of brighter color. I have asked you to imagine this picture of Whistler's because it illustrates the first meaning of " values "—namely the different quantities of light that may be contained in one and the same color. I wish to illustrate now the other meaning of "values "—which has to do with the quantity of light contained in one color as compared with that in another color; for example, with the percentage of light contained in red as compared with that contained in blue, or green, or white, or any other color. For this purpose I have chosen the second in Whistler's series of symphonies in white: The Little White Girl. You can look at the reproduction and see for yourself that part of the color scheme, or color harmony, certainly the most important part, consists of the figure of the girl in white. You will notice how it illustrates what we have been saying about the other white girl. It is evenly lighted, there are no contrasts of extreme light and dark; the dress is a woven tissue of subtly different values of white. But in this case Whistler has treated the white dress as the theme or chief motive, as a musician would say, and has woven. around it a composition of variations. It is the variations that I wish you now particularly to notice. They may be put under two heads. First, the reflection of the girl's head in the mirror; second,' the various spots of color that surround her.
Suppose we begin with the latter. On the mantel-shelf, close to the flesh-color of the girl's hand and the white of her sleeve is a Japanese jar, decorated in white and blue, and beside it a Japanese box covered with that smooth shiny surface called lacquer, and of a scarlet color, like a geranium. Down below appear the sprays of camelias with dark green glossy leaves and white and rosy blossoms. The fan repeats these colors, but with a. difference. There is red in it, but of a different value to the red of the box and flowers; blue, but of another value than that on the vase; green, which differs in value from the leaves. Secondly, in the mirror is a repetition of the girl's head and of certain colors in the room. But the reflected head, as you can see in the reproduction, is in a lower key than the real one. The colors are lower in value; there is not so much light in them; for the mirror has absorbed some of it. You may test a mirror's appetite for light by holding your handkerchief close to it. You will see that the white of the reflection is much greyer than the handkerchief, or according to the quality of the glass, it may seem slightly blue. At any rate its value will be lower than that of the handkerchief ; just as in this picture, the reflected colors of the flesh and hair are lower in value than the actual head.
Now, looking at the picture, we note that the figure occupies about one half of the composition. It illustrates, as did The Sower, the use of a main diagonal line, though the feeling suggested by it is different. In The Sower, you will remember, the diagonal helped to give vigor and alertness to the figure; while here, on the contrary, its suggestion is one of very gracious quiet. For the slope of this diagonal is not so steep as in the other picture; nor do the directions of the arms and head present such abrupt contrasts. The left arm it is true, is nearly at right angles—itself a strong contrast; but it is so quietly laid along the mantel-shelf, which supports its weight, that there is no suggestion of effort. Meanwhile, the other arm, hanging so easily, is almost parallel to the main diagonal. The line also of the neck gently carries on the lines of the shoulders, and, as the head is slightly tilted back, its downward pressure is supported by the shoulder that rests on the shelf. The whole suggestion of the figure, in fact, is one of rest. There is no conscious bodily effort to interfere with the reverie in which the girl's mind is wrapt. She may be buried in her thoughts or she may be absorbed in the beauty of the box and vase, at which she seems to be looking. " Seems," I say, for it is difficult to be sure that she is conscious of them. Her gaze seems fixed to a far vision, as if she had begun by looking at these objects, and then, as her thoughts passed beyond them, had let the gaze of her eyes follow. She seems buried in some girlish reverie, wrapt " in maiden meditation, fancy free." To me it is a very lovely figure not because of the features of the face—opinions may differ about the face being beautiful in the ordinary sense of having beautiful features. Its beauty to me lies in its expression; in its expression of some lovely mood of a girl's spirit. And I find the figure beautiful, because all through it is the movement of the same expression. This must have been in Whistler's mind when he painted her. But he was conscious, perhaps, of another side of her nature ; that she had moods of brightness as well. At any rate he chose, to contrast with the pensive calm of the girl herself the bright animated spots of color that surround her.
These spots of color, if you examine the picture carefully, really play the part of the shadows in the chiaroscuro of old pictures. Chiaroscuro, you re-member, is the pattern of light and dark. Here the red box and the blue of the vase and the green and rose, of the camelias, yes, and even the face in the mirror, the marble shelf and fireplace—all represent the dark spots. But not dark in the old way of being shadows. They are mark as compared with the white of the dress, because their colors reflect less light than the white ; their values are lower. Thus they serve the purposes of a dark contrast and yet they themselves are very light. This, in a nut-shell, is what the new study of values, that was learnt from Velasquez and from Vermeer, and the other Dutchmen, really means. It has enabled the artist to be even more true to life in the representation of objects, and at the same time to make his color-harmonies purer, clearer and more transparent; in one word, luminous; permeated, that is to say, with a suggestion of light, that in nature permeates the atmosphere and brings all objects into an appearance of harmonious unity.
How this particular picture is helped by a contrast, not of the old fashioned dark and light, as in the Descent from the Cross but of values of color, you can see for yourself, even from the reproduction. Still more would you realize it could you see the freshness and purity and gladsomeness of the original. Contrasts are needful in the composition of a work of art they are one of the sources of its beauty. But imagine if you can, having shadows and darkness brought into contrast with this white robed figure ! How they would contradict the expression of its exquisite purity and loveliness ! As it is, the contrast of lower values does not in the least jar upon the expression; on the contrary, it gives it a greater meaning, since it suggests the atmosphere of happiness and brightness that has helped to color the beauty of the girl's spirit.