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Color In Art And Decoration

( Originally Published Early 1900's )


Within the last half-century, the art of painting has been almost revolutionized; and here again we have to attribute the result to a change in the method of producing effects in color. The older painters, as a rule, mixed their hues before placing them on the canvas, and put them there exactly as they wished to have them appear when seen from a distance. But, according to the most modern method (suggested first by Velasquez), colors, so far as feasible, are brought into proximity on the canvas in such ways that, although not mixed there, they shall, when seen from a distance, mix in the eye. This is the way in which the color effects of nature are usually produced; and, as applied in many cases renders the art-product much more satisfactory, suggesting that the elements entering into a scene, like those of leaves and grasses, are separated from one another, and thus conveying impressions of transparency and atmosphere which were impossible according to the older method. The general effect . . with the attendant impressions of transparency ...and of infinity of gradations seems to be accepted as a crucial test of excellence in modern painting.

It is safe to say that the Fontainebleau-Barbizon and the Spanish Roman schools, which have been chiefly instrumental in introducing these new methods, have changed the whole character of much of the contemporary art in other countries, and of about all of the best painting in our own. Proportion and Harmony of Line and Color, XVII.


There are two methods of using color, one having to do with imitating it so as to represent it as we find it in certain agreeable or beautiful appearances of nature; the other with applying or arranging it, irrespective of anything but the general principles in accordance with which it appears to be agreeable or beautiful. As painting gives us pictures of the forms of nature, and architecture does not, it is natural to suppose that the first of these methods is, or should be, used mainly in the former art, and the second mainly in the latter, i. e., in the decoration of the interiors or exteriors of buildings. This natural supposition it would be well if some of our modern painters would ponder. When they imagine that they can use color merely "for its own sake" they are on ground almost, though not quite, as dangerous—owing to the far more subtle requirements of color when used in any circumstances whatever—as are poets who imagine that they can use rhyme, or any other element of sound, merely "for its own sake." The primary object of both painting and poetry is to represent certain effects that are, or that may be supposed to be, in nature; and the moment that this primary object is forgotten the artist or author has crossed the boundaries of his own art, and must compete with the decorators or musicians, in circumstances where imitative limitations by which they are not hampered will materially interfere with his success. Proportion and Harmony of Line and Color, XVII.

Just as arrangements of sound in verse are satisfactory in the degree in which they fulfil such laws of harmony as apply to music, so arrangements of colors in pictures are satisfactory in the degree in which they fulfil such laws of harmony as apply to decoration. Although the painter of pictures does not use color merely for its own sake, he ought nevertheless to use it in such a way as to cause it, for its own sake, to be a source of interest and pleasure.—Idem, XXIII.

In music, it is absolutely essential that all the tones sounded simultaneously as in chords, or in immediate succession, should fulfil certain physical and physiological requirements. If they do not, all the other art-methods, however scrupulously applied, cannot secure harmony. That the same is true with reference to the colors used side by side or one after another in the order of space is a fact which, even if not confirmed by our own observation, the investigations of science have placed beyond dispute. Idem, XXII.


A spectrum, which, when thrown upon green pigment, shows only a green color, if thrown upon the green of foliage shows tints both of red and yellow. Or if the trees be examined through a red glass, it has been observed that in the degree in which the glass transmits only the red rays the leaves are red, although the blue sky above them, as also green fabrics and pigments about them, appear black. The conclusion is inevitable that the coloring matter of foliage, which is called chlorophyl, contains, besides green, other and warmer colors. Of course, for one who knows this, the suggestion of the tints of red and yellow, in the green about him, will greatly augment his interest in natural scenery. Nor does it require more than a slight degree of effort to enable him actually to perceive these. In coloring, as in everything, men come to see what they try to see. What but persistence in scrutinizing and criticising their neighbors' attire makes the color-sense in women so much stronger than in men? As shown in Chapters XII. to XIV. of "Art in Theory," beauty, even as recognized by the senses, depends largely upon effects produced upon the mind. The truth underlying such injunctions as "Seek ye first the kingdom, " "The kingdom is within you," and "Except a man be born from above he cannot see the kingdom," is of universal applicability. Those who strive to enter into the realm of coloring will find capabilities within themselves which, if properly used, will introduce into their field of vision an infinite variety of tints and shades which, so far as concerns the effect upon the senses, transcend in beauty those which the ordinary man perceives, in a degree akin to that in which the new earth pictured in the Apocalypse transcends the old earth of ordinary experience. It is only the man, too, who is able to perceive these colors in nature, by whom they can be fully recognized as representing truth when they are placed upon the canvas of the painter. Yet here they are essential. That indescribable effect of vitality which characterizes the grasses and grains of some landscapes is owing largely to the presence in them of these red and yellow tints. It is these that make of the dead green a "living green," just as surely as the same tints, were they used, would give to the picture of a corpse the glow and warmth of life.—Idem, XVIII.


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