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Working With Color

( Originally Published 1937 )


THE most satisfying color schemes in the arts are those which tend to approximate the natural ones to which our eyes have been accustomed for untold aeons.

Our eyes have been sensitive to color for a long time. It is thousands of generations since human eyes were crystallized in their present form. All of this time we have been gazing at patterns of natural colors; at landscapes built up of soft ochres and umbers and siennas; at brown, dried leaves and the pale bleached gold of winter grass; at the rough, irregular texture of gray bark and pale-green lichens on blunt granite boulders. Our eyes have been accommodated to the mixed vibrations of "impure" colors in the setting of which the "pure" spectrum colors of the flowers sparkle forth like the radiance of jewels.

These pure spots of color are very precious to us and bring us the most exquisite delight. But we are mistaken if we assume that because one square inch of spectrum color brings us joy, a thousand square inches will bring us heaven itself. For we are earth-born folk and could no more withstand heaven's radiance than poor Semele could the glory of Jupiter. The rainbow, which gives us the spectrum colors at their finest and purest is seen as a narrow band against a gray sky.

I suggest the following precepts:

(a) In all kinds of color work, fresco, water-color, tempera, oil, tapestry, batik, block-printed fabrics, or embroidery to have the total area of the earth colors exceed that of the spectrum colors.

(b) To rely to a greater extent upon the emotive qualities of the colors themselves; to exploit, for in-stance, the stimulating effect of red or the soothing influence of green. Also to render the things of earth with the colors of the earth, and the things of heaven with the colors of heaven (i.e., spectrum colors). I demonstrated this proposition in a mural called "The Judgment of Paris." It consisted of three panels—a long centre panel with Paris and the three goddesses. Oenone, the river nymph, the inconsolable abandoned one, was presented in the left panel modeled first in a monochrome of a powerful earthy red, then glazed with terre verte. This gave the figure a curious sense of coldness and separateness from the glowing landscape background of gold ochre, sienna, etc. with touches of cadmium orange and cerulean blue. In contrast, Helen of Troy was painted in the right panel in warm colors against a cold, unsympathetic background. Paris was modeled in a solid monochrome of sienna with a little raw umber. But each of the goddesses I painted in a pure spectrum color associated with her peculiar qualities. The pro-portion of the figure was intended to suggest, with-out other label, her character. You may remember that each of them attempted to bribe Paris. Minerva, whose specialty was wisdom, attempted to show him that wisdom was the most beautiful, and promised to make him wise above all others, if only he would award the golden apple to her as the fairest. Juno, the patroness of commerce and power, advised him that to the mighty belong the spoils, that he who commanded wealth could command wisdom and beauty too. Beauty unquestionably belonged to Venus, the goddess of love, and this unhappy male, faced with the thankless task of bestowing a distinction on one out of three females, would undoubtedly, as an honest man, have awarded the apple to her even if she had not whispered to him that he would one day wed the fairest woman in Greece. Thus, this early beauty contest was not, as is so often represented, a collection of three beautiful women competing on a basis of physical equality. It was, rather, an endeavor to compare the values of three distinct qualities; and each competed frankly on her own merits and abilities. I shall not tell you further what colors I used, lest you think me dogmatic about their associative values; neither shall I reveal the qualities of proportion which distinguished these three. Nevertheless, I believe that few, having seen the three nude figures, would mistake the identities of the goddesses they represented.

For those to whom my definitions of colors may be obscure, and for the assistance of artists unfamiliar with the chemistry of color I here append a list of colors suitable for oil, water-color or tempera painting.

EARTH COLORS (Made from natural earths)

Yellow Ochre Raw Umber Indian Red
Gold Ochre Burnt Umber Terre Verte
Raw Sienna Burnt Sienna Light or Venetian Red

These Also Go With the Earth Colors

Lamp Black or Ivory Black Oxide of Chromium (opaque)

The above colors are absolutely permanent in oil, tempera or water color and may be mixed together without harmful reaction.


Lemon Yellow (permanent only if made of barium chromate)
Aurora Yellow (the brightest permanent yellow made)
Cadmium Yellow (middle)
Chinese Vermilion or Cadmium Red
Madder Lake Ultramarine Cerulean
Blue Manganese Violet
Cobalt Blue
Cobalt Violet

These colors are also highly permanent, subject to the following reservations: Madder fades very slowly if used pure but rapidly if mixed with white or other colors or if applied as a thin glaze. Chinese vermilion darkens slowly in light. The transparent colors—madder, cobalt blue, ultramarine blue, viridoan, and aureoline tend to darken in oil if applied thickly or over a dark ground. This can be avoided by applying them more transparently over a white ground.

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