Pictures of the Floating World
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author.
While there are three major categories of color – hue, value (brightness or darkness), and intensity (saturation) — there are informal attributes to color that impacts how we perceive artwork that uses it. Does the color or form appear to recede in space, or sit in front? Is the color in harmony with the other colors around it, or are they discordant? Does this color remind me of something so particularly that I cannot separate it from my memory and experience? I have had experiences with color that are strikingly similar to Proust’s experience of tea and petite madeleine; a rush of memory, nostalgia, and the uncanny during the experience.
Just as oil paint changed the history of art, so did acrylic-based paint. In Emile de Anotnio’s film Painters Painting (1973) Kenneth Noland discusses the practical matter of plastic paint stopping at its own edge, unlike oil paint which leeches oil beyond its boundaries. The development of color is, like all else in visual art, inextricably linked to social, political, and economic developments of any particular culture. It seems to me that the trajectory forward, at least in the United States, is the development of pigments for industrial chemistry and production, including the color of plastics, auto paint, and printing inks. An example of this would be the recently developed Quinacridone pigments – one of the high performance industrial pigments.
Because color is about perception, there is beauty and poetry in how one person perceives it and how it can be used in visual forms. Van Gogh and Monet both made me realize a fuller experience of how I perceive color around me; Van Gogh showing me that skin looked more life like with greens, blues, and other unexpected colors while Monet made me understand the bounty of colors in something like a shadow. Cezanne, though not talked about in this episode, had a profound impact that can be best summarized by a Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in his essay Cezanne’s Doubt (including a quote from Cezanne himself):
The outline should therefore be a result of the colors if the world is to be given in its true density. For the world is a mass without gaps. a system of colors across which the receding perspective, the outlines, angles, and curves are inscribed like lines of force; the spatial structure vibrates as it is formed. ‘The outline and the colors are no longer distinct from each other. As you paint, you outline; the more the colors harmonize, the more the outline becomes precise.... When the color is at its richest, the form has reached plenitude.’ Cezanne does not try to use color to suggest the tactile sensations which would give shape and depth. These distinctions between touch and sight are unknown in primordial perception. It is only as a result of a science of the human body that we finally learn to distinguish between our senses. The lived object is not rediscovered or constructed on the basis of the contributions of the senses; rather, it presents itself to us from the start as the center from which these contributions radiate. We see the depth, the smoothness, softness, the hardness of objects; Cezanne even claimed that we see the odor. If the painter is to express the world, the arrangement of his colors must bear within this indivisible whole, or else his painting will only hint at things and will not give them in the imperious unity, the presence, unsurpassable plenitude which is for us the definition of the real. This is why each brushstroke must satisfy an infinite number of conditions.
Color, then, as phenomenon and signifier, is indeed about revelation, as the narrator states.
In Three Aspects of the Absolute (shown at the top of this post), color – and to be more specific, its limited and intentional use – speak to metaphysical and cultural profundities. This is profound, too, in its sense of both time and timelessness in a static image. Like words or phrases in a poem combining to form new meaning, static images that use color and light to form movement can be read in multiple ways, making for a great range of interpretation with difficult subjects to represent effectively.
Benjamin Gardner is an artist living and working in Des Moines, Iowa. He has exhibited his work throughout the U.S. and abroad. He is an Associate Professor of Art and Design and the Center For Humanities Research Scholar at Drake University.