Isn’t color interesting? Throughout my art career I have always been interested in using a limited palate, mainly because I trust the colors I use and have developed a systematic way to choose what colors are right for each painting. This has recently made me very interested in the way paintings can be seen differently from person to person.
I became interested in how colors are perceived in the animal kingdom, which is best explained this way; the way a species sees depends on its needs. For example, animals that don’t need to forage for a wide range of food and are nocturnal won’t need color vision, as this ability would only evolve in animals who could make use of it, for example to distinguish between good berries and poisonous ones. Having said this, some animals such as bees can perceive a wider spectrum of color than humans because they have different needs; ultraviolet patterns guide them deeper into flowers, increasing their ability to collect pollen.
A pet dog would have very little interest in looking at a two dimensional picture. However, if our domesticated friend were to look at Henri Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy from 1897, he would only be able to perceive mostly grays, blues and yellows, meaning that instead of bursting with mysterious color…
…the painting would look like this.
Because it wouldn’t contribute to the preservation of their species, animals don’t generally have an interest in looking at pictures. However, in the case of humans, our prehistoric ancestors developed complex social lives, which are thought to have evolved from needing to build stronger tribes. Phenomena like cave paintings have their roots in ritual and superstition, so our interest in the arts is seen to be a refinement of this huge change in our evolutionary development.
I would like to look at how, as humans we can be involved with the colors we see in paintings. In Byzantine icons, each color has as much traditional significance and meaning as the saints depicted. Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev painted this ‘Trinity’ sometime in the early 1400s. The blue of the central character, Jesus’ robe represents his divinity, and the brown indicates earth. Gold is intended to show the kingship of God. These codes would have been known to those viewing the painting, and would have helped a congregation to understand its meaning.
During the Italian renaissance, painters continued to use these ‘color codes’, although their work was more focused on creating pieces that were visually balanced and harmonious. For example, in Sandro Botticelli’s Madonna del Magnificat (1481), the heavenly light from above is shown as an enriching orange color, which allows the green and light blue in the background to contrast heavily with the reds in the foreground. A good way to show how important this is to our perception of depth in this painting is to show it next to a black and white reproduction.
The image on the left lacks the harmony of the color version and can appear somewhat discordant and ‘flat’. Despite them being shown closely together, Botticelli’s use of color allows us to differentiate between figures in the painting. This demonstrates how the dynamic interplay of color was used as a compositional tool in Renaissance Italy.
During this era, this notion of attaining harmony in paintings was a driving force that allowed some of the more adventurous masters to set themselves interesting challenges. I believe that this lead to an impressive and revolutionary early example of monochrome painting, namely Andrea Mantegna’s ‘The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome’, painted just before his death in 1505. The monochrome figures against the colorful background in this painting intend to emulate classical marble reliefs. Because the image is intended to be monochrome, depth is represented by the dimming of highlights in figures as they recede into the background. This painting was made in a time when the technical innovation of perspective had become very fashionable. Both Botticelli and Mantegna found their own original ways to show depth of field on a two dimensional space.
I think this shows that monochrome painting can still be emotionally powerful. There have been many examples of monochromatic painting throughout the 20th century and into the present day, becoming an important component of avant-garde visual art. The best known example is probably Yves Klein, who created his own very specific tone of blue in his works, you may even have heard of it, Klein Blue.
So what happens if you can’t distinguish between particular colors? Color blindness is a condition that affects mainly men but is thought to challenge 4.5% of people. Some people even speculate that Van Gough could have had a mild case of color blindness. Lots of color blind people find it hard to distinguish between green and red, which often makes me wonder what Henri Matisse’s ‘Harmony in Red’ (1908) must look like to them, i.e. without the outdoors contrasting with the indoors
The truth is color blind people still enjoy going to galleries and looking at paintings. I would love to go to an exhibition with someone with this condition so I could find out how seeing colors in different ways can make different paintings more or less interesting to them. Without the distraction of color, maybe they could see things that I would have missed myself!
Color blindness shouldn’t mean a visit to a gallery is in any way less fulfilling, it just means that the paintings are experienced differently. The fact that people see different things in paintings and can discuss their own interpretations is part of what makes the enjoyment of art so special.
So think about color when you’re choosing your next shirt from WearThatART, and enjoy asking people how the colors make them feel; it could be a great conversation starter.