Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Art and color

The study of color is pursued in three communities of interest: basic and applied color research, industrial applications of color, and art, and design and psychology. These three communities are not complementary, on the contrary, they are heavily intertwined. Today, I would like to take an artist's point of view.

The earliest pictorial art forms were probably of liturgical nature. The earliest reference to color — more precisely to the relations among colors — can be found in the Upanishads, which go back to the eighth century BCE. In esoteric Buddhism (Tantra, Shingon), the color palette consists of five colors, like there are five basic language sounds. The actual colors in the palette may change, possibly depending on the availability of pigments, but the number is fixed. Colors have specific esoteric meanings and thus are used depending on the intended function.

The first intertwining of the color disciplines occurred in the 15th century CE during the Renaissance, when Leonardo da Vinci first applied technology to achieve color fidelity instead of using color symbolically. He used colored pieces of glass (filters) to determine color mixtures, anticipating spectral color reproduction. He also introduced the concept of color perception, color order systems, the fact that black and white are colors (chiaroscuro), that there are three pairs of opponent colors (black–white, red–green, yellow–blue), and simultaneous contrast. Of Leonardo's works I have seen in their original, the most stunning one from a color point of view is the Last Supper at Maria delle Grazie on Corso Magenta in Milano after the recent restoration.

opponent colors

The French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, in his role of restoring the French Gobelins tapestries, rediscovered simultaneous contrast and introduced also the concepts of color theory and of visual color mixtures. His work had a huge influence on Eugène Delacroix and sparked impressionism, neo-impressionism, and orphic cubism.

Although chemists compiled influential color order systems, most notably Chevreuil (color hemisphere) and Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald, it was the painter Albert Henry Munsell whose Color Tree had the most important impact in color science, in the form of the NBS (now NIST) Munsell Renotation.

The artist who most laboured to find mathematical formulaæ modeling color æsthetics was the Belgian sculptor Georges Vantongerloo (see for example his 1935 sculpture métal: y = ax3 - bx2 + cx (construction: y = 2x3 - 13.52 + 21x)). Under the influence of De Stijl movement, he branched into painting trying to find formulæ that generate æsthetically pleasing color sequences. Vantongerloo gave up in frustration and returned to sculpture, but when I saw his Spring 1981 painting exhibition at the Kunsthaus Zürich, if found his work of an ethereal beauty. In may view, his use of color is strongly reflected in Joan Miró's work.

The last artist I want to mention is Max Bill, because he gave us the contemporary definition of abstract and concrete art, the former referring to an abstraction of nature and the latter referring to form and color standing by themselves, like in his Verdichtung zu caput mortuum. I hope to read the remainder of this topic in the comments below.