The mysterious intimacy of color

An artist considers the nature of color

5 minute read
'Red Studio' Henri Matisse, 1911, Museum of Modern Art.
'Red Studio' Henri Matisse, 1911, Museum of Modern Art.

The ophthalmic technician shows me a card with a pointillist pattern in which a number can be seen. She asks me to name the number’s color — it’s a test to determine if I am color-blind. I know the expected answer is "red," but I’m not ready to answer so simply.

Looking at the colored number, I think of my neighbor’s house, the one I referred to as red, which made my neighbor look at me funny, insisting, “My house isn’t red — it’s green.” I knew it wasn’t red, but seeing his green house I can’t help but measure in the amount of red needed to mix that particular hue of green; a dab less than green. Likewise, sunny clear skies make me consider the orange responsible for creating the luminosity of those skies, reminding me of my young son’s question, “Mommy, why aren’t your skies blue?”

So I want to tell the technician that any normal-seeing person would see the number as both red and green. Or, be insulted by associating the dots with color at all. It is not color: It is tone, found in any Caravaggio or Rembrandt painting — everyone knows those painters compromised chromatic color for light and shadow.

I give the expected answer of “red,” but can’t help but wonder what conceptual rule I am following in my agreement.

What is “red”?

The Wikipedia article defines red as the color at the end of the spectrum of visible light, next to orange and opposite violet. If red is known through its association with orange and violet, how do I know them? Instead of addressing this circular problem, the article continues, stating red is described by wavelengths — thus implying I can know visible red by its invisible properties. If this were true, a blind person would have no difficulty knowing color, but Tommy Edison, who is blind, attests that color is totally meaningless to him.

Color is established only in personal experience. When conceptualized in terms of wavelengths, red as an experience is lost, which was Goethe’s complaint about the scientific interpretation of color. When actual color experience is replaced by conceptual rules or scientific assessment, aesthetics — and here, I mean the opposite of anesthetics and not aesthetics as values — is forgotten, replaced with an ideal, and the feeling becomes the unfelt.

Color theorist Johannes Itten believed developing personal subjective colors enables us to know ourselves. Perhaps, the child’s insistence on a favorite color manifests self-discovery in a declaration like “I am.” However, colors do not exist alone, even favorite ones, and the experience of color is never static. A specific hue of fire engine red changes when it is placed next to another color; red against white looks dark; but red against black looks light.

Changing colors

Not only is a color experienced differently when placed against various colors, a single hue is experienced differently through time. When I first started printmaking in color, I bought an expensive ocher and a cheaper one. Because I couldn’t tell the difference between the hues, I wondered why pay more for one, but within a couple of years I was shocked at my previous ochre blindness — there’s a radical difference in the two, perhaps not as radical as black and white, but significant.

Color is never a rule, but changing and always manifested through a relationship to who I am — personal and elusive. When looking at Matisse’s painting Red Studio, artist Marc Rothko said, “You become that color. You become totally saturated with it.” This personal relationship tends to be with particular types of hues: Drab hues have little draw power and for the most part are ignored; if someone begins to notice the color, it is because he or she finds beauty in the color for whatever reason.

Without “why”

But color is a funny phenomenon; it has that strange potential of merely existing. The German mystic Angelus Silesius could have been describing color when he spoke of the rose: “The rose is without why; it blooms because it blooms.” Color exists without “why.” I wonder if, through color, I can experience a moment where I, too, demand no justification — where I visually embrace and am embraced by color, just because. Rothko did not seek meaning in Matisse’s red but saturation into it — a state of pure being.

Of course, color is often forced into propaganda for political flags and school colors, prostituting the free nature of colors. But most flags, I suspect, were never the work of an artist. And then there is the cultural takeover of color. In our society, white is associated with weddings; blue with sadness (confusingly, to me, in its contrast to the happiness of a blue sky), and red of both love and anger.

Local color

However, most artists like Rothko pay little attention to either propaganda or cultural interpretations of color. Instead, they deal with the direct experience of color upon them personally. Examples include Philadelphia artists James Brantley, Bill Scott, Moe Brooker, Val Rossman, and many more.

'Remnants of a Life,' Diane Pieri. (Courtesy of the artist)
'Remnants of a Life,' Diane Pieri. (Courtesy of the artist)

Diane Pieri, a Philadelphia artist, brings magnetic power of color to both her public and private art. Even a visit to her website reveals her complete rapport with color. One striking piece is Remnants of a Life; small yet powerful in color and composition. It has basically three color-fields: a black border, an orange center patterned with additional color, and an intense pink band separating the black from the orange. My eyes are constantly pulled to the vibrating border between black and pink before I wander into the orange center. In the center, my eyes wander upon the different flecks of colors that mark this orange; blue, green, red, and white. Then I find myself back at the vibrating border of pink and black. It is only when I stop looking that a question emerges — what hold do these colors in this configuration have upon me and why?

But my experience with color cannot be analyzed; it leaves reason behind and in this existence outside justification, I become those colors.

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