By colour the first effect of the picture is produced. Reynolds
It is often said that the ability to colour well is innate, while the art of drawing must be acquired, but a retrospective study of any artist's work will prove that skill in either is a matter of development,. There is absolutely no doubt that the gift of colour is capable of cultivation. To see the colours of nature is not given to the untutored eye. I have heard men assert there is no colour in stars. An acquaintance once denied that trees half a mile away threw shadows in which blue was the predominant colour, but he detracted - we were in a boat - when a mass of sunlit foliage, considerably nearer, passed front of them, providing a standard of comparison.
Charles Moreau Vauthier tells in The Technique of Painting, of a Levantine who had had his portrait painted. He complained that the red of his fez looked dirty on one side. It was in vain that the painter explained the meaning of light and shade, and pointed out that he had given the relief and the illumination of the fez. The imperturbable Levantine seized his head-gear, twirled it round under the nose of his portrait painter, and as it turned, kept on repeating, "Red, red, red everywhere." The painter gave in, and laid upon the canvas a fine red tone, flat and unrelieved. The sitter applauded him, highly delighted; he had got the fez he wanted. The same writer quotes, and doubts, the theories of the German scholar, Hugo Magnus, who claimed that man was formerly incapable of distinguishing any but the brightest colours, that is, red and yellow, relying for proof on such literary remains as the Bible, the Homeric poems, and the hymns of the Rig-Veda. Ultimately, according the Magnus, we shall perceive colours in the spectrum now invisible.
Scientists have investigated colour phenomena, but their deductions are of little use to the artist, since they are based on abstract perfection, unrelated to pigment. Many rules for the creation of colour schemes have been published in recent years, but, while they are popular in commercial studies, I know of no creative artist who employs them. They are, per se, restrictive; their use precludes any chance of adventuring in this interesting field. Observation of natural effects, the study of accepted masterpieces of colour, and experiment, seem to me the best ways of acquiring the gift to colour well.
Ruskin deduced four laws of colour harmony that will serve to elucidate its nature. They are:
Harmony of contrasting tones - Two very distant
tones from the same scale
Harmony of analogous tones - Neighbouring tones from the same scale
Harmony of analogous hues - Tones of the same or nearly the same depth from neighbouring scales.
Harmony of contrast - Various hues selected after the law of contrasts, but one of them
predominating, as if viewed through a coloured glass or under a coloured light.
Harmony needs some relief to make it interesting,
a proper quantity of contrasting colour. Corot
created exquisite harmonies of grays and greens, and often introduced a red note, by way of contrast - a pinch of salt, as it were to savour the meat.
A mixture of the primaries, red, blue and yellow,
produces white light, therefore red complements a mixture of blue
and yellow, which is green; blue is the complementary of orange;
yellow of purple. The juxtaposition of two complementary colours,
they say, enhances the brilliance of both. Equal proportions of
the two, say the artists, may be mutually destructive. The artist
divined all this and much more without
the help of science. Leonardo wrote, "Every colour seems stronger beside its opposite than beside another akin to it - black and white - golden yellow with blue, green with red." Delacroix was much impressed with the new theories on colour relation, and once said confidently, "I can paint you the skin of Venus with mud, provided you let me surround it as I will."
It is evident that no derivative laws can teach the young student it see and apprehend colour in nature. His perception needs development as urgently as his muscles. More freedom is allowed in the expression of the colours of nature than of form. Exact reproduction is tinctured with a little manipulation, always regulated, however, by probability, perhaps a slight exaggeration of one colour or another, or modified by the introduction of adventitious colour to aid the general effect.
The ephemeral fashions of other days exemplify this. In the eighteenth century a prevailing warmth of colour was demanded in a painting. Sir George Beaumont thought that its general effect should be that of a Cremona violin, because the masterpieces of Titian and his contemporaries were warm and mellow. It is a fact that Titian used cool colours, cool greens and blues, that have since turned brown, metamorphosed by the greatest of old masters. Time and Varnish. Beaumont was a link with a remoter past, old enough to assume a didactic attitude towards Constable, whom he befriended. On one occasion he asked, "Do you not find it difficult to determine where to place your brown tree?" "Not in the least,? said Constable, "for I never put such a thing into a picture."
A vast amount of modern art contradicts Reynolds' dictum that a cold colour like blue should never predominate. Aetherial blue, cool grays and blues prevail, and the warm colours of earth sustain them, now only a foil to set off the cold purity of the others.
Cotman's colour is often conceded to be his weak point. He and many of his contemporaries often sketched in sepia, a brown pigment, and at one period he went to the extreme of strong polychrome in an effort to please the public. His green and yellow pictures have been called crude and garish but they have chromatic unity, whatever else they lack, and a degree of harmony. Girtin;s blue drawings display no effort to reproduce the colours of nature, nor are Carmichael's autumn lyrics more literal translations. Brigden and I must confess to an inclination towards realism, selective, perhaps, but viridical. The importance of colour is as nothing compared with that of form, chiaroscuro and arrangement. They are the true and enduring bases of pictorial art. Colour is as variable and evanescent in the form of pigment as in visible nature.
Cotman was a master of water-colour. It is no longer heresy to any that he was the supreme master. He did not bother a great deal about colour. He was on occasion monochromatic, and at other times gaudy, but some of his drawing that I like the best are pure brown landscapes with accounts of blue in the distances. It is the noble simplicity and the perfection of his arrangements, the rich bloom of his washes, his scintillating style, his sincerity, and that intangible quality present in all works of genius, which, for want of a better description might be called the revelation of personality, that constitutes his excellence.
In most natural scenes there is a prevailing colour, which the landscape painter must learn to identify, and which must prevail also, in a slightly exaggerated form, in his painting, for the sake of truth, harmony and unity. Frank Johnston, when sketching, invariably searches for this hue first- it is felt rather than seen - and makes a rough monochromatic drawing of the subject, using that hue only. Then he paints into it, but does not permit it to be entirely obscured. On a summer's day at the lake the colour is frequently purple, in fact, the Canadian scene often suggests to me a chromatic scheme of greens and purples, in varying values and relations. Adrian Stokes relates, in Landscape Painting, how he introduced suggestions of a prevailing colour throughout his picture, "A Winter Afternoon in Southern France", apparently as a final act.
Local colour is reflected on all surrounding
objects. It is definitely marked on the white bole of the birch,
producing an opalescent effect that is characteristic, but difficult
for the amateur to paint. In the same way blades of grass will
reflect, at a certain angle the blue or gray sky; even the red
soil is affected a canopy of foliage. In painting, whether colour
reflection is apparent or
not, every hue must echo neighbouring hues, so that homogeneity may be attained.
Brilliance is not achieved in practice by the juxtaposition of contrasting or complementary colours. A street lamp at night, for example, having a yellow character does not boast an aura of purple, as careful observation will disclose, but of a warmer hue that does not contrast so violently.
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