01 February 2019
Dr Great Art Episode 46: Color in Art
The New Dr Great Art Podcast. Episode 46: Color in Art. Some scattered reflections on the complex role of color in art including several things that bother me regularly in purportedly theoretical discussions of it. Color is wonderful, and necessary, but it is a happily difficult entity for theory.
#arthistory #color #drgreatart
Dr Great Art Podcast 46
Color in Art
Hi this is Mark Staff Brandl, with the 46th "Dr Great Art" brief podcast.
This episode's artecdote is some scattered reflections on the complex role of Color in Art
Several things bother me regularly in purportedly theoretical discussions of color in art. First, the absolute incorrect science of such people as Goethe, where there is often no understanding of the difference between physics and physiology, and in his case even incorrect physics, but that is for another podcast. Second, most discussions of color seem to be very lame attempts to yoke it, fence it in, bind it to some, often literary rather than visual, idea. The joy of color is that it defies all us-intellectuals when we try to confine it!
Color is a happily difficult entity for theory in general. This may be because particular colors are so insistently real, so sensual. Although it may be forced into a symbolic role, color does not mimetically represent anything in itself and it cannot be abstracted.
It is always a sample of itself. Even stronger than indexical. It is indeed THERE, an embodiment and a corporal reality.
Nonetheless, in many visual artists there is a mix of metonymy and metaphor in their central trope in their art, which thereby allows the incorporation of color in a felt, somewhat theoretical manner.
A piece of something, a sample of color, may be utilized as either synecdoche or metonymy. This trope may then be further manipulated as a metaphor or other trope leading to foundational metaphors. As a simple example, one might exactly match several of the multitude of colors of "white" people's skin — none of which one can in any real fashion describe as actually white. The various yellows, browns and pinks are a synecdoche of humanity, i.e. "pieces" or details of humans, which become a metonymy of societal division, and are a clear metaphor for the falsity of racial definition.
Obviously, color must come into play in visual art as, well, visual, not only as trope. Much of painting throughout history has revolved around color-formed space. Light and color are inextricably linked for visual artists. Representations of light are thus often intricately manifested in color, especially in painting.
The most important factor is the orchestration of relationships among the various elements of a painting through the continuous changes and adjustments that are made while painting. For example, each color affects the colors near it. The whole affects each part. The haptic qualities — thick, thin, glossy, matt, glazed, scumbled, flat — must be drawn into careful accord. Paint as material. But this is also true of the hues themselves. These are all coordinated in a give-and-take with the intentions of each artist, those aspects planned and those discovered, within the action of thinking-in-things, thinking-within-the process, a dialogue that is highly dialectical. What do I want? What can I get the colors to do? What does the evolving object want or force me to do? What can I accept and use of color's efficacious energy?
Tied to color, paint-as-material and its haptic qualities are the tools and manner with which color is applied. Something less interesting in 2nd hand, digital or printed media.
For instance, the fact that I, like most contemporary artists, have all but abandoned the palette as an object. In his book Working Space, Frank Stella writes that abandoning the palette was one of the most important events in contemporary art production. "What we failed to see is that it was the loss of the palette, not the easel, that changed the face of what we see as painting." Most of us now use a table top or similar larger surfaces, or alternately jars and cans, mixing colors in larger fluid quantities, in effect accomplishing the important mixing and combination directly on the artwork itself. This is a performative, almost existential placement of the act of mixing, making it a process of operational discovery analogous to the way I suggest artists discover and form their central trope and its extensions within the course of the action of creating their work, not aforehand.
I have often used color in personally symbolic as well as what I feel are socio-political references. For example, I have many works where I stay close to the CMYK color possibilities of mass-media. This is my reflection of and on my background, having come to fine art through comics, the sign-painting of my father's and linked working middleclass culture. I believe the viewers FEEL that more than intellectually ruminate on it. In my experience, that has often been true and people enjoy it, and yet a few found it even bothersome, not "high-arty" enough.
The painter Paul Cézanne began many artists' concern with color as structure. This painter took the atmospheric touch of Impressionism and created its opposite — an art of solid construction. He forged a style which is clear, simple and avant-garde by making the strokes building-block-like, by forming space purely through structured color (not a play of light as in Impressionism), and by finding geometric simplicity in the essential shapes of objects, landscapes and people. This included, but is not limited to the famous "warm colors advance and cool colors recede" effect we learn from him in school.
Another painter I love did the opposite. Charles Boetschi's abstract geometric paintings have surfaces that are immaculately smooth. The only evidence of the object being hand-painted is the infinitesimally raised edges due to paint thickness where fields of color meet. The choices of hue are unique and playful, not primary and pedantically balanced as in art concret, which we have grown to expect in geometric art.
His choice of quirky color is the essence of irregularity, we almost want to say imperfect, yet actually it is simply not expected, a humanistic surprise. Replete with something most earlier geometric art disdained, allusiveness!
One book which artists and art theorists have frequently cited in relation to color is the 1910 book by Wassily Kandinsky, Über das Geistige in der Kunst, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. The whole book is indeed theoretical, yet Kandinsky found it necessary to emphasize this by including one particular section entitled 'Theory.' In this section, Kandinsky seems to envision theory as a kind of systematic grammar of the visual, for which he yearns, but which he finds at the time of his writing to be not yet achievable. A bit wryly I'd add that herein lies something spiritual: clairvoyant shades of Structuralism and Noam Chomsky! Therein, he proposes a kind of standardized symbolism of color.
Most foreign to any postmodern thinker is certainly Kandinsky's repeated insistence on the unmediated effect of the arts on humans. One example is his likening of the artist to a hand on the piano of 'the human soul,' and there he primarily means color. Our widened range of experience and of societies today makes it impossible to accept such a pseudo-bio-scientific image. His color accounts are wrought from generalizations and fraught with difficulties. Cookbook-like recipes abound: blue is 'profound,' white shows 'harmony' and 'joy,' black is 'grief' and 'death' etc.
And yet he can, happily, doubt himself as well. Kandinsky illustrates this marvelously by citing the anecdote of Leonardo da Vinci's color-spoon-system.
"The many-sided genius of Leonardo devised a system of little spoons with which different colors were to be used, thus creating a kind of mechanical harmony. One of his pupils, after trying in vain to use this system, in despair asked one of his colleagues how the master himself used the invention. The colleague replied: 'The master never uses it at all.' "
The artist and art critic Matthew Collings has some notable observations in his posts on Facebook concerning color: One set is titled "Painters looking at paintings & thinking about colour..."
Matthew states, "Colour theory is always behind art not ahead of it, but art is about all sorts of things, very rarely is it "about" colour, or about colour as opposed to anything else -- consequently it's not always easy to see how colour is being made to work in a painting. Any more than how line is working, or tone. To isolate and highlight these factors as an observer, is an odd thing to do. It goes against what the painting is offering as a whole. But if you're a painter yourself, used to working with the materials of painting, then this odd deconstruction work, in looking, comes a bit more naturally."
He continues, "I'm saying if you work with materials then you're likely to be alert to how others before have worked with them. Colour is a material property of most paintings. Colour relationships are hard to avoid as a task of painting -- how to make them "work." The predella illustrated here alternates red and green in a way that is immediately striking if you're a painter. For those that are not painters, it probably is not even noticed. The Bowling as well alternates red with green. In both cases it's an organic look, not symmetric, it's something arrived at, not predetermined or pre-calculated. Something unrolls. A sensibility makes it happen, allied to experience of having made colour relationships happen a lot, with previous works."
I find his description of color-use as a process, as a process within a discipline, very accurate.
To repeat myself, color is wonderful, and necessary, but color is a happily difficult entity for theory. Colors are insistently real, sensual. Although color may be forced into a symbolic role, color does not mimetically represent anything in itself and it cannot be abstracted. It is always a sample of itself. It is wonderful assistant, adversary and inherent component of art, especially painting.
Thanks for listening. Podcast number 46.
Color in Art
If you wish to hear more cool, exciting and hopefully inspiring stuff about art history and art, come back for more. Also, I, Dr Mark Staff Brandl, artist and art historian, am available for live custom Performance-Lectures. In English und auf Deutsch.
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