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American Society for Cybernetics
ASC 2001 Conference
May 27-29, Vancouver 


  The Palette as a System

Frank Galuszka

Galuszka, Frank (2001). The Palette as a System.
Online Proceedings of the American Society for Cybernetics 2001 Conference, Vancouver, May 2001.


  The platform on which a painter mixes colors is called a palette. The selection of original colors from which the colors in a painting are mixed or derived, is also called a "palette". It is in the latter sense that I am using the term in this paper. This palette is a matrix, limiting and coordinating all possible mixtures of color. Usually the matrix lies hidden behind its results, behind the colors that appear on the painting's surface. Yet this hidden matrix itself has a meaning in its own constitution and in the possibilities of coordinations and references it suggests. The palette's constitution is relevant to understanding the wealth of possible understandings of the painting which results.

This paper concerns itself with organizations of color in painting at this matrix level, and in what this means in making paintings, in looking at paintings, in thinking about paintings, in thinking about painting, in thinking about thinking about painting, in the practice of painting, in thinking about the practice of painting, and in dreaming about painting and paintings.


What is painting?

A painting is an odd thing, a peculiar interruption in the fabric of the world. It is like a mistake, like a flaw in reality. Every painting is a nest of contradictions.

Each painter learns to link personal disposition with a body of knowledge in a paradoxical object. As paradox, the painting is, for instance, an object and not-object at the same time, an act of consciousness and a metaphor for consciousness, manifest and obscure, a cultural and an individual production, rational and nonrational, substance and image, etc. The painter must learn to manage contradictions and tolerate instabilities in the course of creating something that seems to be enthralling and dispiriting in turns. Color is a feature in painting, and color is an occasion for vision to be engaged. Also, color, like the other formal elements of painting can escape its formal presence by becoming an occasion for meaning.


What is color?

We will assume that we all know what color is, and that for the purpose of this paper, we don't need a definition or explanation for color. Color is both mystery and fact, "out there" and "in here", paradoxical as painting itself.


The color wheel

If the violet on one end of the rainbow's spectrum is joined to the blue on the other end, we have a circle. This is the so-called color wheel, a traditional conceit which is used in introducing color theory to art students. In the color wheel the so-called primary colors are evenly spaced. Between each Primary color is a secondary color. Between each primary and secondary color is a tertiary color. And so on. There are then three primaries(red, yellow, blue), three secondaries(orange, green, violet), and six tertiary colors (red-orange, yellow-orange, blue-green, blue-violet, yellow-green and yellow-orange). Further divisions may be made, each yielding a spectrum-pure color between each pair. In painting these spectrum-pure colors are created by mixing adjacent colors together. But in painting it doesn't really work. Yellow and blue do make a sort of green, but not a very satisfactory one.

There are assorted explanations for this. More or less they amount to this: the responsive eye sees a kind of simulation of green when it encounters yellow wavelengths and blue wavelengths in intimate mixtures. But the resulting color is a low-performance or relatively dingy green.


The color solid

Black and white are added to the color wheel to create a model of digital mixtures. This model is generally called the "color solid." It shows many more possibilities than the color wheel. It shows tints of colors and mixtures of colors in stages approaching white and shades of colors in stages approaching black. In the color solid, all possible results of combining primary colors with each other and with black and white should be possible.


Paint: Pigments, dyes and earths

These models all show ideals. But in the art of painting the painter paints with paint. As opposed to colored light which adds up to white, colored paints, refracting the wavelengths the do not absorb subtract toward black. Paints are either pigments, dyes or so-called "earths", colored clays from specific localities: there is for instance, Venetian Red from clays near Venice, Raw Siena from Siena and Burnt Umber from Umbria. Each historical pigment, dye and earth has specific overtones and undertones, mixing characteristics, particle shape and size, and so forth, and, until modern times, not all the colors on the color wheel could be equally represented with a material counterpart. For instance, since ancient times there was an exceptionally pure and brilliant red (vermilion) being manufactured around the world, but no equally brilliant hue of any other color. The earth colors, with the exception of the bluish green terra verte, all were brownish yellows and reds or reddish and yellowish browns. So palettes (a palette being the selection of colors from which a painting is made) developed with the impartial color wheel in theory and the highly biased available colors in practice.


Color Strategies

How to compensate between real and ideal inclined artists to think about color. Thinking about color led to color strategies. Color strategies include evoking colors that do not exist as material options, and of crossing domains to find solutions. For instance, in Gothic manuscript illumination, manufactured vermilion finds a correspondently bright and pure blue in ultramarine made from grinding lapis stone, but still there is no comparably bright and reliable spectrum yellow available. Gold leaf enters from another domain (not a paint but an applique) to suggest comparble yellow, not by achieving hue, but by substituting preciousness and lustrousness for spectral purity. Unduplicatable rarity also plays a part by creating a color apart, in the case of the royal purple worn by the roman emperors and the royal blue assigned subsequently to European monarchs. And in many early paintings, vermilion seems like a color apart, surrounded by relatively shabby earth colors. Under this circumstance, vermilion, bright red, comes to be identified as color, and has often been used as such, as representative of color in general, as in the palette black, white and red. I cannot delve into the history of color in painting here, but I want to discuss a few interesting examples of color strategies, of how and why they developed, and what they do.


Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns is a key strategist of the formal components of visual art, color included. His' paintings, sculptures and prints overflow with cross-category commentaries, associations, references and puns. The word "red" may be spelled out in yellow paint and the word "yellow" may be painted blue. This act cleaves. Like the ax that, by joining with the tree cuts it in two, Johns' union of referenced and referencing splits the word "yellow" from the color it intends by asserting it in blue. Crossing between verbal and visual domains, the cleaviing is mutual: the word undoes the color and the color undoes the word; furthermore, this act is carried on from both directions at once. The word "yellow" painted blue is simultaneously stressful and delightful, as it seems to pit two parts of the brain against one another: The word evokes the color it intends, while defeating it in transit, eliciting a contrary response among the colors, which itself is defeated upon return to the world of words. This hyperactive stalemate creates a unique disonance that carries a feeling of paradox: the word yellow becomes blue becomes yellow again: a restless oscillation of becoming and disbecoming sets in. This is an example of the inexhaustible reciprocal contradiction between bound components that Heinz von Foerster would call "dynamic logic."


Willem deKooning

In the early 1960's, Abstract Expressionist Willem deKooning moved out of New York City into a studio in the hamlet of Springs in Eastern Long Island. At that time, his paintings turned from suggesting the figure to suggesting the landscape. "Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Grouse Point" is one of these paintings. DeKoonings' wit is exemplified in the title and in the relation of the title to the painting. Culture meets nature in the title, as Homer's stock metaphor "rosy-fingered dawn" is applied to a local view which is, of course, not literally represented in the painting. The title however suggests that deKooning read the Odessey and thought about it and that he watched the sun come up some time or other, or habitually, over Grouse Point, and that these two experiences came together in his mind at the outset or in the course of doing this painting. Also, Homer's "rosy-fingered dawn", certainly refering to the spreading rays of the rising sun (in the imagination of this blind man) are archly turned into a suggestion of human action by deKooning, who paints a hand pointing a finger somewhere in his abstract sky. But, as to the color strategy of this painting - it has to do with submiting color to an unusual tonal circumstance - one where all colors are reduced in contrast (as they are at dawn and dusk) but at a high key - that is toward a light rather than a dark range. Generally speaking colors are lightened through the addition of white: by rendering the hues into tints. The colors of the spectrum as hues, that is, at full saturation, vary in value, that is in degree of lightness to darkness if translated into greys. The hues of blue and purple are darker than red and green. The yellow hue is considerably lighter than the rest. DeKooning wonders: What will happen if the yellow remains pure (a hue) while all other colors become tints? This wondering is a strategy for bringing into existence something new, something new that will have some new problems. Yellow's "traditional" role as a color that brings in light among darker colors is dramatically modified as it is offset by tints of pink and cerulean blue. It appears in a new kind of relationship to other colors, one in which its feeling of substance is enhanced to the point of robustness. It opens new kinds of relationships among colors, a kind of relationship that had not existed before.


Salvador Dali

Salvador Dali is famous for painting wierd things, enigmas, and unsettled images. In fact, his unsettling double-images – a face that is simultaneously becoming a fruit dish, an elephant that doubles a a swan, etc. are similar to the gambits of Jasper Johns' minus the dimension of pitting the verbal against the visual. Dali's fame for provocative imagery has eclipsed consideration of him as a colorist, yet his crepuscular palette of saturated oranges and blues have a good deal to do with the mysterious feelings his paintings evoke. Dali's impressive technique is, more than anything else, an application of traditional academic methods available at the time of his education in the Art academies of Europe, including the Academy of Madrid in which Dali was, for a time, a student. In the late 1940's Dali authored a book on technique called "Fifty Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship" in which, in typical self-aggrandizing way, he pontificated on the way a painting is to be done. He suggests, with a sense of humor that seems to have been missed by many, that his idiosyncratic overlay on academic education is de riguer – the necessary procedure to make a painting. In this book he discusses the colors of the palette from an anthrpomorphic point of view. For Dali color becomes a social order. Colors can behave courteously or discourteously, they can have good or bad character, they can even go to war - and when they do, some colors are generals and others are privates. This application of human characteristics to pigments is not unlike Leonardo's style of argument, often a parody of they humanistic false reasoning of his day. Dali's anthropomorphism of color is simultaneously phenomenology, runaway surrealim and mimetic tool. Further, there is wisdom in this, because color, in the context of painting, is a relational matter, as Bauhaus color expert Josef Albers persuasively insists.


Josef Albers

The German Bauhaus teaching faculty included several significant colorists - Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Johannes Itten and Josef Albers among them. All of these wrote about the making of modern art. Kandinsky wrote an early book on "The Spiritual in Art". This book included declarations about the meaning of color. Johannes Itten and Josef Albers, working much later, made color an object of research, using their classes in their research. Itten leaned toward the psychological, including a psychology of aesthetics that was somewhat reducible to narcissistic color-to-value relationships that originated in the facial characteristics of his subjects. Albers became obsessed with the optical response to color, and especially in the role of the exhaustion of color receptors in misidentifying colors. Mondrian regarded primary colors as absolute entities, as prime players in an idealism of visual elements that had spiritual correspondents. For Mondrian, the neoplasticist painting sought to be a stargate between the materiality of the earth and the ideals of a higher realm. Albers, as opposed to Mondrian's transcendent absolutism by relating the color seen to the physical mechanisms of the seer. He regarded color as relativistic, depending not on the identification of the pigments spectroscopically, but on how, in proximity colors affected the electrochemistry of the eye. Albers determined that color memory was weak, or at least very generalizing. He showed how conditions- especially juxtaposition affect ‘color constancy' - the recognition of a single color under different circumstances of lighting and juxtaposition. His book, "The Interaction of color" demonstrates deceptions caused by adjacencies. While it might seem, from a second order cybernetic standpoint, that Albers' approach represented an advance over Mondrian, as he identifies perception with illusion, Albers stops short of considering the full loop of perception, regarding the impact of color wavelengths on the eye as a physiological matter only, disconnectible from the seer. Several problems arise around Albers research, including the ability of those that are habituated to the "illusion" to reverse the effect so that, even under dramatically different circumstances they recover color constancy. This is a failing by the way, of Dali's double-images and Johns' "yellow"-as-blue complex as well. As the shock of the new wears off, the half-life of these tricks is exposed. Eventually a habituated observer begins to see a Dali painting, for instance, as a unique place where elephants are always becoming swans, and a Johns painting as a unique place where "yellow" is acceptable as blue. The acceptance of these limited contractitions through constant exposure suggest much about the depth of the cultural trance we all inhabit.


The Celestial Palette: My union of Dali, deKooning and others

In a series of paintings I did in the early 1970's (1970-73) I joined together Mondrian's transcendence, Kandinsky's spiritual claims, DeKooning's approach to yellow with Dali's creation of an anthropomorphic interpretation of the palette. I created an account for color that was cosmological, and which included theological and moral aspects. I imagined the codification of a well-reasoned paranoid delusion of color symbolism as governing color choices and as a way of interpreting all paintings - both my own and the paintings of others. This account was simultaneously seriously intended, "defensible metaphor" (Pask) , self-consciously idiosyncratic and a parody of interpretation. In the course of doing these paintings I acted fully and completely as a believer in this palette. As a guide to the creation and interpretation of my work I wrote a treatise, "On the identities and stratification of Colors" (1971) and a fairy tale about the color green and its iterations on the palette.

According to the "Identities and stratification of colors" there were two fundamental realms: the celestial and the earthly. Each realm was to be represented by a separate palette. To reflect this, my palette included a double set of primaries: The Celestial Colors and the Earthly Colors.

In this approach to color, the pure-hued yellow of deKooning was priviliged: It represented God as Unknowable and existed unchangeably in both the Celestial and the Earthly Palettes. The pure-hued yellow (Cadmium Yellow Light) opened to an imagined realm in which other colors were as light and radient as yellow, a realm beyond human experience. In deference to the Unknowable God all other colors (except diabolical colors) were reduced into tints by admixture of white. White represented God as Knowable as present throughout creation. God, as Knowable, also appeared in the palette, as white. Neither the celestial palette nor the earthly palette included red directly because red, the color of animal and human life exists in a context of God (white) and usually with some negative presence (black), hence the color of the human condition was a proportional intermixture of red, white and black. There was earthly pink and celestial pink, earthly pink being the best we might expect in a saintly life, and - instead each included a pink, tinted in adjustment to the yellow. Earthly pink was a straightforward red (Cadmium Red Medium) mixed with white that suggested the animal and particularly the human realm. Celestial pink was more radiant than earthly pink, something closer to a day-glo version. Of greens there were also two, one a more brilliant version of the other, and each mixed with white. Because there was no blue on the palette, the entire palette was pitched toward the cool side in compensation, hence Cadmium Yellow Light is cooler than Cadmium Yellow Medium, Cadmium Red Medium is cooler than the traditional Cadmium Red Light (or its historical equivalent, Vermilion) and both Pthalocyanine (Celestial) green and Viridian (earthly) green lean away from Kelly green and toward aquamarine. This bias toward the cool makes blue unecessary. But this does not mean that blue may never appear. In the rare instances that blue appears it has a sort of prophetic voice, and a quality of fulfilment of the implied blue of the palette. There are also diabolical colors and forbidden colors. The fact that they are diabolical or forbidden does not mean that they may never appear: it means that their appearance may have an "unauthorized" or immoral quality. Orange is an example of a forbidden color. Why is it forbidden? Because it is made from Yellow (Unknowable God) mixed with red (Animal qualities), Yellow may never be mixed with anything, hence its mixture with red suggests presumptuous sin- pride and vanity. Hence, if a female figure in a painting might decide to wear makeup, her lipstick is likely to be orange.

When I abandoned the celestial palette in 1973, my subsequent paintings could still be interpreted by using the treatise on "Identities and Stratification of Color" as a guide. My subsequent paintings were mostly done in earth tones. These indicated, from the Celestial perspective, a fall from grace, as each color was likely to have among its ingredients, all the primaries in combination - hence, these paintings had, along with all the celestial qualities, messy aspects of vice, mistake and wrongdoing.


The Limited Palette

The paintings of Picasso's "African" period (c 1905-06) are done using very few colors. This is partly a rebellion against the lush use of rainbow colors by Impressionists and PostImpressionists, in an effort to emphasize a more serious mission in painting. In a "Self-Portrait" in the Philadelphia Museum, Picasso stands, depicted in the act of painting. On the palette, I realized, while looking at the painting, is the meager selection of colors he used in that same painting, a clever piece of self reference: painting a palette and painting upon it with the very colors one has depicted it with. Picasso is clever. Here, he is saying, I am a serious painter, a primitive man starting from scratch like any primitive, using on my palette the most ancient and ubiquitous of colors, the pigments used by our ancestors in Altimira and Lascaux: Carbon black and a bunch of neutral light and dark yellowish and reddish browns, dug from the earth. Even the white is ancient - the lead white that has been manufactured since prehistory. Seeing this painting and seeing that, in it, the colors used to paint it nakedly represent themselves on it (self-inclusively) came to me as an epiphany with consequences that would take a while to sort out. I noticed that other artists did the same thing: when an artist was depicted holding a palette, the colors on that palette likely to be those that were used to paint the painting. Note the example of Magritte- man painting a model.


The Full Palette

I think this came as a surprise to me because, as a twentieth century artist, I had learned to paint in an era in which available colors are abundant. The number of colors manufactured by paint companies soared in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from a relatively small number of colors that existed before. The quest of color manufacturers is to invent colors of maximum brilliance and purity of hue. This gives artists many colors to choose from, and I have observed artists painting with as many as thirty five colors on a palette.

With the availability of brilliant colors representing all the colors of the spectrum comes an implicit strategy toward using color. Today, the average painting teacher recommends that students put on their palettes two reds (one warm, one cool), two blues (one warm, one cool), two yellows (one warm, one cool), a green, white, and a selection of earth colors. This is the so-called "full palette". Orange and purple may even be suggested (see artists palette). This is a palette poised to mix any color you can imagine, and to match any color you can see. The task of matching a fairly neutral color in nature (the colors of trees, meadows, skies, human flesh and so forth) takes colors from dizzying heights of palette purity, to a kind of bottom, with temptations to stop along the way.

It seems at first that all those colors are needed if subtlety is ever to be achieved, and that paintings can be improved with the addition of more colors to the palette.

But there are unforeseen liabilities in this palette, both in mimetic and non mimetic approaches to painting. In spite of all these colors at the artist's disposal, colors in nature can never be matched. Even though mixed colors can come close to matching any hue, every color in nature also has an ineffable, unreproducible visual texture produced by effects of light on and through various substances. The phenomenal existence of color in nature cannot be matched by pigment. This means that the urge to match colors is doomed to failure. Nevertheless, the mixed colors do achieve something- a coordination of the artists palette with the colors of the artists subject. This close but no cigar failure points to an interesting question. If color matching is not responsible for the feeling of verisimilitude in a painting, what is?



Enter Vermeer. Vermeer is famous for verisimilitude of a near photographic variety. His paintings seem to have very many colors in them. I had "discovered" Vermeer's paintings in the National Gallery in Washington, and had been looking at them regularly since, always trying to figure out his palette, imagining all the directions it went in, all the exotic colors at his disposal, especially as art historians had made a big deal about the lavish semi-precious lapis lazuli blue being one of them. It is true, lapis does appear in some of Vermeer's paintings, though not in all of them. Because of my training, I had assumed that Vermeers palette was a version of the full palette, however curtailed, only because of available colors at his time. I assumed there were at least ten or twelve colors in his palette.

I was in the National Gallery in 1995 with Miller Crouch, a friend who is also an artist and amatuer art historian. I was telling him about my observation about the Picasso self-portrait in the Philadelphia Museum, and the two of us wondered suddenly if we could crack one of the mysteries of Vermeer. Instead of beginning with the question, What exact pigments are present in the Vermeers, we began with the question, what is the minimum palette with which these paintings could have been painted? We could not be certain about several of the paintings, the "Girl in the Red Hat" and the "Girl with a Flute" for instance, but as we narrowed down the possibilities, we came to the "Woman with a Balance" (aka Woman weighing Gold, aka Woman weighing pearls) we realized we were looking at a painting done with one red, one blue, one yellow, black and white. The colors were from among those inexpensive and available in his time - not a bright yellow, but earthy yellow ochre, not a bright red but the iron rich clay Venetian red, not the pricey lapis ultramarine, but a kind of copper blue, like Prussian Blue. The black is likely a form of Lamp Black made from soot and the white is the only white available at the time- Lead White.

Every color in the painting could have been mixed from these five colors. This gives an insight into several things, among them- how Vermeer thought, and why his paintings are as harmonious as they are. Except for the possibility of black, none of the colors appears in a pure unmixed state - there is no pure red, white, yellow or blue.

With this limited palette, Vermeer could not duplicate the colors of the world he saw. He could not really get near it. But he could stay and equal distance away from accuracy of color, and the equality of that distance give his paintings something of the intermediated remove from immediate existence that recalls photography. Further, if Vermeer was working with a portable camera obscura as art historians agree, he was working from an intermediated image at least in part to begin with and possibly also working under darkened conditions in which colors would collapse into fewer variants as well. But, as to how he thought, this thinking may have been close to that of Cezanne, an artist who was beginning to paint at the time of Vermeer's "rediscovery" in the nineteenth century. While Monet and his colleagues replaced matching colors seen with responses to color effects (the local color under specific conditions of light, refraction, reflection and shadow) Cezanne pried color loose from being the property of objects depicted to being the property of the depicting painting - colors are used by Cezanne more or less nominally to represent objects (apple, basket, sky, grove of tree) register the local color of the object depicted, most of color's discriminatory potential is used to mark space, to indicate planes and recession, and to separate subjects as a mapmaker separates contries in a map. For Cezanne, painting is an act of not duplication of the subject or near duplication of the subject, but of linking to a subject, of coordinating his own pattern-making imaginative process with the subject (or motif) he observed. In Vermeer's case, the Dutch master's notable "detatchment" could indicate that he was coordinating with his subject via his controlled means, and concentrating on this negotiated middle path between imagination and mimesis, rather than insistently capturing what he saw. He will paint what he sees, for example, only so far as the camera obscura filters out a range of details- there are no eyelashes, for instance, in Vermeer, but there are weights of blurry tone over the eye. Likewise, there is no bright green or bright purple or pure yellow or red where he has chosen a palette that cannot produce one. He accepts the limitations of the palette, and, by working meticulously within its narrow constraints, he produces an image that cannily suggests what it cannot depict, making each choice not-to look like a detatched sacrafice. Because there is only one representative of each primary color in the palette that produced Woman with a Balance, each mixed color falls like a coordinate plotted on a cartesian grid. The artist mixes color in these dimensions: white is in this direction and black in that direction in one plane, while an imaginary intersecting perpendicular plane intersecting plane is divided into three directions - red, blue and yellow. As, instead of in the case of the Full Palette, there is only one red, the artist thinks in terms of directionality rather than in terms of the color wheel. While Vermeers thinking is focused, the situation presented to him is comprehensible, while the color wheel oriented Full palette provides too many choices in what is, in the end a chaotic environment of possibilities. In the realm of the full palette, colors are mixed toward imagined duplication of colors seen, in the limited palette colors are mixed toward the best avilable corresponding color, given the limited initial ingredients. A painting that uses the rich resources of a full palette successfully in duplicating colors is likely to be less unified, harmonious and coherent than a painting using a limited palette. Why? Let us look at Bateson's description of creativity without resistence and also at the contemplation of a thing made that includes a thing depicted and the detectable . With a full palette the potential is extended, but the judgment, skill and presence of mind needed to satisfy this potential are, frankly, inaccessible to anyone. With the limited palette the cap to achievement is nearer, the gap less daunting,.


The Baroque and the Bolognese School

Where did Vermeer's approach come from? A generation before Vermeer was Rembrandt, and before Rembrandt a revolution of painting in Italy swept over Europe. The origins of Baroque painting in Italy develops in two prongs. Both seek to correct the extravagances of mannerism. One of these paths is pioneered by Caravaggio, leading toward a powerful and austere depiction in limited colors of the physical observable facts of life, and Caravaggio's approach led to a long international trend in painting that included artists like Rembrandt in Holland, George de La Tour in France and Velasquez in Spain. It even continues today under the auspices of Americans Chuck Close and Philip Pearlstein, and Norwegian Painter Odd Nerdrum. Simultaneously a school of painting arose in Bologna. It included members of the Carraci family and Guido Reni as principle exponents. Out of the narcissistic decadence of Mannerism, the Bolognese painters sought to recover the dignity of the High Renaissance, and, particularly by emulating the style and aspirations of Raphael, sought to reconnect with the state of painting at the point of achievement it held at Raphael's death (at the time of his execution of The Transfiguration). The Bolognese painters specialize in very large vertical paintings designed to fit above altars. Most often the Bolognese painters create a double world in these paintings, one world above the other - a celestial world of God, angels and canonized saints above, and an earthly realm of human aspiration or suffering below, with a point of contact or two between the two realms- the angels above may reach down some palm fronds in recognition of a virgin martyr, a would-be saint on earth rolls her eyes heavenward. These connections are confirmed by a forceful diaginal compositional device that joins heaven and earth. These worlds are often coded and differentiated by color. Pure Primary colors prevail in heaven, while less perfect earth tones and secondary colors distinguish the eath. Earth is always drabber than heaven. The earthly realm may be silvery (or even leaden), while the heaven is golden. Color is used here to symbolize the alchemy of the soul's perfectibility. Reni is the most imaginative colorist of this school, and. in his own time, he was the most famous and popular artist in Europe. In his early work he chooses unexpected shocks of ark and pure color ( deep blue and maroon in his pieta control the keying of the tones of the palette, making the color rich and dark). Reni is inclined toward opaque color more than toward glazes, so in his paintings we are likely to see the backgound participate in the color conversation rather than to be an indiscriminate haze of gloom. Reni's impact on Vermeer is observable here, as is his much later impact on Mant. Given the limited availabilities of colors in Reni's time, his paintings are brilliant. He imaginatively uses tints of earth colors to suggest celestial heights out of common materials dug from the ground.



Several artists move from fuller palettes toward more limited ones as their careers unfold. Titian, Rembrandt and Caravaggio are notable examples. These artists little by little reduced the presence of cool colors (blue, green. violet) on their palettes, depending on the psychologically potent trinity of red black and white to convey the power of materialized vision. After a lifetime of experiements with optical adjustments of colors through glazing, by the end of Titian's life there are only a handful of colors on Titian's palette and his figures inhabit a cinnamon-colored dusk (Flagellation, Flaying of Marsyas) that can only be felt as a depiction of the artist's perception of his own life closing. Paintings such as Rembrandt's notable "Bathsheba" are made out of very few colors- a couple of reds and black and white. There are no blues, violets or greens here, and hardly any sophisticated mixtures of the pigments that do exist. The whole realm of the "cool" is represented by black and various shades of grey, anf the same is often true of Caravaggio. Eventually blue , violet and green disappear from his palette. It is almost as if these colors are too trivial for the expression of human experience and lack symbolic power - white being light being God, black being darkness being the absence of god, red, brown and ochre being the earthy makeup of blood and the world. Furthermore, when it comes to large scale paintings, blues, violets and greens are exotic and expensive colors, wheras most of Caravaggio's colors, being dirt to begin with, are dirt cheap. The same, by the way, can be said of Picasso. The pigments in his early paintings are very cheap indeed. Picasso's famous blue period is not characterized by expensive blues like cobalt, lapis or cerulean, but by Prussian blue, a very potent and inexpensive color. Likewise his Rose Period is produced from a palette that depended on Venetian Red to make his pinks. A less expensive color than this is impossible to find.


Fra Angelico and Terroir

We will end with the paintings of a saint. Two hundred and fifty years before Caravaggio the beatified monk Fra Angelico painted in Florence as the Renaissance was rising. In Florence Christina and I were looking at Fra Angelico's paintings in the convent of San Marco. Angelico's paintings are exceptionally beautiful and the colors in these frescoes are exceptionally harmonious. I was trying to guess what the colors were. In this speculation, whenever there was a possible choice, we decided on the more locally available color. For instance, if the earthy yellows might be a form of raw Siena or a form of yellow ochre, we chose the closer source of Sienese earth, and this line of thinking led, through examining various color mixtures including yellow, toward the conclusion that it was one yellow (the darker Siena) that was responsible for a certain range of yellowish darks as well as lighter yellows - in other words, if one yellow was all that was needed, we assumed that one yellow was all that was used. We charted the colors- a modest palette of indigo taken from a local root, terra verte, umbers, and siennas from local earths, vermilion and a bright copper or arsenic green made in dangerous ovens, black from burned fat and white coaxed from acid-soaked strips of lead. Most of the colors we see were dug from local earths. The same colors appeared not only in Angelico's but in other Florentine paintings, in church decorations, house paint, signboards and elsewhere. Zecchi, an old art supply store is at the center of Florence, just around the corner from the massive Duomo. In this shop Angelico's pigments in large glass jars line the shop's top shelf. It is like the color key to the city, the color key to the culture. These sumptuous powders are weighed out on a scale beside the cash register, and sold by the kilo.

Christina Waters, who writes about food and wine, as well as culture, makes the following observation about the local earth-derived color palette of Florence:

"It might not be too far-fetched to suggest that a kind of visual terroir might apply here, in much the way that terroir informs the bouquet and flavor notes of wines. Terroir, an all-but-unpronounceable (and untranslatable) French term, is used to refer to a heady confluence of elements that taken together inform the final product. The term indicates that mixture of soil, climate, temperature, geographical location (e.g. longitude, latitude, altitude), possibly even lunar cycle which express themselves in the finished product. Here culture and agriculture meet in the sensory signature of a glass of wine. So, in the color hegemony of the paintings we met in Florence, the very soil, light, minerology conspired with cultural tendencies and individual artististic predilections."

So the choices involve the blend of geographical environment sifted through the Renaissance affinity for a certain palate influenced by that environment and finally chosen from within the already delimited palette by the individual artist himself. In the same way that from the limitations of climate and geography, a range of grapes are possible, from which the individual winemaker selects and handles in his own unique way."


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Pre-Conference Abstract for this paper.

HTML transcription: Randy Whitaker, March 2002