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[ Home: Color Theory & Mixing: 16 Lessons in Color Theory: The History of Color ]
"16 Lessons in Color Theory: The History of Color"
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Author: Roger_Elliot, Contributing Editor

To this point we have talked about color and its relationships to out right-left brain modes. You will recall that when we began this discussion on color, I said that the effective use of color depended upon knowing and trusting our right hemisphere along with a complete understanding of the basics of color.

We now undertake the task of understanding the latter. This is a typical left brained activity and just the sheer volume of it may cause the analytical left brain to tell you that it is a waste. The left hemisphere may say, "We have seen all of this before, I understand it, so let's move on to something that doesn't bore me to death." But remember, the left hemisphere thinks it knows all about drawing and painting, however, we now have ample evidence that it does not.

So, to listen to our verbal, analytical left brain, and skip this important issue will lead to failure. Let us move on.....

Those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it.......

Earliest Use of Color

Man probably became truly different from other mammals, when he began to wonder about the strange, often frightening, phenomena around him, and when he first attempted to control these phenomena. He felt he would have power over anything he could make with his own hands in the form of an image. He molded clay, or carved bone or stone, into forms resembling huge beasts; and he drew pictures on the walls of his caves. He believed that he would thus acquire power over all such animals. The more realistic the images were, the greater his power. He soon found it possible to add color to these three dimensional figures and to outline drawings by employing the diverse colors of the earth on which he walked.

Earth has many shades of buff, yellow, brown, gray, green, and red, almost exactly the colors man saw in the animals that meant so much to him. Some animals were threats to his safety; others became his friends; he needed many of them for food, clothing, and tools. Manifestly, the first purpose of color was to make images more realistic, and, thereby, to imbue them with more magic power. Color appears in human handicrafts since the most ancient times. Besides the color he found in the soil, early man also used the colors of fruits and plants. He added water to all colors in order to be able to apply them to walls and articles.

As he learnt to roast meat, he found that the fat dripping from the meat gave the soil an interesting and practical quality: the paint this fat created was easier to apply and did not deteriorate the way fruit and vegetable juices and just plain water mixed soil did. The fat acted as a binder: a substance which makes the color, what we call the pigment, adhere to the surface on which it is applied. In the course of time, he discovered, accidentally, or deliberately, other binders for color, such ass egg-white, wax, linseed oil, glue, gum arabic, casein, and polymer. Some binders worked on one surface only; others caused the colors to stick to several surfaces. Some binders proved to be permanent, others turned out to be unreliable. Thus, some colors remained intact through thousands of years. Others have vanished or pealed off, with only a few traces left in the corners or crevices. The search for permanent colors and binders is still going on.

Color in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Far East

In ancient Egypt, colors, like all other features of art, were strictly connected with religion. They had to be used in an absolutely prescribed manner, without any personal freedom. Unaware of, and unconcerned with, light and shadow, Egyptian artists used flat, bright colors to paint their statues, architectural decorations, furnishings for the living and dead, mummy cases, papyrus scrolls, hieroglyphics, and countless figures and objects on the walls of their tombs. Indoors, the bright colors were easier to see.

Outdoors, on temple walls, the bright hues broke up in the blinding brilliance of the sun. The medium they used, as far as we know, was egg tempera; or at least they used an egg varnish over water-thinned colors.

In the less extreme climate of Mesopotamia, Babylonia, and Assyria, artists employed color on the glazed brick facades of their palaces and temples. They also had much color in their fantastically ornate and heavy ceremonial garbs. In the Far East, too, colors were magnificent in garments worn by priests, the aristocracy, the warriors.

Much color was employed in furnishings. Paintings were mostly scrolls of ricepaper, or silk, in black lines with only a few spots of color. Such paintings were to be enjoyed in small, intimate homes, or shrines, by the light of soft lamps or lanterns. Subtle colors added to the elegance of rich, intricate, diversified designs.

Color in Ancient Crete

It has taken Western artists more than thirty centuries to discover all the ramifications of color in every field of art. The search for color and art in the West began with the Cretan civilization, in which art was created for art's sake, without any religious connotation. Paintings were to make the interior of a house brighter; they served as picture windows. The style was free, the colors were always cheery, whether they applied to remarkably realistic, almost impressionistic themes, such as flying fish, or to bold, spiral patterns of pure ornamentation on walls, pillars, and ceilings.

Color in Ancient Greece

Although we usually trace our ancestry to classic Greece, painting, as we understand the term, was never as great in Greece as sculpture and architecture. True, their murals have disappeared; all we have are descriptions by contemporary travelers, and small-scale reflections of their pictorial achievements in the thousands of beautifully decorated vases. Many of the superb figures are known to have been inspired by Attic muralists. Those vases seldom have more than two or three colors, besides the black glaze on the red brick clay.

The Greeks, however, had color for painting their stone, bronze, and marble statues realistically. They painted the triangular wall of each tympanum, and the flat background of every high-relief on their temples, a deep blue or red, in order to make the statues stand out clearly. They left the white marble or yellowish stone of the building unpainted; the shadows between the columns broke up the dazzling white or pale yellow.

As great philosophers and theoreticians, the Greeks understood the rules of perspective, but they did not turn this theoretical knowledge into practice. Practical knowledge came with ancient Rome.

Color in Ancient Rome

With their magnificent temples, palaces, and luxurious villas, the Romans demanded paintings and mosaics on walls, as well as mosaics on floors. Most of their paintings were done in encaustic, pigments mixed with hot wax. The mosaics were made of stone or marble in a vast number of colors and shades, almost like full color paintings. We have found many wall paintings in Pompeii, and Herculaneum, and also in the city of Rome. Above all, we have discovered huge numbers of mosaic floors in perfect condition, especially in North African colonies of the Roman Empire. Those mosaics depict urban and rustic scenes, mountains and harbors, battles, civic activities, business, commerce, sports, mythological and historical subjects, all executed with supreme skill, incomparable craftsmanship, in a great diversity of colors.

The mosaic chips are often so tiny that, from a few feet away, the work appears to be a painting done with brushes. The mosaics were situated in rooms where they could be seen and admired like paintings in our own living rooms. Subtle shading and fine details were of paramount importance. These pictures were conversation pieces and, judging by the similarity of certain themes and craftsmanship, one can easily guess that ancient Rome had some popular artists, whose work all the citizens "in the know" tried to own.

The purpose of pictures in color was twofold: to brighten up the usually small rooms, which, like present-day houses in hot climates, had only a few windows, if any, and to make the rooms look fashionable by providing them with elaborate pictures, whether those were executed with paint and brush or in mosaics.

Color in Early Christianity

The early Christians of Byzantium (Istanbul) worked with glass mosaics, rather than stone and marble chips. Their sole aim was to make the supranatural visible to illiterate pagans and Christians alike. No longer were the mosaics intimate pictures of worldly scenes. They were usually placed high above the floor, done with bold outlines, less detail, and more striking color combinations. Biblical personages and scenes had to be viewed from a distance, in a semi-dark place, or at night by flickering oil lamps. The stronger, less realistic color contrasts and patterns, the sparkle of glass mosaics -- many of them backed with gold leaf -- the glittering gold halos, bejeweled crosses, and crowns created an atmosphere of mystery and awe.

In the western half of the defunct Roman Empire, Roman temples, baths, and basilicas (meeting halls) were transformed into Christian churches. Painters of the new era imitated Roman art, Roman apparel and facial expression in Christian subjects. Colors were as natural as artists could make them, but perspective and proportions were naive, childlike. Here, too, painting served strictly religious purposes for many centuries.

With the solidification of Christianity, the Gothic period brought forth daring experimentation in painting, and in architecture. Gradually, there appeared a belief that life can be joyful. There was a wealth of detail and increased variety of colors in Gothic painting. Done on wood panels, these paintings were again on a small scale, to be viewed from nearby. Facial resemblance to donors, the richness of gold embroidery, rugs, garments, and furnishings were now more important than the mysterious quality expected by the early Christians.

Color in the Renaissance

It was not until the fourteenth century that artists began to explore new approaches, new vistas in painting, first, merely by achieving more and more realism. They evolved an amazing knowledge of perspective, light and shadow, correct proportions, and they used colors with an increasing artistic freedom. Still, the procedure was largely a matter of preparing a perfect outline drawing, and coloring each section in the neatest possible manner.

In an age when art was in great demand, artists had assistants and apprentices. Technical as well as esthetic knowledge was handed from older to younger men. Painters were experimenting with new pigments and binders, just as clothmakers were always looking for newer and better dyes for the sumptuous garments worn by the church hierarchy and the aristocracy.

The High Renaissance, around the turn of the sixteenth century, was the culmination of all these efforts. Individuality in art was at last established. Composition, color, the entire concept of a painting, were more and more individualized. You could see the mentality and temperament of the artist, as well as his talent and his skill, in his paintings.

Color in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

In seventeenth century Holland, Protestantism all but eliminated biblical, mythological, and historical paintings, and restricted artists to easel paintings designed for the walls of small rooms in narrow houses. Landscapes, still lifes, genre pictures, and flattering portraits of individuals and groups were produced in all possible detail, in bright colors, in a somewhat idealized style. The purpose of art was to delight the middle class taste. In subject matter, color, and technique, the artist strived for the commonplace, the average, the unsensational. The one painter who eventually defied this trend, Rembrandt van Rijn, almost literally starved to death.

Everywhere else in Europe, the seventeenth century means the Baroque, a period of unrest, turmoil, experimentation, the beginning of what we choose to call "the age of reason." Dramatic, flashy paintings were required by uninhibited churchmen, erotically inclined aristocrats, and the expanding capitalist class which now had the money that enabled it to live on a high scale. Collecting art, attending auction sales, became a hobby among those who could afford it. Powerful personages were not afraid of kidnapping, hijacking, or plain stealing, in order to acquire the works of celebrated artists. There was no limit to subject matter, color, fantasy, and taste, outside The Netherlands.

The second half of the Baroque, the eighteenth century, is called Rococo, a veritable explosion of forms, colors, ornamentation. Everything seemed to be in perpetual motion. Ceilings were torn open, visually, by bizarre effects of perspective. Walls were painted to resemble terraces. The trompe-l'oeil (eye-cheating) method came into vogue after it had flourished in Pompeii and Herculaneum some eight hundred years before, but now it appeared on a colossal scale.

Color in the Classic Revival Period

The French Revolution was predicated on ancient Greek and Roman ideas of freedom of speech, the rights of man, the right to vote, the right to complain, the republican form of government, "The Senate and the People," the abolition of kings and tyrants. Painters, as well as writers, used scenes and concepts from classical history to spread the revolution. The end of the eighteenth century, and the first quarter of the nineteenth, constitute the Classicist, or Classic Revival period. Paintings were again meticulously drawn, and systematically colored. Subject and draftsmanship were all-important. Every article, each person had to be purified, idealized.

The Academie Francaise established and promulgated through Europe the belief that great art can be reduced to formulas which any intelligent artist can learn by heart. This so-called academic concept tried to turn all forms of art into a kind of definite procedure, a concept still in existence, despite the many events that occurred in the world of art during the past hundred and fifty years.

Color was subservient to outline drawing in this classical period. Perfect realism of the most ideal kind was the goal. In the United States, the Hudson River School, in the first half of the nineteenth century, was an outgrowth, or development, of this Classicism. Fortunately, however, the Hudson River School concentrated on the beauties of nature. Its idealized, spotlessly clean, dreamlike rusticity had, and still has, a charm not shared by the spotless nudes and other classicist figures mechanically created by European and New World artists of the Classic Revival period.

Color in Impressionism

There is constant change, a continuous overlapping, in history. Early in the nineteenth century, when the Classic Revival period was still rampant, John Constable and Joseph Mallord William Turner were painting in England. These men, like all true Englishmen, loved fresh air, and went outdoors to paint on the spot, rather than in the cold sanctuary of their studios. Working from direct observation, they omitted small details and concentrated on color, motion, and mood. In the 1820's Constable's paintings, more sparkling with colors than anything seen before, were shown in the exhibition of the Salon de Paris. Young French artists suddenly became aware of new possibilities of turning to nature. Constable and Turner are generally considered the founders of Impressionism.

Previously, painters made sketches outdoors in silverpoint, pen-and-ink, or crayon. Later, they added washes, usually sepia (a rich, brown pigment prepared from the secretion of various cuttlefish); but occasionally they used some other colors to achieve a better light-and-shadow effect in their sketches. All major works, however, were executed in the atelier, never outdoors. Colors were mostly pure; highlights and shadows on green, red, and other surfaces were merely lighter or darkend shades of the same hue.

Stepping back to the Renaissance for a moment, few people realize that the true significance of Leonardo da Vinci's famous Mona Lisa lies in the fact that the master pioneered in the use of color: there are no outlines in this painting; the cold precision of much early Renaissance and pre-Renaissance painting is gone. Leonardo introduced the gentle blending called sfumato. Despite the strange errors in perspective, and the curious lack of coherence between the two halves of the blue-green background, the painting is a milestone in Western art.

Tiziano Vecelli (Titian), the most "painterly" painter of the Renaissance, worked in the same style as did da Vinci. El Greco, in a slightly later period, was not afraid of painting flaming yellows against ominous grays and vivid purples in bold strokes, not at all in keeping with the age in which he lived.

But it was the Impressionist school, around the middle of the last century, which discarded lines and decided to work entirely in color. Impressionists would depict the same view three times on the same day and paint the view again in different seasons, in order to show how colors change from the cool yellow of the morning sun to the warmer yellow of midday, becoming the orange tint of the setting sun. They showed how different colors appear on a rainy, snowy, sunny day. Critics and public alike deried and denounced these "paint throwers" as freaks or fakers. Artists, however, went on with their new idea: color, painted alla prima (at once), trying to put the right colors on the canvas directly, without changes, without blending. All they wanted was a general effect, an impression of what they actually saw.

Color in Post-Impressionism

Paul Cezanne, not satisfied with the spontaneous painting of the Impressionists, returned to careful composition, the deliberate arranging of color as well as forms. This is what we call Post-Impressionism. Cezanne was the first artist consciously trying to achieve effects by juxtaposing certain colors. He found that a lemon looks brighter with a blue outline, and a red apple appears to be more brilliant if you paint
green around it. The climax of this search for color effects was reached by Georges Seurat, who introduced Pointillism. In this quite scientific approach to color, the artist doesn't paint the grass green. He paints hundreds of blue spots and hundreds of yellow spots with the tip of his brush, and from a short distance away, the grass appears green.

Color began to inspire many artists from this point on. Paul Gauguin went to the South Seas and rendered the natural beauty of Tahiti and its inhabitants in brilliant hues that seemed crude to his contemporaries, who were accustomed to the subdued, traditional tones of Classic Revival paintings. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a finer draftsman and designer than he was a painter, created marvelous posters by applying uncommon color combinations to interesting, though simple drawings. Artists became fanatical about exploring the realm of color, not only in representational paintings, but in abstract, cubist, futurist, dadaist, and nonobjective works as well.

"isms" in art overlap each other, come and go so fast that the critics, the public, and the artists themselves, are bewildered. What happened to prospective, composition, proportions, recognizable subjects? Now we see them, now we don't. But there's one thing we do see: colors. Strong, baffling, frightening, if you will; hard, repulsive, perhaps even nauseating in some paintings; delicate, poetic, entrancing in other paintings......but color, color is everywhere; color in which the artist achieves results never seen before; colors that sing, shout, whisper, or just speak. You merely have to listen.

But you must learn the language of colors, exactly as you have to learn any language. The first lesson is to let your eyes be the judge. Artists who create paintings and people who look at paintings should give their eyes full rein, instead of shackling them with brassbound ideas that were conceived before Galieo Galilei discovered that the Milky Way wasn't made of milk!

In the next few weeks we will learn the language of colors. lift them up and turn them over and look underneath. Examine not only what they are called but WHY we use them. All you need is an open mind, a heart willing to let it all come in, and a will strong enough to endure the sometimes boring details.

That will do for this session but there a few things I feel I should discuss before we go. Teaching on the internet, unlike in the studio, presents a very different atmosphere. I usually feel no particular need to explain my methods to my in-house students. After all they are here to learn AND they pay me for the leadership. The web is a bit different.

In order for a student to learn about each aspect of art he, or she, must first understand how we arrive at the present day knowledge. Hence the "history lessons" that I so frequently post. Remember that I do not call my site "Art Tips On Line" or "Art Tutorials On Line" or even "Art Lessons On Line". Here we are looking to learn about art in all of its facets, considering all "parts" to make up a "unified whole".

So, my dear friends, expect to spend some time here. Do not look for a "quick fix" in the pursuit of art. That is best left to the television artists who promote "one size fits all" lessons. Until next time....
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