Color matters very much to me and it’s a property in which I have an innate ability that may have been developed through painting. I don’t know. It’s always intrigued me. A science project I did in 8th grade was about color in light. It wasn’t as easy to do then as it is now. My dad and I had to order gelatin slides in red, green and blue, the kind you would have found in theaters. We built a box and used a projector to show how the the three colors in light made white. That that is what happens is still mysterious to me, a kind of physics miracle. I didn’t win a prize that year (as I had the year before for my project on the geologic history of the Tetons) but I learned so much.
Goethe was also fascinated by color, particularly with light. I wonder how it would have been to have lived in his time when many of the discoveries we take for granted were completely new. He took on Newton, was laughed at, and only lately have Goethe’s color theories been taken seriously. It seems he was onto something. His theory of the color of light essentially says that light shifts to blue in shadow and to yellow at the source. He did not know that yellow is a mixed color, a secondary color, in light, not, as it is in pigment, a primary color. But his observation was right and extremely perceptive in that the blue of the end of the day is one of the longest rays on the visible spectrum and yellow one of the shortest.
The English painter, Turner, applied Goethe’s theory of his paintings and it accounts for some of the marvelous effects that make Turner so well-loved. Unfortunately, Turner didn’t “paint for posterity” so a lot of his work is damaged and his pigments were mixed without thought to “forever” but this painting (and others) was painted consciously following Goethe’s theory.
Pigment is another thing and there I’ve always been able to see how two colors would come together, what would be the result. I don’t know why. I think it’s a thing I was born with, some compensation for myopia or something.
One particular color haunted me for a long time, a certain blue. It was in my dreams and I looked for it everywhere I went. It’s almost but not quite Ultramarine blue as it comes out of a tube of paint. It IS true ultramarine blue, a pigment made from lapis lazuli. I’ve seen it, true ultramarine, coming into complete clarity in the combination between the blue and the chemicals and crystals in the plaster, certain plaster. I saw it in Padova, in the Baptistry of the Cathedral painted by Giusto de’ Menabuoi. That strange experience of being obsessed by a color taught me to see exactly in any blue what other factors are involved — blue with black, blue with yellow, blue with red, all of them because of their chemical composition have a tinge of some other color even if they’re not mixed. This blue is pure. This was used ONLY for the clothing of Christ and his mother and was known as “sacred blue.” I could worship it. It’s made of lapis lazuli, was incredibly expensive and is the subject of a funny book, Sacre Bleu, by Christopher Moore.
I even like reading about colors and pigments, especially those used in medieval times when a painter had to be a master chemist and most paints were deadly. Those that weren’t? Paints made from earth and that right there, something that should have been obvious to me all my life just from the names on the paint tubes (red earth, green earth, burn umber), came to me as a surprise one moment long ago. Colors from earth, clay, dirt, are (duh) the most durable and the least poisonous (usually).
It’s possible to find a moral there. I have.