Scientific ColorIn 1839 a French thinker by the name of Eugene Chevreul published a text with the intimidating title, "Principles of Harmonies and Contrasts of Colour and Their Application to the Arts". Sure makes me want to run out to my friendly neighbourhood Barnes and Noble and grab a copy! Well, despite its less-than-glamorous title, the book found a readership. More than that, it influenced an entire generation (several actually) of painters, rewriting the book, so to speak, on colour in art. It was the first scientific exploration of what colour is, and more specifically, what colour does in art.
For centuries colour had intimidated artists. Art had always had its basis in drawing, not in painting. Paint was something you used to colour your drawings. In French academic circles in fact, there developed a sort of mini-war between the "Poussinistes" and the "Rubenistes", or in other words, drawing versus colour. Drawing was controlled, logical, structural, and was able to accurately create order in a work, replicating the order of nature itself. Colour, on the other hand, was unnerving. It confused order, dispersed space, and was best used only in moderation.
Claude Monet, however, showed us that colour could be use to understand nature when applied in an accurate and disinterested manner. He demonstrated that it can disperse volume, or in broader applications, create the impression of pattern, in competition with drawing conventions such as perspective, and as a result, could radically alter one's appreciation of illusionistic space. Going a step further, picking up where Monet left off, Georges Seurat invented Pointillism, placing tiny dots of pure colour next to one another, letting the eye blend them into glimmering images of lucent beauty. Today, we spend hours and hours enjoying Seurat's dots and Chevreul's colour theory. Its called colour TV.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
4 February 1998