I love color. You would never know it from the neutrals in my house, but my brain is FULL of color. All. the.time. My kids joke that they stopped asking me my favorite color, because I could never give them an answer. I just can’t choose and it would change everyday anyway. Instead they started asking me, “What’s your favorite color right now?” Yes, it’s that bad. I love them all.
It turns out that although humans have probably loved color since God created the rainbow, real evidence of the analysis of color isn’t found until the 15th-century writings of Leonardo daVinci and Leon Battista Alberti. Later, Isaac Newton would pen his color theories dealing mostly with primary colors from a scientific standpoint in his book entitled Opticks. While art and color (or lack of color) have always been part and parcel of the artistic process, the invention of synthetic pigments in the 19th century changed the course of art forever.
As chemists began creating synthetic pigments, colors changed. New vibrant hues, not created from herbs or flowers or natural minerals, began showing up on canvases and while the established art society wasn’t super delighted about it, many newer artists and others who wanted to push the envelope saw it as a new world to explore. How would the use of new, vibrant color change the impact of the art they were creating?
Many artists took these new colors as an opportunity to “stick it to the establishment” of the traditional and elitist Salon and Académie des Beaux-Arts. When these artists, who were later given the title of Impressionists, began employing these colors in their works, many viewers and potential buyers were shocked. A few of them were even outraged and called them gaudy, but the Impressionists were undaunted and let the colors speak. They rejected the final washes of thick varnish to tone down their colors and used vibrant colors to indicate light and shadows. Renoir was famous for saying,“No shadow is black. It always has a color. Nature knows only colors … white and black are not colors.”
Here is a great article on the pigments that were created during this period that would change the course of art history. Many of the pigments developed during this time period like Cerulean Blue, synthetic Ultramarine Blue, Mars Red, Lemon Yellow, and Viridian Green are in my palette today, and I am thankful. Some of the new pigments didn’t last the test of time because they were either toxic or unethically produced, but these innovations paved the way for artists to use color to express their emotions and to evoke similar emotions in the viewer. It is hard to imagine from my viewpoint in history that all these colors were new and exciting. Artists were not only creating, they were innovating. They were exploring uncharted territory and putting these new colors through their paces and figuring out what would work and what wouldn’t.
During this time period a theory about color usage called Simultaneous Contrast noted that colors placed in proximity to one another change the way we perceive those colors. This was an exciting discovery for artists who were searching for new ways to express themselves. For example, complimentary colors placed next to one another make each color seem more vibrant and other colors placed in proximity change the viewer’s perception of those colors.
This painting by Matisse is a perfect example of this color theory in practice.
Pisarro, Degas, Van Gogh, Signac, Seurat and their contemporaries employed these techniques to draw the viewers attention to certain focal points and to evoke an emotional response.
Artists began using these techniques and color theories in their works. A good article that explains this in more detail with examples can be found here. I took the above photo at a recent Degas exhibition. This picture doesn’t do justice to the vibrancy of these colors. The orange-red makes the complimentary blue color sing and was, literally, awe-inspiring.
This Van Gogh draws the viewer ‘s eye immediately into the cafe with his usage of color. I could stare at this for hours.
So, as I pick up my brush and sit down to paint again and I consider the juicy colors that fill my palette, I am grateful to those who paved the way and changed the course of art history. Thanks to them, and the development of so many gorgeous pigments, my inability to pick a favorite seems terminal.