Color and meaning: Art, science, and symbolism

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    Color and Its Reproduction, 2nd Edition, by Gary G.Field, GATF Press, Pittsburgh, 1998. 486 pp. $65

    This is a substantial hard-backed book with 455 pages, athorough list of references and a comprehensive index. Asyou would expect from a book of this title the quality of theprinting is excellent, with large, easily-read typescript oncoated paper and copious color illustrations. One of thereferences is Prof. Robert Hunts book The Reproductionof Colour, 5th Edition, Fountain Press, 1995, and it was tothis volume that I naturally turned in order to make com-parisons.

    Field states in his preface that his book is primarilydirected to those involved in the production of printedcolor reproductions; notably, skilled prepress and print-ing personnel, quality analysts and production manag-ers. Hunts book, on the other hand, puts equal emphasison colour photography and television, and leaves colourprinting until last. A comparison of the indices of the twobooks confirms the impression. Field has 29 referencesincluding some whole sections on dot gain whereasHunt has 2. Density has 49 in Field and 19 (but dividedinto categories such as actinic, analytical, diffuse etc.) inHunt. It would be frustrating to locate the type of densityof interest in the former case! Coloured couplers gets 7mentions in Hunts index, along with one on Colourdevelopment, dye coupling but there is no sign of thesubject at all in Fields. Color separation has 47 men-tions in Field and a whole chapter devoted to the subject,whereas it does not feature at all in Hunts index. Thereis just one on Separation negatives. The 2 books areclearly very different, which goes to show that you can-not judge a book by its title.

    However, Field, on page 1, states that the color repro-duction process includes making photographic color trans-parencies and prints, television images, computer monitordisplays and printed reproductions. It is a pity, therefore,that the subjects of photography, television and monitors areso skimpily covered.

    There are 15 chapters in Fields book, chapters 7-15being about color printing on paper. One might expect achapter entitled Color Communication (chapter 14) to bebroader than this, but it is entirely centered on printing.Chapters 1-6 are about the history of color reproduction,color theory, perception, measurement and specification,with a rogue chapter, chapter 3, inserted on the subject offeed-back and control systems for color management inprinting companies. This would have been better placednear the end of the book, but is clearly a specialism of theauthor.

    Chapter 1, on the history of color reproduction, con-

    tains a long list of landmark developments without thebenefit of theory, which comes later, or diagrams toclarify what the inventions entailed. I found some errorsin the early chapters, but will only mention two here.

    a. In the diagrams to illustrate 3 color vision theories onpage 52 there seems to be no signal passed from thered-sensitive cones to the brain.

    b. The diagram of the gamut of a good commercial processink set on the CIE chromaticity chart on page 135 and onthe front cover of the book shows white at its center.This is unfortunate in view of the fact that subtractivemixtures will only produce grey or black, and tradition-ally it is in diagrams illustrating additive mixture thatwhite is placed at the center.

    There are some surprising omissions in the book too. Iwould have expected to see a diagram to illustrate across-screen grid and another to show how halftone im-ages are produced from a continuous tone negative earlyon in the book. Mention of a diffraction grating whendiscussing means of producing the spectrum is surelyessential. When discussing color order systems and at-lases I thought a printer would at least mention thePantone System. The lack of a single chemical formula ormathematical equation except in the Appendices is alsosurprising.

    In conclusion I have to admit that I am not in a positionto make much comment on the graphics content of thisbook, but from what I can glean it is excellent.


    Color and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism byJohn Gage, University of California Press, 1999. 320 pp.Cloth $55; paper $35

    I view color as somewhat fluid and untenable as opposed tocolor as completely quantifiable and determinate. For thisreason, I appreciate the writings of John Gage, who empha-sizes that color in its full form can only be examined with amultidisciplinary viewpoint, because there are no exact so-lutions to color problems. For example, the quantification ofa specific color leads us no closer to understanding how aculture attaches meaning to that color; formal art analysesdo not answer the questions of how a public interacts withcolor on a daily basis. And this is the theme of his book,Color and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism. Gagesuccinctly and wonderfully outlines this theme:

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  • [Colour]. . .is like all formal characteristics ideologi-cally neutral. It can be seen to have served a very widerange of aesthetic and symbolic purposes; and the samecolours or combinations of colours can, for example,be shown to have held quite antithetical connotationsin different periods and cultures, and even at the sametime and in the same place.

    Gage presents the larger picture from the perspective ofan art historian, who strips colors of their presumed mean-ings so they exist as indifferent constituents. He is equallycomfortable presenting Medieval assumptions that colorwas not primarily a matter of hue, the rudiments of contex-tual theory. To read Gage is to meander with him on lesstrodden paths. Published on the heals of Color and Culture,this is a compilation of material that Gage says did not finda place in that book. From a chapter on William Blakesinterest in optics to synaesthesia, Gage provides his readersfascinating glimpses into the diverse aspects of color. Asection on shot fabrics, for example, those woven with warpand weft threads of different colors, is one such rewardingdigression. Often enamored by the Renaissance painterssuch as Andrea del Sarto, the shifting of colors on shotfabrics led to the invention of the painterly technique calledcangiantismo, the representation of shadows on fabrics withcolor changes rather than value changes as a way to intro-duce more luminous colors into the paintings. Gage minessuch topics with extensiveness and perspicacity as open-ended questions, which documents from history can eluci-date.

    The second theme that appears from such an approach isechoed in the books title. There exists historically a po-lemic between those who approach color understandingscientifically and those who regard color as an intuitiveprocedure. Gage writes:

    Since Newton the science and the art of colour havebeen usually treated as entirely distinct, and yet to treatthem so is to miss many of the most intriguing as-pects.

    At an 1817 dinner party, Benjamin Haydon remarked thatNewton believed nothing unless it was as clear as threesides of a triangle. Another member of that discussion wasthe poet Keats, who went home to pen lines in his Lamiaattacking Newton, Do not all charms fly at the mere touchof cold philosophy? and that his theories . . .Unweave therainbow.

    We may be tempted to delegate such positions to history.However, ask artists how they choose their colors, and alarge number will remark that they choose them by intu-ition. They consider, and I think incorrectly so, that theoryis nothing but a dry exercise that can kill any innate talentfor color usage. Investigations into how color study evolvedinto two antithetical viewpoints provide exciting reading.Gage pursues this question by reexamining the broad-basedmutual influence found in artistic and scientific discoveries.

    An account of the development of the prism, called byChristopher Merrett in 1662 the fools Paradise takes thereader through a lineage starting with investigations of thecolors passing through hexagonal stones in the 1270s andculminating with the publication of Jodocus TrutfettersPhilosophie Naturalis Summa of 1517. Here, the predeces-sors to Newtons experiments are found in Trutfettersoptical experiments in a darkened room, where he allowedlight to enter through a single hole in the shutter. He thenpassed through the light a variety of optical devices includ-ing a glass rod, a mirror, and a hexagonal stone. AlthoughTrutfetter does not mention a triangular glass or prism (theprism was evidently not seen before the middle of the 16thcentury), Newtons own experiments of 1666 echo themethodology of these experiments. Upon viewing the spec-trum, Newton attempted to articulate the exact number ofdiscrete colors cast by the prism: first citing eleven, thenfive, and finally deciding upon seven. It is Gages preoccu-pation not merely to relate a well-known historical mile-stone, but to enlarge it. This inquiry into the historicalcontext and the way interest in light cast by hexagonalstones by numerous researchers predating Newton certainlybroadens the narrative. Newtons settling upon seven colorswas a correlation with seven tones of the Western musicalscale, indicating a preoccupation with a viewpoint thatsuggested the number of colors should fit with a greater ormore divine ordering system. Gage demonstrates how sucha viewpoint was not new; around 1355 the three colors gold,scarlet, and green were suggested as colors relating not onlyto the Trinity and a correlative triad, but also found in theobserved colors of nature such as on a peacocks tail. Thesecolorful explorations and foundations are wonderfully ex-plored by Gages careful research and engrossing writing.

    Those interested in color-ordering systems cannot fail tonote how early models were bounded by regular polygons,a natural extension of the proposition that a divine andperfect universe must in its parts be beautifully ordered. Thephilosophical premise of William of Ockham, called Ock-hams Razor, states that Entities are not to be multipliedbeyond necessity, or, put in another way, nature takes thesimplest course to get something done. This is one of thedelights in reading Gage; by using other texts contempora-neous to early investigations of color, he broadens thefoundation of influence. He suggests that Ockhams Razorplays a larger role in the perception of and ordering ofcolors. Thus, Newtons antagonist Robert Hooke sought toapply the reductive premise by constructing a theory utiliz-ing only two primary colors. These reductive theories even-tually confounded painters, as well as those who attemptedto create practical color models and unified color theories.

    One may ask if Gage reaches his goal of presenting a casestrong enough to unify the polarized disciplines of colorstudy. He attempts and succeeds in showing that the linesbetween art and science, between the operations of natureand the activities of artists, were linked since pre-Socratictimes and that the rift between the two is relatively recent.

    Twentieth-century developments of color theory and re-

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  • searches into the eye/brain system are not Gages forte, eventhough the connection between creative endeavors and colorscience has proven a very valuable impetus for many twen-tieth-century artists and researchers. Thus, while Gage fi-nally suggests that recent technological advances can onlyhelp artists, thus reuniting the two, it is a determinationgleaned from a potpourri of essays and presentations ofhistorical positions. Or in his words:

    If there is a unifying thread running through thesechapters, it is that since colour has a vivid life outsidethe realm of art, its problems even within that realmcannot be understood exclusively from within the his-tory and theory of art itself; or rather that at least inrespect of colour, that history and that theory must beseen to be part of a larger picture.

    Detailing the point of some Byzantine mosaics: he rec-ognizes that the optical result caused by small tesseraearranged with staggered colors is a mingling to the eye,which creates soft edges and shimmering color. The lateFloyd Ratliff approached the experience of viewing smallpieces of color from a psychophysical perspective by pro-ceeding with the physiological process and moving towardthe psychological. Gage immediately focuses on the artisticfunction of the colors. To him they invite a . . .continualadvance and retreat by the spectator, because they nevercompletely fuse to one single color. This is an obvious factto anyone who has ever stood before a mosaic or a neo-impressionist painting, and a fact in contradiction to anumber of art historians who blindly posit that the smallmarks blend to a solid color with any viewing distance.

    There are many such trenchant expositions in this bookand its hard to find anything to disagree with. A few readersmay feel their hair bristle upon reading Gages pronounce-ment that the work of Berlin and Kay is remarkably in-consequential. Their groundbreaking work sparked exten-sive research into the connections between language andcolor, a debt owed to them by many researchers. Further-more, Gage suggests Berlin and Kays research is not par-ticularly relevant to everyday life, where we are far moreconcerned with nuances of color rather than primaries. Myexperience in the classroom with hundreds of beginningpainters and students of color directly contradicts this state-ment. To them a sky is blue, a tree green their mentalconception corresponds more with Berlin and Kays elevenbasic colors, and this reduced notion appears to circumventtheir early ability to perceive color nuances. Their difficultyin describing colors in terms of hue, value, and saturation,further suggests, at least to me, the ways in which linguisticcategorization of colors influences perceptions.

    Color and Meaning is profusely illustrated with color andblack-and-white plates, and this makes for pleasurable read-ing, because the work in question is represented. Thirty-fourpages of notes and a 6-page selected bibliography allowreaders to look up the source being discussed. Indeed, this is

    a real strength of Gages work. His reliance on sources andthe presentation of original documents rather than relyingon later interpretations appears in some cases radical, be-cause the conclusions contradict many poorly researchedbooks. Gages care in researching material sets a model forhow art historians should approach color.

    A fascinating chapter suggests that Matisse shifted froma position of conceiving black as a dark value to that ofcolored light. This idea is crowned by his title page for the1943 De la Couleur in which a black sun sends forth herrays. Matisse is said to have remarked that when he didntknow what color to use he would apply black, but Gage digsfurther. Matisse attributes his use of black to black groundmonotypes he did about 1914. In the same year, we learnthat he may have seen black conte crayon drawings bySeurat that Felix Feneon had in his collection, as well asPicassos Harlequin of 1915, a painting containing a blackground. But why Matisse later seemed to view black as alight is deeper than artistic influences and, according toGage, perhaps fueled by contemporary interest in black lightas a physical phenomenon, as developed by Gustave Le Bonstarting in 1896. Le Bons premise was that the visiblespectrum formed less than one-tenth of the whole, and heshowed that infra-red and other radiations due to invisiblephosphorescence could act like light while remaining invis-ible, a fact he demonstrated with the use of photography.Whether Matisse was aware of Le Bons work is debatable;he possibly read an article on the subject in 1913. Gagepresents a case of possible influence upon a portrait Matissedid of his wife in 1913. Here the eyes are blackened out, andanother portrait of 1914 shows arching rays emanating fromthe sitter, a concept described by Le Bon in his article of1913.

    In his essay Color Has Not Yet Been Named: Objectiv-ity in Deconstruction, Stephen Melville offers this unpur-sued overview:

    Subjective and objective, physically fixed and cultur-ally constructed, absolutely proper and endlessly dis-placed, color can appear as an unthinkable scandal.The story of color and its theory within the history ofart is a history of oscillations between its reduction tocharm or ornament and its valorization as the radicaltruth of painting. From these oscillations other vibra-tions are repeatedly set in motion that touch and disturbmatters as purely art-historical as the complex inter-locking borders among and within the individual artsand as culturally far-reaching as codings of race andgender and images of activity and passivity.

    Taken as a challenge for research, the paragraph couldeasily sum up Gages brilliant work. Color and Meaning isa magnificent read and an impeccable resource.


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