The following is a description of a 6 year process that led to a personal way of dealing with color ambiguity. While afterimages are something most of us are familiar with and pointillism is something we all understand, its important to know how these two things are related to our own work.
I've always felt passionate about color. Color has always come naturally to my work. But it wasn't until a few years ago that I started to really look at colors in the world around me. When I began to dedicate the majority of my work to outdoor painting, the challenges of color increased.
I remember the Winter of 2008 when I started seeing colors change right before my eyes.
I was painting leafless trees in a wooded area near where we lived in South Korea. It was hilly orchards and deep blue skies showed through the sparse limbs of persimmon trees. I started noticing that the sky changed colors each time I looked up at it. And since I was filling in the areas between the limbs of trees, much like stained glass, I was able to go with the changes that I saw.
The problem was that the sky wasn't really changing. The changes were the result of afterimages that affected my eyes. The closer I looked, the worse the phenomenon became. I was using prussian blue for the upper sky and phthaylo in the lower areas. But then found that black or alizerin or white was necessary. And then sometimes I saw what I can only describe as "glowing ochre" in there which I chose to ignore.
But I only painted this phenomenon some of the time, when it was really apparent or convenient. Or when it worked. At other times I noticed it, but ignored it. I remember in 2010 working in China's Yunnan Province trying to paint a rose afterimage that hovered over the horizon. The result, in the painting below, was less than ideal.
Now, looking back with more understanding than before, I realize that even the red sensation that I felt in green trees, for example, was likely a result of afterimages. The painting above of a tree canopy over a rushing creek was painted in 2010. At the time, I thought it was "passionate feeling". The color felt more right than the green of the actual trees.
Recently I traveled to a lake in Northern Yunnan to paint. I decided I wanted to paint water, a subject that I didn't have much experience with. Right away I was faced with the problem of ambiguous color--the ambiguity caused by intense observation. In the past I was seeing things simply and it was easy to pick a color based on simple perception. But I found that I was beyond this simple way of seeing, and I also found it impossible to ignore what i could now see. In one flat area of water or sky I was now seeing 3 and 4 color sensations. The frustration of not being able to decide on which to use was causing a lot of problems.
The main problem was self doubt. I wasn't sure if what I was seeing was normal. I thought maybe my eyes were causing me problems--some sort of sensitivity malfunction. When I felt more positive about the problem, I sometimes imagined that these illusions were a source of what we see in some of Van Gogh's creations. But I wasn't sure.
If it was a matter of several different blues it might have been easier to deal with. But what I was seeing was blue, green, yellow, pale chalky colors and then perhaps something going towards violet. A reflection of a mountain presented something near brick red, a pale naples yellow, a paynes grey, copper, etc.
What I ended up doing was picking a color or solving the problem by setting up color combinations that worked. For the painting above I found that cadmium red deep and cad yellow deep with white got me somewhere close to what I could call "actual color". But these weren't actual colors because what I found was that there was no "actual color" More importantly, these color combinations were not expressing the feeling that i was getting from the scene. The colors were not depicting the sensations of what I was feeling.
Then one day something dawned on me. I thought, why don't I paint every color that I am sensing, but in separate brush strokes. (something akin to pointillism) Perhaps it would present the same effect as what I was seeing.
And it worked. Below is the first painting of its kind.
After a month there painting, I came home to rest and completed a series of small still lifes of apples. I wanted to continue painting. I knew that I was going back to Yunnan in May and didn't want to lose the feelings that I had. My worst fear was going back after a month only to find that I had to start over from scratch.
While painting apples, I continued to utilizes dabs of paint when I needed to express an area of ambiguous color. In the past I would never have thought of using pointillism in my work. It's such a specific technique that it feels somehow corny to even think of doing something with dots. The last time I did anything with pointillism was in high school. But now I was using it because I needed it. And in a way I felt like I understood something of it's origin. I no longer saw Seurat as finding a new gimmick. It seemed that he had instead naturally discovered something that was necessary.
When I returned to the lake in May I was armed with a technique for expressing what I was seeing. I could use it when I needed it, and that's what I did. When I felt red in the greens, I put it there. When green reeds felt cold and blue I put it there. Clouds reflecting in the water felt at once yellow, white and violet, and these are the colors that I used. Was it the actual color? No. But I had already decided there wasn't an actual color. And this new way of painting was giving me something even better: a matched sensation.
One day I went into town for coffee at a guesthouse and ended up surfing the internet looking for inspiration. I discovered the website www.powersofobservation.com and an article called Cezanne's Doubt by Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
I'm ending this article with a passage from that article that sort of explains all that I've recounted here. It's the first time I've seen it put into words so clearly. (If I had read this a few years ago it might have saved me some confusion) I've underlined the second half which really hit home for me and explained what it was that I had been doing and most importantly WHY I needed to do it.
"He (Cezanne) quickly parted ways with the impressionists, however. Impresionism was trying to capture, in the painting, the very way in which ojects strike our eyes and attack our senses. Objects were depicted as they appear to instantaneous perception, without fixed contours, bound together by light and air. To capture this envelope of light, one had to exclude siennas, ochres, and black and use only the seven colors of the spectrum. The color of objects could not be represented simply by putting on the canvas their local tone, that is, the color they take on isolated from their surroundings; one also had to pay attention to the phenomena of contrast which modify local colors in nature. Furthermore, by a sort of reversal, every color we perceive in nature elicits the appearance of its complement; and these complementaries heighten one another. To achieve sunlit colors in a picture which will be seen in the dim light of apartments, not only must there be a green—if you are painting grass— but also the complementary red which will make it vibrate. Finally, the impressionists break down the local tone itself. One can generally obtain any color by juxtaposing rather than mixing the colors which make it up, thereby achieving a more vibrant hue. The result of these procedures was that the canvas—which no longer corresponded point by point to nature—afforded a generally true impression through the action of the separate parts upon one another. But at the same time, depicting the atmosphere and breaking up the tones submerged the object and caused it to lose its proper
It is the apples, still, and what I have learned at the lake that are teaching me about color. This year, figures and still lifes are what I want to pursue with this color, transforming them into something greater and more powerful than they were to begin with. This, I used to could do, and I am learning to do it again, but slowly. Nevertheless...