Color and Painting

by Carl Schmitt

It is true not only of painting but of all the other fine arts that the creative impulse of the composer is “put over” through the medium of form. This does not mean, since this is so, that the artist is absolved from considering color as an integral part of form. Form is made in painting by means of color, and it is precisely because this is so that the good artist must study carefully the inherent ability of each hue in the spectrum to perform a different function in the creation of the formal planes. Moreover, color not only can make forms and voids—it also can create illusions of light, shadow and space. The beginner is most aware of one function of his pigment, namely to initiate or “match” the “tints” or local color of nature. In a picture this is the least important role which local-color plays and the good artist consequently leaves this local-color more of less to chance and devotes his attention to those faculties of color which he is at first prone by nature to overlook.

One of the first practical truths which he discovers by experience is that he must plan his picture, dividing the evolution of the work into at least two distinct stages. He cannot possibly take care simultaneously of the complexities of light and shade, form, and local-color—cannot control the many different factors in one operation or in one mode of procedure. He soon discovers that he must attack the different problems in a certain order and combine the all at the end. Only in this way can he apparently impossible be accomplished; and what often seems a technical miracle is in fact achieved by a patient progress step by step toward the final unity.

Only thus can a great work of fine art be accomplished in painting, because good technique performance enters to a greater degree into the merits of a work of painting than it does in an art such as music where the composer does not, because of the nature of his art, combine performance with composition as is the case with painting.

In a great painting the fullness of the depth of form has been realized: the composer-performer has designed in three planes. How unfamiliar is the idea of design in all directions is easily provable by asking someone at random their meaning of the word “design.” The average person will visualize a line-drawing on one plane (two dimensions) that is “glued” to the picture plane, and only very rarely will the answer include design in perspective, i.e., in all directions. Thus the master-painter is one who can visualize form in three categories: he has achieved unity out of a greater complexity of form than the flat designer. To see form in three-planes is to free it fully.

The two divisions in the process of painting a picture which have been practiced almost as long as we have any evidence of painting in the world are these: first to put down the design in black and white values; and second to finish with the colors.

Up until modern times the practice almost invariably consisted in making the monochrome under-painting take care of the design of the form, and the light-and-shade only consistently ignoring the local-colors. A study of the great Italians or Flemish, especially in the drawings (which were usually done to serve models for the under-painting) will show this tendency to ignore the local-color values until such color was laid on in the final painting. The brilliant “electrical” effects of Greco were largely achieved by opposing dramatically a single brilliant blue mass upon a careful under-painting of brown. Indeed this opposition of blue to brown is the principle resource of painting today.

Modifications, however, have been introduced into the simple straight forward procedure of the older painters because of the discovery of more recent times of the “weights” of colors—the inherent quality which has already been mentioned of a color to model in its own peculiar way. For example, a drawing made in blue chalks exclusively will tend to design only on two-planes, and with blue alone one cannot reach the fullness modeling in three planes which is possible in a drawing in red chalks. The tendency to design in the “horizontal-vertical” in the blue-chalk drawing is of course is conceived mainly by the atmosphere-making ability of blue: This hue does not admit of the sharpest and solidest definition. To the atmosphere tendencies of the hue must be added the fact that the value of blue is grey in the scale of black to white, whereas black is the value of red. We can readily see from this why the latter hue is capable of modeling form much more fully and poignantly.

© Copyright 2010 Carl Schmitt Foundation