Monday, April 13, 2009

Chevreul's color theory

I recently attended a lecture at the American Art Museum by Judith Walsh. She lectured on M. Chevreul's color theory, and particularly how Winslow Homer used this theory in his paintings. Walsh was able to distill Chevreul's complicated theory concisely, and clearly illustrate the effects about which he wrote with graphic examples. She then moved on to describe how Homer ingested the theory, using his paintings to pinpoint the way in which he was able to use Chevreul's theory successfully. Wonderfully, Walsh's lecture did not denigrate Homer's work to a mere color-by-numbers understanding of Chevreul, but really a more clear expression of how Chevreul thought his theories could be used successfully in the arts. 

I was so impressed with the lecture I promptly went out and got The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors and their  Applications to the Arts. It is fascinating in part b/c of the brief biography given of Chevreul by Birren. Reading the color theory is heavy slogging, but well worth while. Evidently, most artists do not read Chevreul any longer b/c of those who first co-opted his writing, and their followers. He is now mostly forgotten. 

Chevreul was the first to note and test the consistent reaction of colors in relation to other colors. He also developed the above 3D color wheel, with the tone of the colors actually stemming from an understanding of the center (white=all colors) moving out to particularize into the various visible colors, and then up from white to black, and the tones for each color that makes. He went on to delineate all sorts of contrasting relationships between colors, their tones, and their compliments. 

Homer's absorption of Chevreul really was wonderfully applied to his paintings, and now knowing it I understand so much more of what is going on in his paintings: how he achieves such totality of effect and mood, etc. I particularly liked Walsh's personal admonishment of current scholarship of Homer. She said that it's true that Homer is self-taught (he did not go to art school)--however, being self-taught [and being of Homer's caliber] does not simply mean he was a genius. He was self-taught. He spent his entire life reading and re-reading Chevreul alone, as did he continue to study and work at his painting.

After reading the original text though, I am finding myself wishing that Walsh's lecture were available so that I could resorb her years of clear thinking on the subject! Perhaps she will publish a little book form of her lecture someday. Judith Walsh has contributed to books on Homer, such as Water Colors of Winslow Homer: The Color of Light

Representations of Color is a great article on the history of the development of the color wheel(s!).

1 comment:

scoffin said...

I wish I understood better the concepts of color that you are talking about. It seems like some of Chevreul's theories have become common knowledge to us now?

Also, it IS important to look at self taught artists realistically and realize that it takes a lot of work on their own!... not just a divine lightning bolt.