Intensity and clarity of individual colors

(strong centers, good shape)

Here there is an almost paradoxical ambiguity. Clarity of color is something inherent in the individual color. Yet, its effect is also created by the color interactions and by the impact of other colors on the individual color. Both are true.

And it is true that in the realm of color, we are startled sometimes by the beauty of a particular color — the blue of the sky near Naples, the red of a certain poppy, or the red glaze of certain famous Isnik ceramics from Turkey, so famous that a whole period of Turkish art history is defined by this red color.

When you are in the middle of painting, you can often concentrate only on the color you are mixing, and with great care and concentration, make that color by itself carry meaning, and be as beautiful in itself as possible. There is no doubt that you can make this effort, and no doubt that the process of finding a color which is beautiful and clear in itself, which has deep feeling in the color itself, is a process which is real.

But what it means — this clarity and beauty of a single color — is paradoxical. Is the color you find which has intense meaning and feeling in itself really a quality of the individual color by itself? Or is it a quality of this color in the interaction with its surroundings?

The idea that a structure can be a mirror of the soul has been described at length in Book 1. It depends on the idea that the living structure has this property. But the idea that a powder, a single color, could also have this property, is harder to understand. It is interesting, though, because it clearly shows that in Turkey there is a tradition in which it is understood that one color by itself may be more profound than another. The point of the precious powder is that its yellow is just the right yellow to be a picture of the self: other yellows would not have it. People today, understanding less about color, no longer distinguish profound colors from banal colors. They see only colors. They see only red, blue, yellow, green. They confuse ugly reds made by precise chemical processes with the beauty of the red we see in a poppy.

But the whole subject remains paradoxical. For it also seems doubtful to me that an individual color can really be beautiful by itself, and that this even means anything. Most of the rules we have studied in this chapter give examples of this way that light comes from the interplay of colors, not from their absolute beauty. We have seen how, to a large extent the beauty of color depends on the interaction between colors, on the relative amounts, relative lightness, relative hues. If you take any color — good or bad, no matter what it is — you can choose another color that in hue, lightness, intensity, and amount it makes the first one shine forth intensely. This is precisely the point of colors create light together, and it is just this which makes me feel that colors are all relative, work through their interaction, and therefore that there is no such thing as beauty of individual color.

This argument would seem to show that it is the interplay, the interaction, which produces light, not the absolute beauty of the individual colors themselves. Indeed, this idea does have tremendous force.

However, it turns out that the two ideas are interwoven. As I begin to master the idea of trying to make colors fuse together and glow with inner light, I find out one thing which is rather surprising: to do it, I am really trying to make each color shine out as strongly as possible, itself. Indeed, it turns out that this is the main thing that I need to try to do.

In centers, a strong center is one which stands strong by itself, and yet makes other nearby centers strong. That is part of the definition of a center. Just so, a color which shines strongly is a color which makes other colors nearby shine strongly, too. That is part of the definition of “strong”. So, as I try to make the red glow, I have to infuse it with little bits of purple, orange, and pink, work them into the fabric of the red, make places where a tiny spot of blue is showing through. As I accomplish it — as, gradually the red realm begins to glow — at the same time the other colors glow also.

This is exactly what I have to do which centers. Nothing can be a center by itself. It becomes a center and gets its life at the same time, and through the same process that brings all the other centers to life. To make a color shine out beautifully and most intensely actually requires that it is supported by all the other colors in the field.

Thus, by an odd paradox, by trying to make one color string and beautiful, I am forced to make the other colors which support it and make it work, harmonious and beautiful both with it, and in themselves. Just so, as I work to make each color beautiful, a center in itself, so I shall, automatically, at the same time also be making beauty in the harmony of the whole.

This, powerful as interaction is to produce inner light by combination and relative effects, still, also the individual color can be true or false, deep or shallow, clear or muddy. When the color is clear, it shines with inner light itself even before it is combined with other colors. In general the colors which occur in nature are beautiful ones. On the other hand, many colors made by mixing pigments are not beautiful. They can be dead, dull, lifeless. Mechanical codification of color, like the Munsell system, with its sphere of colors, leads us mistakenly to believe that all colors are equally valuable, just because each one has a similar looking code name.

On possible explanation of good color (the simplest) is that most paints, pigments, present a mixture of colors. The pigment functions by absorbing light — thus a red pigment gets its red by absorbing blue, yellow, and green wavelength light. However, this absorption is rarely perfect, leaving a muddy effect. On the other hand, pure red light (i.e. laser light or rainbow light) is actually pure, has just one wavelength in it. Perhaps the pigments we consider most beautiful are just the ones which emit a very narrow band of wavelengths, and thus approximate colored light.

However, I believe the correct view is that intensity and clarity of color is mainly an effect of interaction, and that the most important result of color interactions, when they are correct, is not only that the many colors together form a beautiful whole, but that the individual colors also come to life.

This is then exactly like the life of an individual center in the field of centers. The individual colors gets its intensity, clarity, beauty, and life from its location among the other colors which together form the context in which we can see and create, the individual color which shines. That is, I think, a version of the properties called strong centers and good shape.

(Pages 215-219)

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