Hierarchy of colors

Like levels of scale.

If we are working at a painting, or the color of a building or an object, as we slowly move it towards inner light, we shall find out almost before anything else that in the vast majority of cases, to make inner light occur, we are led to use unequal amounts of different colors. In all those things which succeed in having inner light, we will find that we have followed a broad general rule: the different colors must come in different quantities.

This is just as simple as it sounds. The amounts of different colors are numerically different — and usually follow a series of graded steps. So, we find out that as we create light in a thing, and move a thing towards a state of having light, the colors in the composition will move gradually towards a nicely ordered sequence of quantities, as measured by their relative areas. If I want to formulate this as a rule, I can say that inner light is caused first and most strongly by a rule of proportion among colors which creates a clear hierarchy of relative size among the areas of different colors in a picture.

A successful composition in which there are equal areas of several different colors is extremely rare. Instead, what we find in almost all cases where real unity of color feeling is achieved is a well ordered hierarchy of sizes (amounts, quantities, or areas) for the different colors. This means that there is one color which has the largest total area. In the middle there are sometimes two or three colors. Then there are again, other colors, which have still smaller areas. And, usually, near the bottom of the hierarchy, there are colors in very small amounts which play a major role in the way the wholeness works.

A failure of the painter to follow this rule of hierarchy is the single most common mistake which can be made in a painting. The rule is so basic, and so simple-minded, that it appears trivial. But there are almost no examples of inner light where it is not followed.

This rule can be traced directly to the way the wholeness works. If we think about the field of centers, we know that there must be different centers, of different scales. What is surprising is that the subtle glow of color which is produced in a thing, will only be there when the colors themselves follow the same rule. Thus we see how the field of centers begins to create the glow of light — the glimpse of pure unity.

I want to make it clear that there is no need to follow this rule blindly, as if it were a prescription. But if you work and work at a thing, and keep on trying to push it toward inner light, then you will find out, after the fact, that nine times out of ten, you have been forced (or led) to create a hierarchy of colors in the thing. I do not consider this an arbitrary or externally imposed rule. What makes it important is that it is an observable fact, something you can find out for yourself from your own efforts to make inner light appear.

(Pages 174-178)

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