Chromaphilia: A Masterful Book About Color in Art Illuminates Graphic Design, Too

Chromaphilia: The Story of Color in Art, Stella Paul, Phaidon Press.

Chromaphilia: The Story of Color in Art, Stella Paul, Phaidon Press.

“Color is stronger than language. It’s a subliminal communication,” writes artist Louise Bourgeois as quoted in the introduction to Chromaphilia: The Story of Color in Art by Stella Paul. Proceeding from this premise, Paul’s investigation into how color informs Western art through centuries of practice is nothing short of vast and psychoanalytic. Color acts as a kind of primary unconscious, motivating a remarkable array of artistic decisions in ways both visible and invisible.

After reading this book, color feels like the mastermind criminal orchestrating entire heists in full view, yet somehow always eluding capture. Color is complicit in every level of the artwork, yet its devious power is maddeningly aloof or discounted in importance. Even for color nuts like myself, the book opens up fresh ways of seeing art and design.


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The book’s introduction lays out its map for investigation. Color starts as material: the ground rocks, squeezed snails, crushed insects, and other pigments and binders that constituted artists’ materials in the centuries before synthetic color. I’m a sucker for these stories, which reveal a basic fact astonishing to us moderns: before synthetics, colors came at drastically different costs. We’ve gotten so used to the rainbow of sweaters in The Gap display, all offered at the same price, we fail to realize that pre-synthetic dyes would make the dull, yellowish or brown sweaters cheap and the brilliant blues, reds or blacks incredibly dear. Colors’ material history is also a history of technology for artists; the available colors for making artworks determined a lot about what artworks from given eras look like. Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color by Philip Ball is a fantastic read on this history.

Chromaphilia: The Story of Color in Art, Stella Paul, Phaidon Press. Open at pages 116-7, Purple, showing Small Morning, 1808 (left) and Proofs of Color Globes, 1810 (right), by Philip Otto Runge

Chromaphilia: The Story of Color in Art, Stella Paul, Phaidon Press. Open at pages 116-7, Purple, showing Small Morning, 1808 (left) and Proofs of Color Globes, 1810 (right), by Philip Otto Runge

But Stella Paul’s ambitions in this book encompasses much more. She starts with artists’ materials—eschewing the rainbow-order principle at play on many color books, her first chapter is all about brown and earth pigments—and moves to color in artistic practice: the surprisingly mutable primary colors from era to era, prohibitions against mixing colors that held sway for centuries, and other implicit and explicit rules about using color in art. She talks about color’s many properties beyond hue, like value (brightness or darkness) and saturation (the amount of pure, undiluted color present) as well as shininess and other lesser-noticed qualities. She tackles color theory and the tricky relationship between color and light, which span the art world with known scientific principles as well as philosophy and religion. Color as communication in context takes a pungent, concentrated look at how color means different things across cultures—the thrust of my own book, ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color.

[Related: Pantone’s 2017 Color of the Year: Greenery! | The Resurgence of Yellow Book Covers]

Perusing the actual book is fun, if occasionally a slog through some overly pious art-criticism-speak. To me, Paul’s observations are most revealing when they dig into a particular artist’s process, fluttering the temporal veil of how the work got made and how color’s manipulations along the way contribute to the final effect. A double portrait by Anthony van Dyck—an apparently staid, brown-dominated affair of two brothers striking effeminately well-dressed poses—comes alive once you explore van Dyck’s layered process for building up layers of color, starting with “Cassel earth” and bistre, two brown pigments derived from dirt and pitch respectively. It’s quietly revelatory to learn how van Dyck worked up these two humble pigments into a luminous, deep composition, with masterful control over the paints’ drying times. A stained-glass landscape by Louis Comfort Tiffany (in the blue chapter) gets its watercolor-like effects not from overpainting but from cleverly manipulated layers of glass. Modern designers, whose work involves lots of pixel-pushing, may find these artists’ struggle against paint’s physicality a triumph of the computer—or a tragic loss of possible aesthetic effects.

Vadim Zakharov (b.1959), Danae. 2013, mixed media, dimensions variable, installation at the Russian Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Picture credit: Daniel Zakharov, photography & art, www.danielzakharov.de (page 141, lower)

Vadim Zakharov (b.1959), Danae. 2013, mixed media, dimensions variable, installation at the Russian Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Picture credit: Daniel Zakharov, photography & art, www.danielzakharov.de (page 141, lower)

An art historian and educator with twenty-plus years of experience at the Met and Smithsonian, Paul often delights with pairings of old and new works that nod to similar subjects. Take Titian’s painting Danae Receiving the Golden Rain, in the gold chapter. Danae’s father has locked her up against a prophecy, in which a godson would kill the grandfather. However, Zeus sneaks into Danae’s rooms and impregnates her via a cloud that rains golden coins, thus fulfilling the prophecy. It’s paired with the 2013 work Danae by Vadim Zahkarov: an atrium receives a constant shower of recycled golden coins; only women are allowed to stroll through the spray, toting clear plastic umbrellas.

Paul ranges through exciting, sometimes surprising landscapes with each color chapter. Take green, for instance: obviously she explores green in natural landscapes, although the actual greens used provide a fascinating index for how naturalistic versus abstracted such landscapes really were. Green undertones of flesh—not just as a symbol of nausea – comprise a surprisingly large tradition. Or white: the color lauded for its neoclassical purity was actually covered entirely by paint during actual, classical antiquity. Moreover, white’s status as the unity of all color wavelengths is a recent observation—and one flatly contradicted at times by modern works in which white denotes absence, an other-colored void similar to its cousin black. It’s also exhilarating to think of color effects as the artist deliberately playing with your optic nerve: Dan Flavin searing in color-juxtapositions via fluorescent lights or the Impressionists using paint for optical mixing effects that take place in the eye and brain.

Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow, from the west pediment of the Parthenon, Athens, c.438–32 bc, marble, 135 cm (53¼ in), British Museum, London. Picture credit: akg-images / © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd (page 202)

Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow, from the west pediment of the Parthenon, Athens, c.438–32 bc, marble, 135 cm (53¼ in), British Museum, London. Picture credit: akg-images / © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd (page 202)

Chromaphilia: The Story of Color in Art, Stella Paul, Phaidon Press. Open at pages 220-1, White, showing Untitled (to Henri Matisse), 1962, by Dan Flavin

Chromaphilia: The Story of Color in Art, Stella Paul, Phaidon Press. Open at pages 220-1, White, showing Untitled (to Henri Matisse), 1962, by Dan Flavin

Handsomely printed, the book is replete with full-color reproductions of every artwork discussed. One wonders occasionally at why certain artworks get the full-page treatment and others a punier canvas which strain the eye when trying to follow along with Paul’s commentary. Chromaphilia dabbles in 3D and non-Western artworks, but not always in ways that make sense; it’s uncomfortable to observe one pre-Columbian Peruvian painting closely, but then abandon that tradition entirely as if it was one-note or pre-staging of the Western Art panoply to follow. And sometimes the turgid art-history prose encroaches too much, accepting the artist’s sweeping statements about their own work a bit too earnestly.

But really, these register as only minor flaws in an otherwise illuminating, deeply useful book. Artists, art lovers and designers alike will finish the book enriched by a new sense of where color fits in the long, tricky tradition of visual statements. Paul’s work is a fitting inheritor to earlier color-in-art books like the works of John Gage or Josef Albers.


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