Websites on color:

Color has three qualities--hue, saturation, and value. 
Webwhirlers The best site.  Emotional meanings of colors." See "red".    Chroma, intensity, saturation and luminance, shade and tint,
    primary, secondary, complementary, monochromatic, and analogous colors

Afterimages:  Jasper Johns' Flag   
A demonstration of color intensity:  Monet's Poppy Field   See the cute demonstration of tastebuds! 
See these optical illusions from
Pigments through the Ages.




Color and Impressionism

Most artists before 1870 had created shadows by simply lowering the value of colors--by adding gray or black.  The group of painters we call the Impressionists--Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Berthe Morrisot, Edgar Degas, Sisley, and others--understood that there are colors in shadows and painted their pictures that way.  (If you don't believe that there are colors in shadows, look outside when snow is on the ground, and you will see that the shadows not "black" but blue--sometimes deep blue--because they reflect the sky.)

Not surprisingly, at first viewers would not believe that these new Impressionist paintings were accurate or "natural," because their concept of what the world looked like was "colored" by previous paintings, which showed shadows as blacks or grays--and were pretty brownish generally.  (This is a well-known phenomenon: we all tend to see the world in terms of artistic images.) Also, the Impressionists' colors were much brighter and more intense than people were used to.  It was like turning up the volume on your music: at first it hurts.

The impressionists also understood the science of color.  See how Monet uses color in the Poppy Field.  If we remove the color from the picture, the poppies disappear altogether, because they are exactly the same intensity and value.

Due to modern chemistry, we take for granted the thousands of permanent colors we have to choose from in the paint store of the department store.  But early painters had only a few colors they could use that did not fade, and some were wildly expensive:  ultramarine, made from the rare mineral Asurite, was more expensive than gold in the Renaissance.  We now have thousands of colors and names for colors--people are even paid to invent these names.  But if you look in a painter's kit today you will still see names for colors, and these names have a history, like White Lead, Burnt Sienna, Umber, etc.  Blue was especially hard to make and expensive--it was produced by soaking the expensive semi-precious stone lapis lazuli.  One of the most permanent colors was black--and there was excellent "colorfast" )and expensive) Flemish cloth in black, so about the year 1500 people started wearing black clothing, and men have been wearing black ever since (except for brief time during the 1970's called "disco")  We are used to going into our closets or to the mall and finding any color we want, but new colors were pretty rare until the middle of the 19th century.  It was a drab world. 

Then new chemists started to experiment with something called coal tar, new colors were invented, and cloth was died with them.  One of the first was called "mauve" (pronounced mowve).  This is a picture of the Empress Eugenie of Austria and her handmaidens.  Guese which one is the Empress: she is wearing the hot new color, "mauve".  There is a whole book about the inventor of Mauve.

Anyway, beginning in the 1860's and by 1870, bright new colors in tubes liberated painters from mixing their own paints, which used to be a major part of the professional artist's training  Painters started to take their paint boxes outside and sometimes actually painted their final pictures out of doors, in front of the motif, or, en plein air, as the French say.

When you look in an artist's paint box, you will see lots of tubes of paint.  Which one is the biggest?   Look at this painting.  The Impressionists used a lot more WHITE.  They "lightened their palette."  No more paintings "the color of an old violin"!  One of the things you will notice when you go look at a lot of paintings made before 1870 is that they are very dark.  Well--WE think they are dark because we've seen Impressionism.  But to the critics of 1874 Impressionism seemed very bright and loud!  Imagine what it would be like to hear a powerful stereo if you had only heard a small radio before, or seeing a movie in widescreen color if you were used to old black and white movies.

[One other thing about white.  It is now made with cadmium, but used to be called "white lead"  (paint names often refer to the chemicals or minerals that make them up).  Artists would get white paint by soaking lead plates in chemicals like Mercury and scraping the flakes off that made the white pigment.  They also got very sick from lead poisoning, which made you seem drunk and stupid, was called "the artists disease.  So all artists were thought to be a little strange.]

Do colors have "meanings"?   And are these meanings inherent, or conventional and learned?  This question has a great deal written about it.  And we know that certain cultures associate certain ideas or emotions with colors--and not always the same ones: white is the color of death in many cultures, not black.  See the color red under "meanings" at Webwhirlers:     


In 1874 a group of unknown artists banded together and mounted an exhibition at the studio of the French photographer Nadar--who was sympathetic to their new approach to art.  They called themselves the "Anonymous Society of Artists," not "The Impressionists"    That name was affixed to the group by the critic Vauxcelles, who took the name from the title of one of the paintings in the exhibit by claude Monet called Sunrise, Impression  (Soilel Levant, Impression) of 1872. 

Art movements get their names in several different ways.  "Renaissance" is a French word coined only in 1855; "Baroque" and "Gothic," like "Impressionism" were originally derogatory terms invented by a subsequent age to disparage their predecessors; "Romanticism" was adopted by artists and musicians alike very quickly after it was popularized by the German poet Goethe about 1800, and the word continues to be applied any artwork that relies on feeling or emotion as opposed to reason and rules--or to the feeling itself.   We call art that "looks like something" "realistic" or "nalturalistic,"  but there was also an art movement called "Realism" that was invented and named by the artist Gustave Courbet in 1850 and Realism proper has come to mean any art of the later 19th century that depicts the lives of ordinary people, especially the lower classes and workers.  Courbet wanted to make a splash with his new art (Some of it had been rejected by the official art exhibit in Paris called the Salon), so he built a temporary exhibition building, charged admission, and called his art "Realism."  Other art movements followed Impressionism pretty quickly: "postimpressionism" was also a name invented by a critic (Roger Fry in 1913)  and the 20th century saw a profusion of "isms" like Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Suprematism, Abstract Expressionism, some of which were cbosen by the artists themselves in "manifestos," and some of which were applied by sympathetic or hostile critics--or even by other artists.  Artists might resist being labeled, but it usually helped their careers!  It frequently happens in art and popular culture that a new style needs a catchy "tag"--like Rock and Roll, Jazz, Disco, Heavy Metal, Swing, Pop Art, Op Art, etc.

But, back to 1874.  The "Salon" (French for "a large room")  was a huge exhibit held each year in Paris, and if you were an artists who wanted to advance your career, you had to get into this show--like our Academy Awards today (movies are our painting).  There was a jury (like the Academy Awards), but the jury was composed of established artists who had a vested interest in the older styles of art that they themselves still mined for patrons, and, under the pretext of protecting public taste (or, better, public morals) the jurors often kept new art and artists out of the Salon. 

These Salons were THE big artistic event of the year.  People of all social classes flocked to the openings, and the shows were reviewed by over a hundred newspapers in Paris in the 19th century.  It's hard to imaging that anyone could take painting that seriously, but they did. (We take movies that seriously, and there are hundreds of newspapers and websites that review movies (IMDB, Filmsite, Roger Ebert, and Rottontomatoes), and thousands of people who make a living in and around the movie and entertainment industry, from the famous and incorruptible critics like Roger Ebert to the bottom feeders like Paparazzi and runway critics.)  By the middle of the 19th century, many artists who were being rejected or "refused" entry into the Paris Salon (London also had one) complained, and things got so bad by 1863 that the King of France, who was the official sponsor of the show, created an entirely new show called the Salon des Refuse for all the rejected works, which that year included Edouard Manet's famous Dejeuner sur l'herbe and Olympia--now regarded as the most important paintings of their age).

There are two things to note here.  First, art is always changing, and new art is often hard to look at, understand, and appreciate--So are new movies, new music, and new books!)  Second, there is no right way to respond to art, and ultimately no demonstrably right assessment of it.  There is just no quick objective way to determine if any artwork is good, although we enjoy arguing about them!)  But whether an artwork is important or new is somewhat easier to determine.  In Western culture we stress innovation and originality, but other cultures don't: in China they learn to revere and paint like the old masters, and to memorize and quote revered and respected texts.   (American colleges ask our students to be "original," our students are expected not to copy other writers, perhaps because our culture has less respect for authority,)  In any case, Western culture values change and innovation.  And the pace of change and innovation picked up rapidly in the second half of the 19th century.

Impressionism was like the previous style, Realism, in that it focused on everyday life--what we can see around us.  But, unlike the Realists, the Impressionists were not very interested in people, social conditions, or politics.  They just wanted to paint the world as it "really" looked to the naked eye--not the way we think it looks.  Without giving a long history of 19th century art up to Impressionism, we can say that, generally, earlier art showed the world as people "knew" it to be (or thought they knew), not as they really saw it.  Egyptian art, for example, is heavily based on patterns or "schema" that only approximate for visual reality. Our brains do the rest.  Later artists in the Renaissance and Baroque got very good at representing the human body (which is a Western obsession) and also at rendering the landscape.  They also discovered ways of representing space and light.

Today, when WE look at Impressionism, it does not seem new or strange.  We accept that the colors are rich, that the light is bright, and that the brushwork is very bold.  We don't mind that the pictures seem a bit "sketchy."  But critics in 1874 were shocked, shocked  because they had never seen paintings like these.  True, painters had always done sketches out of doors, but they had to go back to the studio to make their final paintings because colors had to be mixed, a complicated and messy process.  The Impressionists, however, had newly invented TUBES of paint that somebody else had mixed in a factory: they could travel and paint anywhere and mix their palettes on the spot.

The Impressionists also challenged the prevailing concept of the "artists' sketch."  Previously, sketches had been considered private and preliminary. A "major" Salon painting might take a year of more to produce, and it would be based on many sketches and false starts.  You wouldn't show a sketch in an formal exhibit any more that you would show up at the opening in your underwear.  Back into the studio the artists would patiently create the final painting based on the rules or composition and color they had learned in the art academies, workshops, or schools.  Most artists in 1870 thought that compositions should be carefully fabricated and details should be rendered more accurately than the eye can really see.  Paintings had to be "finished" and polished.  These were attitudes that the art academies had instilled in both artists and the public--and "academic" painting continued to hold onto these values well into the 20th century (Indeed, a huge website called The Art Renewal Center is still fighting a vigorous rear-guard action against Impressionism and everything that followed it--which we now call Modernism. The folks at the Art Renewal Center have, as we say, an agenda, and, in a way that has become familiar in the history of art criticism, attack art they don't like on moral grounds.) 

In contrast to the academics, the Impressionists began to think of their sketches as the final product--or rather not to think of their works as sketches at all.  They liked the immediate quality they were getting in these canvasses that were painted quickly, out of doors, "in front of the motif,"  precisely because they were interested in the fleeting effects of light and atmosphere for their own sake and were trying to capture and render what the world in front of them really looked like.  Accurate (if bold) color, air, and light became their obsessions.  In other words, the Impressionists wanted to make paintings that were even more real or "true" to what we actually see.  But, of course, this was a new and shocking vision because, having grown up on older art, nobody thought the world looked like that. 

All art before abstraction is a kind of magic because it presents the illusion of a three-dimensional space on a flat surface, and Impressionism is especially delightful because when we look at an Impressionist painting up close all we see is a mess of colors and brushwork.  Only when we step back do we experience the magical moment when the picture space snaps into place.  We suddenly "see" the picture because our brain has found a match for the motif. The Impressionists understood that not the eyes alone do not "see" the picture, our brains invent the picture by calling up something in our mental database that resembles the shapes and colors we see on the canvas.  Impressionism gave our brains more to do.  It also, paradoxically, duplicates more exactly the images on our retina before they get to the brain--the way we really see.  We might think we see people in the street like the one Monet paints in Boulevard  ----, but all we really see are little blobs that we "know" must be people--so we see people.  But as we get closer to the picture surface we realize we've been fooled: they are just blobs of paint after all. You can imaging how critics and the public raised on super-detailed academic art received a painting like this.  They hated it--because it was new and unfamiliar.  Indeed, part of the attraction of Impressionism is the freedom and beauty of the color and brushwork itself on the canvas as an end it itself.  A small piece of an Impressionist painting can look totally abstract.  Not that this is new, for Velazquez and Rembrandt, among others, had done it.  

How far away should we be when we look at a painting?  Earlier paintings (from Van Eyck to Academic art like The King of Rome) had permitted and encouraged extremely close viewing by packing detail into the picture.   This digital projection has enough pixels so that those of you in the back can not see them, and your brains convince you that this image has more information in it that it really does.  Those of you who are close can see the pixels. The real issue is--what can you see from where you are.  One of the pleasures of looking at art (and movies) is our love of illusion.  We know that a painting or a screen is not a hole in the wall and that we are not looking into "reality," just as we know that the speeding car in the movie we are watching will not tear through the screen and kill us. We like to be fooled.  That is why most people still like pictures that "look like something."  They admire the illusion and the supposed skill required to make it.  So, like the magic act, we don't want to know how the trick is done because it lessens our sense of wonder.  In fact, basic realism in art is pretty easy to learn.  Impressionism, when it was new, was as difficult to make as it was to look at. 

But the impressionists understood how we really perceive the world.  They were not scientists and wouldn't have known what you were talking about if you had referred to the "psychology of perception,"  but they intuitively understood how the eye and brain see. When we experience the world, our brains create a model of it and only looks for sensory information that changes that model.  (We could not possibly survive for two seconds if our brains had to treat all sensory perceptions equally and consciously consider each one carefully.  Recall the example of the traffic light: we don't notice or remember which light is red (top or bottom?) because we don't need to know that.  Unless we happen to be color blind.  That is why the top light always the same color. 

[An unrelated but interesting fact about color is that the color receptors in our eyes, called "cones," occupy only a small circle on the center of our retina.  How is it that we do not see a small circle of color in the center of our field of vision? Because eyes are constantly scanning the world so we "see" the world in color because we know it is all color.  Once we see a red car, we know it is a red car, even if it is on the periphery of our vision.

Another way that the Impressionists challenged the prevailing idea of what a painting should be was they eliminated stories and narratives from most of their pictures.  Previous paintings had almost always "illustrated" stories, anecdotes, texts, or "ideals,"--in other words, they were sort of second-hand copies of literature. Impressionist pictures usually have no text or story, being concerned with immediate experience.  Impressionism is about our eyeballs.

Likewise, earlier paintings have been carefully arranged, fabricated, or "composed." ("Composition" means "putting together" a painting or any artwork.  This "Classical landscape," for example, is not a real place--almost no landscape paintings before 1860 attempted to depict real places.  Reality was considered inferior and subjegated to more "prefect" ideal places.   Here is a typical landscape composition from the master Claude Lorraine.  Note the beautiful  "S" curve--then a popular way to organize the surface of the picture.  But impressionist landscape are more casual, less fabricated or composed because real life is casual.   And because the Impressionists took their subjects from the world around them and not some ideal classical past they found new and fascinating subjects in the world around them.  Here Monet paints the inside of a railroad station,  which most people might think was ugly.  His composition is awkward by contemporary standards, but he wants to capture the color, the steam, and the quality of light in the new railroad stations.  Impressionist subjects were different because the artists were ready to tackle anything and everything that might yield interesting light, atmosphere, or color.  And they didn't sanitize their pictures by editing out the new, "ugly" things in the environment like trains or smokestacks.  In general, in all 19th century art, there is a battle between "conservative" or "reactionary" taste, that preferred art that was "uplifting," not vulgar, and preserved the official illusions about life and human behavior--and the revolutionary new aesthetic that was willing to explore and embrace the complexities of the total human experience and modern life.  (Bizet's opera, Carmen, is an example.  Now considered to be one of the two or three greatest operas ever written, and wildly popular, it was vilified when first performed as vulgar and improper.  True, the subject, "jealous lover stalks and stabs girlfriend" sounds like a headline in a tabloid, but the music is great.)

Remember what else was happening in 19th century life.  Cities were growing dramatically due to the Industrial Revolution, and these cities were pretty crowded and dirty.  But the same railroads that had brought people to the cities could take them out to the country.  We are used to leaving the city on weekends, but it was a new idea in 1870 when people actually went to the country or the beach simply to enjoy themselves--"a day in the country."  And the impressionists often depicted the "edges" of cities as they encroached on rural areas.

[By the way, there is now a very fast train (TGV) in France that goes from Paris to Marseilles (400 miles) in about 2 hours (at 200 miles an hour).  You can  actually spend a day at the Rivera and be back in Paris by dinner.

Thanks to the web, we can visit the "First Impressionist Exhibiton" of 1874 and read the critics' reactions.  (See also Monet's Rouen Cathedral series  and  Monet's Sunrise and Poppies.)   The catalogue of the exhibition exists, and art historians have connected the brief catalogue or printed guide to the exhibit with existing paintings, most of which have survived, and also match the paintings with the writings of the critics who attended and reviewed the exhibit.  Here is what one critic said about this frosty field painted by Pissarro:_____  Note that the critic is quite perceptive and clearly understands what the the artist was trying to do--he just doesn't like it.

Is impressionism "better" than the art that preceded it?  This question opens a huge can of worms. Of course we like Impressionism--now.  But "better" is a word historians don't like to use.  We try to understand what the artists were trying to do, how their audience reacted, and what the art says about its time.  Nobody really knows why some artworks (or books or music) dies a quick death or lives on into the future.  It is hard to imagine that some artists we now revere were overlooked or ridiculed in their own time, and even harder to pick the few artists of our own age who will be remembered.  that is the only difference between "classic" and "popular" art.  We would like to think that the art that survives really is "better," but all such judgments should be seen as temporary.  The Beattles have lasted for 40 years now, and Michelangelo for 440, but only time will tell.  The art world is full of "one hit wonders."

Impressionism could be seen as the final, inevitable result of all the art since the Renaissance, for the "conquest of nature"--or of rendering the flickering surface of nature, was complete.  You can't get more "realistic" than impressionism.

So, the questions became, "where do we go from here?"  What happened next?  

By 1885 a new generation of younger artists was starting to look for a "way out" or Impressionism.  Like all great art movements, Impressionism was both an end and a beginning.  It seemed to solve one problem, but it also asked new questions.  One thing you notice about Impressionist pictures is that they tend to look alike.  Of course, there are definite stylistic difference between these artists and we can recognize them, but if you were less interested in just rendering light and color than what you felt about them, Impressionism did not offer a way to do that.  Also, Impressionism really had answered the questions that it asked, and one thing you can not do if you are an artist in the Western tradition (which, unlike the Orient, does not really value tradition at all) is to keep copying somebody else.  So every generation of artists, writers, composers asks, "What do we do now?"  Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec all learned from Impressionism, but they had different personal goals and new ideas about what a picture should be.

There is one little picture that has achieved legendary status in the story of modern art because is was so precocious--a tiny sketch on a cigar box lid done by Paul Serusier in 1870 that came to be called The Talisman (an object with magical power).  [There is a famous story about how it was made.  "What color do you see?"  "Paint it."]   It is easy to see that this picture is close to being abstract, it goes right up to the edge and looks over. 

The impressionists had understood that a picture is a flat surface with colors on it, and they insist on that fact and let us see it--as well as the illusion.  It would not be too long until artists seeking the ultimate "realism" or "honesty" would jettison the illusion altogether, and what you see would be nothing but a flat surface with colors on it.

So, how much are these Impressionist paintings worth now?  What is "value" in art, anyway?  It depends on six factors: the name or fame of the artist, the provenance (or authenticity) of the artwork, it's rarity, desirability, and condition.  (The actual size of the work is rarely a factor.) Monet's are valuable partly because Monet is not making any more paintings, and old master paintings are constantly being sold to museums, and hence "off the market" for good.

The current official public record for the most expensive painting is held by Picasso's "Rose Period" Boy with a Pipe, of 1903, which sold last year for about 110 million dollars (There are also various commissions to be calculated when we list the price.)  (The record used to be held by Vincent Van Gogh's Dr. Gachet--which has a strange story).  The most desirable painting currently in private hands is probably Rembrandt's Jan Six of 1656.  A great Monet would certainly threaten the record price of the Picasso.

Try to remember that these artists were following a vision (although they certainly wanted fame and wealth) and paid a heavy financial and personal price.  Most of them starved for years, and few ever lived to see their works achieve fame and high prices.  If you told Vincent Van Gogh, who sold only one painting in his entire life, that he would someday have a whole museum in Amsterdam devoted only to his work, he would have thought you were crazy.  And yet, they kept working. 

More books on the history of color: 


Here are the names of some major color pigments and their "date of birth" from a blog at 

Last night's post got me thinking about pigments, and their curious history. Art historians (most of them) don't make a big fuss about pigments. I have my own, uncharitable theories about why this is so. But a lot of nineteenth century art would be unrecognizable if it hadn't been for some major advances in industrial chemistry. Odds are good we would be waxing poetic about Van Gogh's subtle use of pastel tints. Tonight I thought I'd give the nineteenth century chem geeks their due.

A lot of the information here is cribbed from the fantastic website called Pigments through the Ages. Visit!

First, the back story:

Prior to the 19th century, oil painters had a really great set of reds, browns, and earth tones to work with, a nice black, and a very good (albeit toxic) white. However, the blue situation was bad. There was a great blue paint available called ultramarine, but it cost a fortune. It was made from semi-precious gems, and it took multiple grindings to get it into a usable state. That made it a great status symbol for those who could afford it in their portraits, but not a good deal for the average landscape painter.

Yellows were borderline. Ochre had been around since antiquity (it's just rust), and you could use other pigments to paint a decent lemon, but that was about it. Certainly nothing you could slab around in thick layers to paint, say, a nice vase of sunflowers.

But still, yellow paled (ha ha) next to green. Green was a monster. The Old Masters basically had nothing to work with, other than a few spinachy earth tones. That's why you'll never see a Rembrandt called "King David on His Luxurious Spring Lawn, Eating a Salad". And things hadn't improved much by the start of the nineteenth century.

Then, wonderful things started to happen:

1786 Indian Yellow. This was a beautiful, transparent and intense deep yellow, imported from India. A big improvement in the yellow arena. It went by the name "pur饠of India", probably because that sounded better than "boiled-down cow piss", which is what it was. There were a lot of sad cows, fed exclusively on mango leaves, pissing their days away to make this paint. The people who imported it didn't believe it either, for a long time, despite the smell.

1814 Emerald green. This was the first Great Green Hope. On the plus side, it was actually green, and very brilliant. On the minus side, it was highly toxic, not a color found in nature, and you couldn't mix it with certain other paints, or it would turn black. "The arsenic content made it extremely poisonous and it was blamed for deaths when employed as a wallpaper color." But what can you do it's green! [copper aceto-arsenite]

1818 Cadmium yellow. The first really good, saturated yellow. Colorists would go on to make a bunch of other yellows, oranges and reds from cadmium compounds in the years to come, but this was the most important. Not widely available until 1840, as people fell over themselves trying to find more cadmium. [cadmium sulfide]

1828 Synthetic ultramarine blue. An overnight sensation, similar to when aluminum went from being a precious metal to a household commodity. A contest resulted in a method for making ultramarine without having to grind up lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone. Suddenly artists had a good blue paint they didn't have to mortgage the house for. You can still buy ultramarine made from real lapis lazuli, if you are insane. [big mess of sulfur, sodium, aluminum, and silica]

1838 Viridian. The Mother of All Greens. It was green! It was green! You could paint green things! It was cheap! It didn't turn black! It didn't kill you! Very big deal. [hydrated chromium oxide]

1841 John Goffe Rand invents the toothpaste-style metal tube for packaging paint. This was a huge breakthrough for outdoor painting; prior to this point you had to shlep your paints around in a pig bladder with a tack in it, or else use a metal or glass syringe contraption that was awkward to handle. Now paints could be sold in easy-to-carry tubes, enabling painters to work outside the studio with far less hassle than ever before. Rand, of course, died penniless.

1858 Magenta. Oh, you thought magenta had been around forever? Nope. Named after an Italian city; one of the first synthetic organic dyes. [aniline dye]

1860 Cerulean blue (invented in 1821) became widely available. Not to take any piss out of ultramarine, but cerulean blue was superb for painting skies, and landscape painters made the most of it. Another beautiful blue pigment. [cobalt and tin oxide]

So pop quiz when did Impressionism kick in? Damn straight, the 1860's. They were just waiting on that last blue, you see.

It used to be that painting and the sciences were pretty tight with each other. Painters were interested in optics and color theory (including the psychology of perception), botanists and zoologists had to know how to draw, and the study of perspective required artists to have a solid grounding in geometry and mathematics. And of course to make your paints, you had to know your chemistry. Now we pretend that the arts and sciences are the opposite ends of a spectrum. Grumble grumble.