Color Is All

Color is the most personal of all the qualities the artist puts into his painting—by itself it might constitute his style. Beautiful, idiosyncratic, colors are part of every single great work of art.
Painting, according to the nineteenth-century critic John Ruskin, is essentially a choice of colors.

“I hope that enough has been said to show the nobility of colour….there is [no subject] that needs more to be insisted upon, chiefly on account of the opposition of the persons who have no eye for colour, and who, being therefore unable to understand that it is just as divine and distinct in its power as music (only infinitely more varied in its harmonies), talk of it as if it were inferior and servile with respect to the other powers of art: whereas it is so far from being this, that wherever it enters it must take the mastery……There is not any distinction between the artists of the inferior and the nobler schools more definite than this; that the first colour for the sake of realization, and the second realize for the sake of colour…….

“A painter’s business is to paint, primarily; and…all expression, and grouping, and conceiving, and what else goes to constitute design, are of less importance than colour, in a coloured work, and so they were always considered in the noble periods…..”

Ruskin, Selected Writings, Penguin Classics, pp.163-165.  The italics are Ruskin’s.

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14 Responses to Color Is All

  1. ivdanu says:

    In the quarrel between color and drawing (which one is the most important for painting) I’m definitely on Ruskins’s (and Delacroix’s) side…

  2. 100swallows says:

    Me too, Danu, but:
    Color is at a disadvantage. Line doesn’t need color but color needs line. Color on its own doesn’t please even the colorists. So they are always looking for a linear support of some kind. See how Miró and Chagall and even Kandinski are always groping for some linear organization to their pictures, some linear direction. It needn’t be a figure—sometimes it is only a clear division between the colors. The mind needs direction, just as music needs some shape, preferably a melody.

    Most paintings show a very common choice of colors, the same ones industry uses. There is no surprise in their combinations. There are often too many of them too. They actually show that the painter has NO color sensitivity. A famous painter like Warhol may justify his garishness by saying he wants to mock the products of modern industry. But he doesn’t enrich the world by passing them on.

  3. iondanu – I am a visual artist of Romanian origin (a draughtsman, painter, photographer and digital artist) living now in Canada.
    Ion Danu says:

    You got a point there, Gene! No doubt about that. I agree that drawing (which is very similar to writing – Paul Klee also dixit) is a plastical mean more auto-suficient, more complete than color alone (even if Rothko, for instance – we spoke about him with A. – does it with a lot of color and minimal linear drawing – or forme? – Anyway, I do not have a lot of sympathy or respect for the works of Warhol – they are simply boring, boring… and his fame was obtained more with his social scandal skills. There is an extraordinary portrait of him (for that I DO have all the sympathy!) by the artist Alice Neel – a portraitist mainly; a Sito collegue, Jerrold S. Carton (himself an excellent artist) made me the great honor to compare some of my portraits with Alice Neel’s work… Warhol portrait is really something! (should be easy to find on the net…)

  4. 100swallows says:

    I looked up the Neel portrait of Warhol, Danu. Good portrait or not, it is very hard to look at.

  5. Pingback: Colour or Drawing? « F I S H I N G

  6. Ken Januski says:

    And where oh where is value? It turns black and white work into color work and color work into exceptional color work, at least when it’s used well.

    As Louis Agassiz Fuertes says: : “We are naturally blind to all but the most blatant & contrasting values, & even great painters — especially of the earlier schools & periods never did get discriminating in this essential matter….Many old school painters understood contrast thoroughly, & played it like the masters that they were….Color subtlety is simplicity itself compared to value subtlety, which includes every possible element of color variation as thoroughly as does white light itself. Great pictures are full of ingenious tricks of color to overcome the failure of the painter to achieve his values.”

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: I had to read closely to see what Fuertes meant by value. I got tense when he dared to say that my buddies the Old Masters had to invent colors in order to hide their failure to achieve values. What could that mean? Aren’t values colors too? More or less intense colors, shades of colors? Would he call Van Gogh’s color prodigies “value” prodigies?

      I have to say that I had never heard of Fuertes and now I looked him and his work up in Wikipedia. His birds strike me as instructive, like quality dictionary illustrations, but lifeless (can’t hold a candle to Motmot’s). And his colors are washed out. Maybe his values are right on, though.

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: Sorry about that last explosion. I guess I showed my hoof or my axe (the one that needs grinding). I hadn’t heard about value in years and have always managed without it but I suppose there can be a place for it. It reminded me of the art talk I had heard before I was on my own and how it helped kill the pleasure of a painting. It seemed just one more parameter for the critics without ideas to measure a painting they have to write 500 words about it for a catalog. But I see that it does mean something to serious people like you and Fuertes, so I should have waited to read more and learn.
      As to Fuertes, I did see some pretty pictures by him, so I will take back the “washed-out” stab. His birds, however, do not look alive, there’s no movement to them (birds, of all animals!), which is probably for the best when it comes to studying their shape and colors, but reduces their impact.

  7. Ken Januski says:

    Hi Swallows,

    Well I suppose it’s best that I didn’t notice that you had ‘exploded’ until a few days later. I always forget to subscribe to the specific thread so am a bit behind on things. I suppose it’s some sort of perverse accomplishment if I made you tense! You are always unflappable. But it’s not the type of accomplishment that I want and certainly not my intention.

    But here I think we do have a fundamental disagreement. Though I do remember having to do value studies when first studying art and thinking that they were just some sort of academic stupidity. But over the years I’ve really come to believe that they are as important if not more important than color in creating vibrancy in a painting. For me I think it is tonal contrast more than anything else that makes a painting sing. Of course contrast can only be accomplished through the use of color. As you well know it can’t exist on it’s own except in black and white work.

    I did once post on this on my own blog, actually right after reading this Fuertes post, and wondered if my searching for the right color in my abstract paintings wasn’t just as much a search for the right value as for the right color. My conclusion was that it probably was. Certainly they were at least equal. Colors themselves aren’t enough; they have to also be the right values, at least for me.

    On the other hand I didn’t really investigate what Fuertes said about the old masters not knowing their values. And I’m sure this did not hit the right chord with you!! To prove his point he should probably have given an example. It made sense to me because I see so many contemporary artists of all sorts, including ‘illustrators’, who really have monotonous paintings. They really only have one tone in them. Their might be a wealth of color. But they know nothing about value. Because I see this so often I didn’t react badly to his comment about the old masters. I was sure there must be some who really didn’t know their values and used color manipulation to try to hide it, just like I did to a certain extent. I never think of Van Gogh as monotonous. My guess is that if I went a looked at some of his paintings, which I’ve always liked a great deal, I’d find that though they were largely high key, they also had just enough tonal contrast of darker values to make his paintings sing. I don’t think most people think of his paintings as monotonous. But I’d bet that people who imitate him are monotonous because they don’t understand value.

    I think most people would agree that Fuertes is the second best American bird artist, after Audubon, though I realize this may not impress you at all. One odd thing I’ve found since I started doing bird art is that there’s a whole lot I don’t like. It is stiff, or too detailed, very often lacking in the slightest bit of life. I think part of this is that it’s half-art/half-science. So it’s made for illustrative and educational purposes as well as artistic purposes. The other part I think is that many bird artists just don’t have much knowledge of art in general, and don’t appreciate the idea of liveliness in art. And then of course there are those held hostage by photography. So I can see where you might find Fuertes stiff. For myself I think he’s a very good combination of being true to the birds he sees(science) while also being somewhat true to art. His paintings always are a pleasure to look at for me.

    However if I had to choose between Fuertes and Van Gogh I think you know who I’d choose.

    A belated Happy Thanksgiving to you Swallows and I hope I didn’t make it needlessly tense!!

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks a lot, Ken. I’m glad you wrote. I began to worry I had offended you and I was even considering e-mailing you privately to apologize. I appreciate all your comments and their ripe melons.
      You are the Unflappable, not me.
      I liked your slow leading into this subject, telling me that you too had originally thought the value talk was “some sort of academic stupidity”, but in time you came around.
      That approach was good and would disarm any flapped-up critic, or at least make him point his gun at the floor.
      So now you made me think about value and I will consider some more.
      I was sorry to “attack” such an important bird artist, not because he has been acclaimed but because I might have offended you, who admire him. I have a touch of your bird-loving, but only as far as getting to know the birds in my corner of the world; so I can enjoy hearing about your study excursions and also, of course, your adventures with watercolor painting. I will open that melon about balancing science and art, but not now. It’s a good one.
      Thanks again for all your thoughtful and well-written comments. I missed home on Thanksgiving but worked through an ordinary day here–happy enough.

  8. Ken Januski says:

    No apologies needed Swallows. I know that you always write thoughtfully and never have the slightest intention of being rude. So I didn’t begin to get offended!! I suppose I should have written a bit more on value though rather than just letting the thought hang out there that none of Old Masters knew a bit about value…… Of course that’s not true and I should have elaborated.

    Best wishes,


  9. erikatakacs – Canada – I am a figurative sculptor working in paper pulp.
    erikatakacs says:

    That’s a curious painting of Warhol, have never seen it. Quite sad. We are looking at a freak in a freak show. Wonder what made her paint him like that. I looked at it again. The red eyes, the open mouth, the blank face cry for pity. Is that what she wanted? Interesting painting, and sorry for interrupting.

  10. Rich says:

    Colorful valeurs?
    When I read Ken’s comment, the very first impression that crossed my mind was remembering a Chinese painting. It is by Mu-ch’i, a monk who lived from the year 1200 – 1274:
    Titled “The Six Persimmons”, it is considered to be a masterpiece in Zen painting. As far as i know, it will be displayed to public view once a year in Kyoto, where the picture rests.
    Probably, from our Western point of view, all this may be somewhat hard to relate to.
    But for me, these simple looking persimmons are one of the most colorful black-and-white paintings i have seen.
    Is it the values?

  11. Ken Januski says:

    I think the 6 Persimmons is more than the values, though since I’m only seeing it on the web I know that I’m missing a lot.

    My guess is that the overall appeal of the painting is a combination of composition, for instance all of that seemingly empty space, value and probably brushwork. And then you have to consider that the subject itself might be important. Though I did take one course in Chinese brush painting I really don’t know much about it or Chinese painting in general, or Zen painting in particular. So I’d hate to start interpret it given that lack of background. But just from my Western, somewhat formalist background, I’d say it’s mainly the things I first mentioned.

    I do think though that when you say “it’s one of the most colorful paintings you’ve ever seen” that that sensation of color really is created by value, much more than anything else.

    I didn’t have time to track down the original quote but after posting my comments above I remembered how important Winslow Homer said value was to him. My guess is that you’d find the same thing with Edward Hopper but I’ve never paid as much attention to him as to Winslow Homer.

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