Painting: Is Color Secondary?

How important is color in a picture? Is it mere decoration, sweetening?

Most of the great masters came up with a good drawing and then colored it, just as a child colors the figures in a coloring book. They made their sketches not with colors but with charcoal or black ink. Clearly, color was secondary to them.

Close your eyes and think of a famous painting. You recall the layout, the figures, the action. Can you say what color it is? What color is Botticelli’s Spring? Velazquez’s Lanzas? Rembrandt’s Nightwatch?

Yet there have always been artists for whom color came first. They made a painting for its color. Men like Monet,Van Gogh, Renoir, Chagall. If you have seen and liked any of their pictures, you will remember what color they were, or at least that the colors were especially bright and attractive :

Matisse : “Color helps to express light, not the physical phenomenon, but the only light that really exists, the light in the artist’s brain.”

Picasso : “Why do two colors, put one next to the other, sing? Can one really explain this? — No.”

Chagall : “Color is everything, color is vibration like music.”

Joan Miró : “I try to apply colors like words that shape poems, like notes that shape music.”.

Chagall : “Color and all its distinctions are the pulse of the organism. Color is the pulse of a work of art…”


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27 Responses to Painting: Is Color Secondary?

  1. iondanu says:

    Personally, I do not know a single important artist (not even Ingres) for whom color could be “secondary”… In painting, color IS painting… The design, the drawing etc. could be very important or primary in arts like drawing or graphics but painting IS color… No painting without color… and all those white on white so called “paintings” could be experiments (the best cases and bulls…t the worst) but not paintings…

  2. pendrive9 says:

    LOL, I like that first one, the one with that hungry bird. Makes me hungry just to look at it. Who painted that? It doesn’t say. The other ones are also okay, but the first one steals the show. Now that’s a fact. If there is nothing on a picture, like on some of those Picassos, I can’t for the life of me imagine how I’m supposed to remember it as something.

  3. 100swallows says:

    Danu: Did Michelangelo paint the figures in the Sistine to show off color? He liked color, mind you, but it came last after figure and clothing, don’t you think? And Rembrandt? Did he conceive The Anatomy Lesson as an arrangement of attractive colors or did he use color merely to build his scenes and define his figures?

  4. 100swallows says:

    Pendrive6: It’s another Miró. That about memorability is a good point.

  5. rich says:

    Very tricky question.
    As far as remembering colors is concerned; you ask about Velazquez’ Lanzas: Personally I recall the sky colour on this one, which is not exactly blue, but blueish-white, somehow, it just fits the scene. And the painting has kind of a warm/cold contrast, an enhancement which wouldn’t be there without color. I also recall Van Gogh, who in one of his letters admired the grey tones of Velazquez.

    Is grey a color?
    Anyway, your tricky question may depend upon one’s point of view. You see it more from the sculptor’s angle, perhaps. Besides, how do you like colored sculptures, Swallows?;)

    I have come across black and white (and greyish) inked things…well I didn’t miss any color at all, so “colorful” was the inking…

    On the other hand, people like Matisse knew how colors relate, for instance the tiny dot of red on a green background, or how little violet may counterbalance an expanse of yellow.

  6. Aletha says:

    Regarding your comment:”Most of the great masters came up with a good drawing and then colored it, just as a child colors the figures in a coloring book. They made their sketches not with colors but with charcoal or black ink. Clearly, color was secondary to them.”

    Botticelli, Rembrandt and Monet are very far separated in time and technology. Impressionists use of direct color goes hand in hand with the advent of paint in tubes. I would not extrapolate from this that artists during all the centuries prior were uninterested in color.

    That an artist begins a picture with line doesn’t say anything about how valuable he finds color. One can find rather significant coloristic differences between artists living during the same era, all of whom are using the same technology as for instance between Gerard David and Hans Memling and Jan Van Eyck. All of these artists would of course have begun with line because of the preciousness of the materials if for no other reason.

  7. 100swallows says:

    Aletha: Your point about the preciousness of colors in the old days is well made and can explain how an artist would start his organization with line no matter how much he loved color. But notice that I never said those masters were “uninterested” in color, merely that they used it as enhancement.

  8. 100swallows says:

    Rich: My speaking of “color” was sloppy. I meant surprising or bright color–color that steals the show or that was intended as the star. And now after reading your comments and Danu’s and Aletha’s, I guess I have to re-figure this out.

  9. Not to be banal, but take the brilliant yellows and scarlet out of Rembrandt’s Night Watch and see what happens to the painting. And I think he went to a huge amount of trouble to get the waxy skin colour of the Anatomy Lesson’s subject so incredibly right. In fact, your eye keeps going from the ‘insult’ of that red incision back to the whole of the dead man because of its colour, imo.

  10. I’m not sure I can add much to this discussion, but it’s a point I never thought about before.

    I’m glad to see you back here at the blog–I was getting worried! I enjoy your blog so much!

    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas (in the Middle East)

  11. 100swallows says:

    Judith: “Getting the color right”–if you mean getting it to look natural–can be a mere artisan’s occupation. I don’t say Rembrandt didn’t use his color effectively. But if he were a real lover of color, if he PAINTED IN ORDER TO COLOR (as Ruskin says the greatest painters do), then he would have given you more of it than that red incision. Of course you could argue that he loved it so much he made just a precious little of it do. In an essay on Veronese Ruskin says Rembrandt “darkens half his canvas in order to give you the not very important truth [his moralizing, but let’s say bright color] of the gleam of a helmet”, while Veronese paints a world of color without even the aid of strong shadows.

  12. I disagree with Ruskin on this (and much else). The effect of that red slash against the waxy skin (really realistic? I don’t think so: more the idea of the colour of death, imo — but happily I haven’t seen many dead people) makes the thin line of colour all the more powerful; rather like Banning Cocq’s scarlet sash in the Night Watch.

    More Titian than Veronese, I’d say.

    But who am I to argue with Ruskin? :-)

  13. 100swallows says:

    Rich: Have a look at this article on the “true” colors of Greek statues:
    This is hard to ignore any more, much as one would want to.

  14. 100swallows says:

    Judith: Ruskin probably disagrees with himself about this somewhere else in his writings. In fact, though I haven’t looked at Rembrandt’s paintings in a long time, it is precisely his reds (along with his golds and silvers) coming out of the dark that I recall. Do you call a painter who underlines with red a great colorist?

  15. danu says:

    Swallows, first of all (as you said it yourself many times): ichelangelo was NOT a painter (never pretended to be one);
    Second, The anathomy Lesson was A COMISSION: a guil woho wanted to see their potraits, in THEIR costumes etc. Rembrandt did not have the liberty to work with color as he wished or could have… He use it more freely in the last years selfportraits… and, ok Rembrandt was more a value painter, a chiar oscuro man, just like Leonardo…

  16. 100swallows says:

    OK, Danu—I’ll give you Michelangelo (though there’s really no reason why we should listen to HIM. Just because he went around whining his whole life that he was a sculptor, not a painter. In fact, the Sistine paintings are some of the best known in the history of art and as painting had great influence. And their colors are beautiful enough to qualify him as a colorist.).

    But you know better than to come up with that commission argument. Most of the great works in history were commissions and the colorists colored them pretty no matter what the orders were. You yourself can’t keep bright colors out of your pictures, commissions or not. Painting IS color, as you say; and color IS the painter. “Oh, but in those Puritanical times men wore drab clothes,” someone might say (not you). Well, look how Franz Hals spruces up those people in his commissions and brightens up their world with his colors.
    I know there is a problem here about color itself. Everything in a painting is color. A study in brown and red (many of Rembrandt’s) might show that the artist had a refined sense of color. But by colorist I mean the painter who takes delight in color itself and doesn’t use it only for definition or naturalism—one who surprises with color combinations and variety. He seems to use the subject of a picture only as a pretext to lay beautiful colors side by side.

  17. Now I am going to take issue with you, 100Swallows, as well as with Ruskin :-)

    No, if one has to choose a single attribute: painting is not about colour; painting is about light. Colour is a consequence of the light. Undoubtedly (!?!), the best light in the world for painting is that of Italy and of the Netherlands. The Renaissance Italian painters had to compete with their beautiful sky-blue light: they had to use strong colours or would have lost the fight. The Dutch/Flemish light is pearly grey and watery so the preferred colours are white, ochre, and red madder, with only occasional flashes of greens, blues, or (expensive) carmine red. The whites, especially, are stunning. In fact, Rembrandt’s late paintings came close to the supposedly ancient- Greek 4-colour palette: black/white/ochre/earth red. Not that we’ll ever really know, but Apelles — said to be the greatest of Greek painters — used no other colours.

    If the Rijksmuseum ever reopens (as a museum, rather than a tourist masterpiece experience), come to Amsterdam and perhaps we’ll look at some Rembrandts together. With luck, they’ll have the electric lights off, and we can see the paintings in pure Dutch daylight. On the way to the museum, we’ll stop at a bridge or two and watch the light of the clouds reflected on the canals and on the gables of houses. It’s entirely different from the south — and changes the way you think about colours; or so it seems to me.

  18. 100swallows says:

    But, Judith, if your theory were correct, wouldn’t the works by all the painters of the Lowlands (well, at least Amsterdam) evidence that same extraordinary light? Van der Weyden, Van Eyck—even Vermeer—painted with bright and varied colors. The colors they produced came not from the daylight in their studio or the street but from inside themselves. And the dominant style of the times they lived in was always more important in their choice of colors than the local daylight, however special.

    I’m sure you are right about the special light of Amsterdam. Madrid too has a special light.You are better travelled than I—you must know of special lights everywhere. The Clintons came here a few years ago to watch (and sigh over) what they called the unique sunset over the Alhambra. But the theory about the poor Italians having to struggle harder with color because of the blue-blue sky and the lucky Amsterdam painters who could get away with five shades of white because their hometown daylight was that way is hard to take seriously. I think Rembrandt himself would be surprised to hear you say he took his whites and his pearls from the light of Amsterdam. “No,” he would say, “I made them up.” He thought a deep chiaroscuro was the best way to achieve the great drama of his paintings. “And now that you mention light,” he would say, “I wish I had had more of it. There were too many dark days here in Amsterdam when I couldn’t paint.”

    Even for the outdoor painters who came later it is ultimately their picture that determines the color they lay on, not the scene in front of them. They choose the color to fit the picture and the choice comes from that mysterious mess inside them (and us all). It’s true they may have been trying to catch a certain light.

    Nevertheless, I’d love to have you guide me through Amsterdam and show me that best in the world light on the water, the rooftops, and the cloudy sky. I wonder if it’s like the Delft in the Vermeer picture (Marcel and all). (Amsterdam, swallows, not Delft.)

    You imply that Rembrandt’s poor palette of his last years was a kind of distilled perfection. Perhaps for him it was. Then you say it approached that of the great Apelles, as though Apelles’ palette were a kind of painter’s wisdom. Let’s leave Apelles out of this since there’s not even a copy of any of his works around; though I’ll bet you a euro (or two dollars) that Apelles would have gladly exchanged his three dabs of mud for the palette of Hals. We’ll never know what he would have thought of the blessed light of Amsterdam but something tells me….

    The first I heard about the northern versus southern artists theory was in Ruskin himself. He makes caricatures of the rude hunter from the cold, dark countries of the north and the easy-going (naked?) idlers of the sunny Mediterranean countries. The rude hunter after hard work came up with the honest and crudely pretty Gothic art, while the southern idler—I guess he did something sinful. The climate and sunlight MUST have some great influence on everyone but don’t you believe that is what produced the great painters of any region or their colors.

    P.S. I just had a look at some good reproductions of Rembrandt’s work and I have to agree with you that he was a hell of a colorist. Now more than ever I would like to see his works in the Rijksmuseum.

  19. danu says:

    Swallows, you forget one of the best colorrist ever: Pieter Brueguel l<ancien. Personally I think he is one of the best colorists ever… Dutch lights or not… And Bosch also used very pure and was not at all color shy…

    And apelles used those colors because there were no others… Do you think, Judith, he would have restrein himself to use Phtalocyanine blue or Rose permanent or cadmium red and cadmium yellow if he had the choise?

    I’m not saying that you cannot be a great colorist with only 3-4 colors…

  20. 100swallows says:

    Danu: You are right and I should have mentioned those two. I should also have been as concise as you.

  21. Enough of Rembrandt for the moment! I’ll spring to the defence of Apelles instead. Of course there were more than four colours available to Greek painters (just think of all the natural earth colours plus vegetal dyes). The restriction to four colours was based on a rather sophisticated theory of painting that was current in the 4th C BC, and it has to do what we would call elegance. Apelles was reputed to be the greatest of Greek artists (and there were very great painters active in the same period) because he had, above all, the quality of charis — which might be translated as ‘divine grace’ or ‘inborn genius’: with charis, an artist’s work ‘will touch heaven’.

    Incidentally, it’s not certain if one of the 4 colours was ‘black’ or dark blue.

  22. 100swallows says:

    Judith: You always have such good quotes: tell me where they come from. Where can I learn about that sophisticated theory of painting, about old Apelles, his four colors, and his sacred flame? He sounds like my kind of painter. Actually, I should have known that the Greeks had more than those four colors. Look at the garish ones Professor Brinkmann puts on the old statues.

  23. An excellent place to start: Vincent Bruno, Form and Colour in Greek Painting, 1977 and (now available on-line) J.L. Benson, Greek Color theory and the Four Elements, 2000.

  24. 100swallows says:

    judith: Thanks. Were your quotes from Pliny?

  25. anwar says:

    Color is second in vision and in visual art. Some do not see in color at all yet they see fine and in some ways superior. People tend to see different degrees of color depending on their moods even and also age,sex etc. All the while all these different people perceive tonality or light and dark in a shared manner. Those who suggest that painting is only about color are speaking romantically and misleading the gulable and excitable good people. In a particularly Modern way they are taking symantic liberties and speaking “colorfully”. The Ancient Greeks would call this “sophistry” and a contemporary New York person on the street may simply call it “delusional”.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, anwar. I don’t know what you mean by “see superior”, by “misleading the good people” or the “contemporary New York person” who would call color talk “delusional”. Color in most paintings is of secondary importance, it is a question of the artist’s priority.

  26. Skum says:


    Nice post here.

    Just wanted to say that the Picasso you put here is not a true Picasso but some kind of imitation.


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