Newsletter 48: All that Glisters

In the dry spring of last year, like nearly everyone, we tried out new walks in our neighbourhood. On one such walk we came across a field completely and gorgeously yellow with buttercups. So this year we set off at the right kind of time to repeat the experience, and certainly we found the same meadow and it was yellow, but something was not quite right: it was filled not with buttercups but with dandelions. This might have been equally pleasing, but it was not. Is the yellow of dandelions just a bit sharper, a bit more acid, and less mellow than that of buttercups? Or did the dandelion’s notoriety as a noxious weed sour our vision?

    Yellow is not at all amongst my favourite colours, but it is the departure point for this short discussion. Dear reader, I must ask you now to shut your eyes and think for a minute or two about different yellows.

    (Amber, gold; banana, daffodil, lemon, saffron, straw; canary, yellowhammer, yellow wagtail; goldfinch; golden oriole; golden eagle; wasps; ochre; sulphur.)

    On the spectrum yellow is between green and orange. Sharper yellows are at the green end of things, which is moving towards blue; warmer yellows are sidling up to orange, and beyond that, red.

    From their often colourful appearance it would appear that many insects and birds organise their lives around colour signals. Amongst mammals, on the other hand, humans (and other primates) are unusual in being aware of colour. Apparently the proverbial ‘red rag to a bull’ is a myth. It seems also that consciousness of colour is a changing and developing faculty, dependent on culture and belief. Gladstone in one of his several studies of Homer, noticed that in the poet’s work there are no words for orange, green and blue, and little discrim­ination between colours, especially at the darker end of the spectrum: ‘In truth there is not one single epithet of colour which we can affirm to be thoroughly defined.’ Aristotle apparently saw only three colours in the rainbow. A famous example of the ancient Greek difference from ourselves with regard to colour is Homer’s ‘black water’, often translated as ‘the wine-dark sea’ – the same colour word is used to describe oxen, so it probably covers brown too. Clearly other cultures and different societies have seen colours in a different way from ourselves. And these differences raise the possibility – even perhaps the likelihood that there is a wide range of ways of perceiving colour – and indeed that we may all see colours differently from each other. But we have no means of easily knowing this, except in the case of colour-blindness, when it becomes obvious. We discovered our son was colour-blind when we saw him colouring in the armour of his knights and soldiers in a bright pink.

    I believe I am highly susceptible to colour. And here I have to admit to a secret vice. On Instagram (of which I strongly disapprove) I am signed up to DailyRothko. Almost every day one of Mark Rothko’s ‘colour field’ canvases pops onto my silly little phone screen – just rough rectangles of two or three colours ranging from brilliant yellows through orange and rich browns to deep blues and purples. Even in miniature I find them strangely beguiling. Exactly how Rothko achieved the sense of depth on flat canvas by building up multiple thin layers of paint was a secret that he kept absolutely to himself. Perhaps I associate feeling with his colours because the first paintings I saw by him were the large dark purple and black paintings, the Seagram murals, completed not long before he committed suicide in 1970, which he gave to the Tate. If you are not familiar with these colour field paintings, I suggest you look them up on the internet. Or even better, visit the Rothko room in the Tate, when and if you can. I just hope you find them as mysteriously moving as I do – though I am prepared to accept that you may think this a bit cuckoo.

    Rothko of course used painting materials, such as acrylics, which would not have been available to painters throughout most of the history of western art. Yellow in the form of ochre is a pigment found in clay, an iron oxide with a colour range from yellow through red to brown. It is the main medium for prehistoric cave art, and is very common in Greek and Roman art, especially in its red form.

    Cennino Cennini in The Craftsman’s Handbook has a chapter on ‘The Character of a Yellow Colour called Ochre’. He describes being taken by his father to an area near Colle di Val d’Elsa: ‘reaching a little valley, a very wild steep place, scraping the steep with a spade, I beheld seams of many kinds of colour: ochre, dark and light sinoper, blue and white… And these colours showed up in this earth just the way a wrinkle shows in the face of a man or woman.’ He describes the character of other yellows: giallorino, orpiment, realgar, saffron, arzica. Some of these are produced by ‘alchemy’. He points out that orpiment and realgar are very poisonous, though he explains how they can be worked up for painting. However, there is ‘no keeping company’ with realgar: if you use it, ‘look out for yourself’. Cennini speaks of ‘lean’ colours like arzica, and ‘fat’ ones like ochre, a distinction which I think Rothko would have recognised.

    In the early nineteenth century new colours were available to painters, no doubt achieved by what Cennini would have called ‘alchemy’, and became available commercially, without having to be ‘worked up’. Chrome yellow was quickly followed by the less poisonous cadmium yellow. Amongst artists who used yellow a lot, Van Gogh instantly comes to mind. ‘How beautiful yellow is’ he wrote to his sister. For him it was the colour of sunshine, and many of his most famous works are surprisingly yellow, not least ‘Sunflowers’. In his last paintings the terrifying corn-fields with black crows make yellow not warm but menacing.

    To go back to the question raised in the first paragraph, I think it is entirely association, whether cultural or personal, that gives colour its ‘meaning’ or feeling. In the case of the yellow meadow, the dandelion yellow was less pleasing because we think we don’t like dandelions. The purple and black of the Rothko pictures are colours already loaded with melancholy. In themselves colours can suggest no particular feeling or meaning.

    If anyone should want to follow up any of these random thoughts around yellow, or perhaps trace the jackdaw-like way in which I have snatched up stuff that fitted the rough nest of my argument, then here are some suggestions. I found on Wikipedia unknown persons have put together fascinating bundles of information about each and every colour, which are well worth browsing through. The World through Blunted Sight by Patrick Trevor-Roper is thronged with interesting insights into artists and their eye problems, with quite a lot on cataracts, including the sad case of Monet.

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