An Essay on Colour by Arjan Van Dal

Colour Theory

‘A colour shines through in its surroundings. Just as eyes only smile in a face.’ Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour, 1950

Sunday mornings, as a 4-5 year-old, I loved snuggling up in my parents’ bed. Firmly closing my eyes I would focus on the colourful patterns that appeared on the inside of my eyelids. Squeezing them shut even tighter, the patterns would go black, white, and then slowly fade away in the darkness. Upon opening my eyes, at first I’d be blinded but soon the colours would burst, reappearing again.

I knew nothing of physics in those early days (and to be honest I am still fairly ignorant). Simply put, colour is light in various wavelengths, bounced back from a surface in a spectrum. This spectrum is what made that 70’s bedroom wallpaper pattern look so trippy, or the fresh leaves on that birch tree outside the window project its greeny-yellow light.

These Sunday mornings were the beginnings of a lifelong fascination with colour. Not only the natural phenomenon, but how we as humans perceive it. Josef Albers’ book Interaction of Colour is highly regarded as one of the best exercises in colour perception and explores how seeing in colour really is personal. Show 50 people the same colour red, and they’ll probably have 50 different reds in their mind. One reason for this, is probably that artists often have a limited number of pure pigments available. To create a certain colour, different pigments are mixed, and as a result less light from the visible spectrum is reflected and the more ‘blurred’ the colour will be. Basically, the purer the pigment the stronger the colour perception.

Colour Theory

In olden days, pure pigments such as lapis lazuli (that ultramarine blue) were mined exclusively and therefore, very costly. Albrecht Dürer complained that the ultramarine pigment he bought was 100 times more expensive than some of the earthy tones. Therefore it was used only in a limited way and only for the most important commissions.

In ceramics, to achieve colour was no easy feat. The British Museum has an outstanding collection of Chinese porcelain in the most vivid monochromatic colours. It is fascinating to imagine how these colours have stood the test of time. The yellow glaze for example, which was used for hundreds of years to create the Imperial Court porcelain not only demonstrates amazing craftsmanship, but also looks contemporary despite its age. Simultaneously, the cobalt blue used to create intricate designs is offset vividly against the white porcelain body. When the Dutch tried to copy that very popular style after the Chinese declared an export ban on porcelain in the 17th century, they struggled to re-create such deep blue on their tin glazed earthenware.

Historically, painters have been challenged by pigments that might degrade over time. Van Gogh’s yellow sunflowers have faded as the years wear on, and are paler now than they were 100 years ago. In ceramics, the vibrancy of colours is often retained and still shine through. Pigments and modern synthetic stains (which are composed of different chemical elements) become reversed and solidify into more durable colours under the extreme heat of the kiln.

When translated to my own practice, it is like using the white porcelain as a canvas; however in theory it is a subtractive colour mixing process. By adding stains to the clay body, the white of the porcelain is mixed with either a pure pigment or with a combination of stains. It is a rather labour intensive process to wedge the porcelain to a homogenous, monochrome clay body. To ensure optimal colour perception, the surface is also polished, which not only enhances the natural tactility of porcelain, but first and foremost helps the colours to shine. The smoother the surface, the more intense the colour perception is. So interestingly, if you close your eyes after looking at them, you’ll notice some colour patterns will appear.

Colour Theory

Arjan Van Dal

Further reading list:

The secret lives of colour, Kassia StClair
Interaction of colour, Josef Albers
Michael Pastoureau, Blue, the history of color
Chroma, Derek Jarman
An atlas of rare and familiar colour, The Harvard’s Art Museums’ Forbes Pigment Collection