Feeling Blue?

“Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” — Wassily Kandinsky

Feeling Blue

Believe it or not, there’s not a bit of blue paint in this painting — nor green or any other “cool” color. It’s painted with a palette of only “warm” colors (yellows, oranges and reds), along with black and white.

Known as the Renaissance palette, this collection of paint colors was used widely in the 1600s by Renaissance painters, most notably Rembrandt. Rembrandt’s primary palette included yellow ocher, burnt sienna, burnt umber, white, black and a brownish or orangey red such as cadmium red deep. It’s important to note that this palette wasn’t entirely a matter of choice. At the time, pigments for colors at the blue and green end of the spectrum were very expensive, as they could only be made by grinding up gemstones like lapis lazuli (blue) or malachite (green). Also, other less expensive cool pigments had a tendency to fade when exposed to light.

Rembrandt Young ManRembrandt and others solved the problem of costly and problematic pigments by using a trick of the eyes. He found that if he mixed black and white, he could make a gray that tended to look blue in the presence of warm colors. Likewise, black and yellow ochre could be mixed to make a warm gray that looked greenish. The same trick is at work in the above painting, Virginia Gentleman, by contemporary artist Diane Tesler.

This optical illusion is called the Retinex Theory, devised in 1971 by Edwin Land, co-founder of Polaroid. It’s also called the Land Effect. Land demonstrated that only two colors are needed for your brain to see an image as “full color.” He discovered that the brain relies heavily on context when deciding an object’s color. That’s why a bright red mailbox appears red by daylight, by moonlight and even under sodium street lights. And why the same shade of gray can appear yellow in one context, green in another and blue in yet another.