J.M.W. Turner – Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory), The Tate Gallery, London
These days, science and aesthetics are commonly supposed to have an antagonistic relationship, but two hundred years ago they were less professionalised and their boundaries more fluid. Then, a writer like Goethe could publish a scientifically well-regarded treatise on colour vision, and Thomas Young could combine fundamental physics with deciphering the Rosetta Stone. Today, young artists seem to be actively discouraged from thinking in any way that could be called rigorous, and popular science has become a pale offshoot of the cult of celebrity biography.
Colour juxtapositions and edge effects from Goethe’s Farbenlehre
There is, I suppose a certain schadenfreude in seeing a well-known photographic artist offer a signature series of ‘fractal’ photographs which have nothing whatsoever to do with fractal geometry, but mostly I end up with the sad conclusion that all artists really want from science are a few bauble-like soundbites to pad out their conceptual statements. I scream inwardly every time I read the photographic world’s oft-repeated dogma that Berenice Abbott “wasted her talent” on scientific illustration. Sadly, most scientists are no better: art in science tends to take the form of adding a canonical stamp of approval to the introductory part of a lecture or article.
Berenice Abbot – Cycloid, from her science photographs
The idea that scientists already have all the answers has somehow lodged in the public consciousness, reinforced by science in the news and on television programs which inevitably takes the form of brainy boffins handing down tablets of wisdom. What seems to have been lost from popular and artistic conceptions of science is the link between observation and the unknown, and the understanding that much new science originates from the visual or intuitive discovery of previously unsuspected symmetries or systematic behaviours. Botanising, that is, the art of wandering undirected but alert while trusting to serendipidity, has been lumped with taxonomy as the scientific equivalent of antiquarianism or stamp collecting – a mildly interesting but tragically non-analytic poor cousin form of activity. There is little interest in what happens before the answer is arrived at, much less the practicing scientists’ truest delight: the process by which you come to realise that a question exists to be answered.
Colour juxtaposions à la Gaud-Gray
So as an antidote, I offer an article that describes some of the ideas floating around in my head about colour, and colour theory, and colour perception. This is not an analysis, much less a synthesis, and it is not meant as a manifesto or a prescription. It is rather a collation of the things I feel and know about colours and and how they relate to each other, and to standard theories of the physiology and psychology of colour perception.
The article was inspired by an interest in tricolour photography, and the enthusiastic adoption of the technique among a mostly French group which includes Henri Gaud, Philippe Do, Colombe Levi and several others. They, and especially Henri, deserve any credit for the actual work involved here, my contribution is to stand on their shoulders and peer off into the foggy distance.
Henri has posted a French translation of the article on his Trichromie blog, see here: Primaires Secondaires. Many thanks to him, and to Marc Genevrier for the translation.