An Experiment in Colored Edges and Halos

During the past month, I have been painting a still-life of pumpkin and squash on a bed of straw. Although I had not consciously planned it, this still-life became a medium to understand Goethe’s theories of colored edges. In my last blog, I wrote on the effects of light on narrow objects. When an object is narrow, its interior surface becomes effected by the colored halos. These colored halos meet within the boundaries of the object itself. Being conscious of this phenomena allows the artist to really get an intensity in the light that adds to the realism of the situation presented. Remember painting is about light and space more than about the strict rendering of an object.The object achieves its realism when it is engulfeded in light and atmoshere, rendering a specificity of space. The object is important as well, but mainly in regard to its symbolic significance and emotional impact.

So when I set out to paint my squash on a bed of straw, I was thinking of the setting more than an attempt to experiment with color. But the unconscious is always with you and its hidden activity eventually makes itself known. So what is straw, but narrow pieces of grass, thicker than hay? So what I have are these narrow pieces of grass illuminated by a strong natural light (I found on the days that the sky was bright, with high altitude clouds, that the colored edges were at their most intense. On cloudy days, when the amount of light coming into my studio was diminished, these colored halos were barely evident and sometimes entirely obscured).

In some areas, the straw appears as a dark against an intense light and also the reverse, a light against a dark.So the straw moves between these two reversals. In some areas the straw was piled up creating smaller shadows within the straw. As the straw is thicker and produces a dark, there are light pieces of straw cutting across these darks producing intensely colored blue edges and cast shadows that border the stong, local color (lightness/ yellowish) of the straw. Where the pumpkin created a cast shadow on the straw, the cast shadow had an intense red edge. This red edge caused by the appearance of the dark against the light straw. But this was intermittently broken up by the reversal of a strong blue edge caused by the light straw against the dark cast shadow. So this edge of the cast shadow moved from an intense blue to an intense red. Because the straw was not a solid object, being made of individual pieces of grass, it wavered between light against dark and dark against light. So the edge also wavered between blue and red.


What was also remarkable was the introduction of an intense green, like a viridian. Goethe states that at the ,”highest point of complete junction of the opposite edges, the colors appear as follows:

Light object on Dk     /     Dk object on light

Yellow-red                      Blue

Green                              Red

Blue-red                          Yellow

(Goethe’s Theory of Colors: With Notes (1840), p.100)” Both cases were observed, but the green was quite different and noticeable, especially near the milkweed pod and surrounding straw which was quite light, almost white against its own cast shadow. The green also appeared where an illuminated  piece of straw cut across a dark, appearing more pure in the straw of the left foreground.

This phenomena brought back memories of observing the portraits of Frans Hals (and also Velasquez). He constantly used dots of intense color- reds, blues, yellows. And these intensly colored dots created such a feeling of light and luminosity. It heightened one’s experience of the subject because such phenomena is only observable from life. One cannot see it in photographs. The eye, only, can observe this because it can penetrate into the darks and absorb the color there. It is also more adaptable to seeing the overlap of light against dark and the subsequent halo from it and its reverse, dark against light.

Robert Henri always emphasized in his notes that color means light. To achieve luminosity, color must be present beyond value.

Goethe’s Theory of Colored Edges, Part II

The Palisades by George Bellows

In my last blog post, I explored Goethe’s theory of colored edges in regard to contrast. If there is a marked contrast between an object and the background, one can observe colored halos as well as a colored edge. The distinct difference being whether a light object is in front of a dark background or whether a dark object rests in front of an intensely lit background.  If there is a disc that is light against a dark background, a violet halo will precede and seem to emanate from the light disc. Between this violet halo and the object, there will appear an intense blue edge along the object. If there is a dark disc against an intensely lit background, there will appear a yellow or yellow-red halo preceding the dark disc. And between that halo and the dark object will appear an intense red edge.

If an object is narrow, these 2 forms of phenomena actually come together. I first thought about this many years ago when I saw a retrospective of George Bellows’ work at the Whitney. At that time, I was still in college in NYC and had yet to begin painting seriously again. But it struck me as quite profound. In this painting of ice-floes along the Hudson, titled, “The Palisades” (1911), Bellows cuts the foreground plane with a pole-like tree. This tree is intensely dark against the frozen white river in the sunshine. Bellows allowed for the intense contrast to be felt, not just by focusing on the extreme value change, but more importantly by varying the color along this narrow trunk. This phenomena is described perfectly in Goethe’s color theory. In the tree trunk, there is intense contrast and the object is narrow.  Bellow’s observation of the tree trunk against the ice is intensely observed. It contains a luminosity and saturation of color, especially of the red, that heightens the sense of light within the painting. It is so close to Goethe’s theory that I suspect that Bellows had not just observed this in nature, but had in fact had some knowledge of Goethe’s theories. (It could have come to his attention through his classmate, Rockwell Kent, who was fluent in German and well read in German literature.)

Goethe states, “If the object is large, its center remains unchanged. Its inner surface is then to be considered unlimited: it is displaced, but not otherwise altered: but if the object is so narrow, that under the above conditions the yellow border can reach the blue edge, the space between the outlines will be entirely covered with color.” (Eastlake, Goethe’s Theory of Colors: With Notes (1840), p.88).

If we take Bellows’ example of the dark pole residing in front of intensely lit ice floes, we will find that this dark narrow strip is bordered on one side by the violet halo/ blue edge and on the opposite side by the yellow-red halo and red edge. Extreme contrast and narrowness are present. In such like conditions, what will be observed is this: The violet halo will spread till it meets the yellow- red edge. “In this case the intermediate black is effaced and in its stead a splendid red will appear. The series of colors will be as follows- Blue, blue-red (violet), red, yellow-red, yellow.” (Ibid.,p.89) The red color will appear inside the object and entirely transform the black strip (this is observable in “The Palisades”). It will draw the red out of the bordering colors on both sides. This red will then be bordered on one side by the blue and violet and on the other side by the yellow-red and yellow. These outside areas consisting of the edge and the halo effect remain and would have occurred anyway because of the extreme contrast present.

This phenomena would also occur if the strip was white and the background dark, although the colors would appear on the opposing side. “If we make this experiment with a white stripe on a black ground, the two extremes will presently meet, and thus produce green. We shall then see the following series of colors- Yellow-red, yellow, green, blue, blue-red.” (Ibid.,p.88). The green is thus drawn from the dominant yellow on one side and the dominant blue on the other. “In this case, the yellow and the blue can by degrees meet so fully, that the two colors blend entirely in green and the order will then be- Yellow-red, green, blue-red. And in the first case, under similar circumstances, we see only- Blue, red, yellow. This appearance is best exhibited by refracting the bars of a window when they are relieved on a grey sky.” (Ibid.,p.89).

The cases above produce the most varied and intense color but as the conditions or circumstances are eliminated, the color will also decrease. If contrast is lessened or local color is more intense, this phenomena will appear less pronounced. Goethe goes further with his experiments (adding prisms and convex lenses etc.), than I have described because I feel these apply less to a painters interest which rests on observable phenomena. These natural occurrences will not appear everyday, but I feel if a painter is conscious of such phenomena, he can seize the moment when such things do appear before his eyes. If one has no consciousness of such phenomena, then one cannot possibly penetrate into one’s image and heighten the sense of color, light and intensity of observation. When one has attuned one’s self to such things, than one’s eyes are open to the possibilities and such phenomena becomes a part of one’s experience in the world.