The science referred to in the title of this post had a lot to do with the revolution in the understanding that gave birth to what we now know as the science of “visual perception“. The first intimations that an important change was afoot came in the later part of the seventeenth century with Isaac Newton’s work on the composition of light. However, the paradigm shift came in the late eighteenth century when the work of Gaspard Monge and others made it clear that colour is not a property of surfaces but is made in the head. This completely new understanding of the nature of visual perception was to be fleshed out in the next century by a flood of confirmatory studies. A milestone was the publication by Herman van Helmholtz of a three-volume review of the new domain of study. It was a magisterial achievement that showed why, despite his considerable debt to others, he has been described as the “Father of the Psychology of Perception“. The third and last of these volumes was published in 1867, just in time to have a profound influence, first on the young Impressionists and, then, in the remainder of the nineteenth and in the early twentieth centuries, on many of their Modernist Painter successors.
The new science misrepresented
One of the purposes of “Painting with Light and Colour”, my book on the theory and practice painting, is to provide a better account of the hugely important role of the new sciences of vision and visual perception in the history of painting. In this post I am publishing Chapter 5, which continues the process of setting the scene started in the Introduction to the science at the beginning of the book. It does so by revisiting and shedding new light on important aspects of colour theory. It has four objectives:
- To question the widespread dissemination of half-truths and falsehoods in how-to-do-it books and articles on painting.
- To sort out misconceptions about colour theory that I have found to be common amongst my students.
- To show how well-known concepts are given new significance when considered in the context of the realisation that colour is not a property of surfaces but is made in the head.
- To introduce other more recent ideas that will play a key role in the chapters that follow. These are likely to be unfamiliar to most people, as they are the fruit of little known, late twentieth century experimental clarifications, which enable sense to be made of formerly unsolved mysteries.
Posts relating to other chapters from “Painting with Light and Colour”:
- Introduction: the little known Science behind many of the original practical suggestions.
- Chapter 1 : The dogmas
- Chapter 2 : “doubts”.
- Chapter 3 : “The nature of painting”
- Chapter 4: Renaissance ideas
- Chapter 5 : New Science on offer
- Chapter 6 : “Early Modernist Painters”
Other Posts on light and colour in painting:
- What are colourists (1): Some of the many meanings of the word?
- What are colourists (2): Difference between meaning of the word for Venetian Colourists and for Modernist Colourists?