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Volume 8, Issue 3: Poetics

Color in the Details

Douglas Jones

We worship a God who hides beauty in the details. His breathtaking craftsmanship in the minutest parts of creation will for the vast part never be seen by humans. Intricate patterns, delicate structures, and the finest combinations lie quietly unseen on ocean floors, mountainsides, wings, and eyelids. It's almost as if He has saved the most magnificent art for His pleasure alone.

Color stands out for particular attention on this score. We do so much with color, and its such an intimate part of our lives and art. Throughout history, color has been splashed, mixed, diffused, reflected, worn, and eaten. With color, we celebrate and mourn, rest and laugh. We have offered countless theories explaining the "truth" about colors, yet each theory crumbles after time (today's theories will soon seem hollow too). And so the details of color are excessively mysterious yet powerful.
God could have made colors much simpler than they are. He could have made colors and their causes much more uniform without our noticing. Instead, He delighted in crafting colors of unfathomable variety and structure. The more we study the details of color the more astounding a simple, flowered prairie becomes.
By some estimates, the world is populated by between seven and ten million distinguishable colors. And according to today's fleeting mythologies, colors are largely the result of the interaction of light with electrons. But this is actually quite a "trick" as it turns out. Not just any light (radiation) tunes in so nicely to the structures of earth objects. Only a narrow band of energy from the sun serves color. Anything higher or lower would apparently destroy us or warm us in quite a colorless fashion. It appears that this link between the middle range of sun radiation and the electronic structure of matter matches like a key in a lock. As one theorist notes, "There is nothing in the nature of things which demands that the energy spectrum of the light that reaches the surface of a particular planet from its central star should be tuned to the electronic structure of matter; so color vision, like complex life itself, depends upon a fortuitous combination of circumstances."[1] Oh, how lucky for us!
Even more interesting is that with all these millions of "fortuitous" colors, it appears that particularity is so rampant that any object we identify as, say, "blue" shares almost nothing in common with any other object we might identify as the same color. We tend to think that color operates like crayons. We use one crayon to fill in a tree, a bird, jacket, and a roof. But it appears that the same color can be served by very different microstructures. For example, what we see as simple blue can be produced by incandescnce, transitions, vibrations, refraction, scattering, diffraction, etc. As Hardin points out, the "same blue" found in the sky, water, a rainbow, a beetle, a sapphire, the star Sirius, and a television dot results from very different microstructures. This may be a tough swallow for some Platonists who hope for a uniform basis for each color, but it should be a joy for those who seek to honor our God of the details. Like the true particularity of the persons of the Trinity, creation boasts in real individuality too.
Most cultures have loved color. For centuries, we thought that Greeks were addicted to marble-white sculptures only to find out last century that the Greeks had actually draped their statues and buildings in some very gaudy color combinations. Now it's true that some of the philsophical Greek sorts didn't value colors as much as the Christian middle ages and Renaissance. Aristotle, for example, claimed that "the chalk outline of a portrait will give more pleasure than the most beautiful colors laid on confusedly."[2] Hellenistic art was far more concerned with a command of the line than with color. Mixing colors was particularly troublesome for some. Plutarch objected that "Mixing produces conflict, conflict produces change, and putrefaction is a kind of change. This is why painters call a blending of colors a deflowering and Homer calls dyeing `tainting.'"[3] Creation isn't so tightly constrained, and so we find many pleasant color mixes. Blues and greens mix nicely to make natural turquoise. Reds and yellows supply poppies with orange. Purple is a mix that has been historically given special attention. Purple was thought to be special for its ability to include both light and darkness and movement (white, black, and red) within itself. And so emperors sought it, and merchants tried to imitate it. Due to the imitations, the law stepped in to curtail the rampant use of purple, upon pain of death at times.
Some colors blend nicely, but others seem to reveal inherent incompatibilities with each other. While we can speak of bluish-green and reddish-yellow, we have traditionally noticed that there is no such thing as a greenish-red or a bluish-yellow. Some attribute such incompatibilities to objective color laws and others to deep neurobiology, but whatever the case, such color constraints are curious and beg for explanation.
For millennia we've tried to unravel the intricate relationships between colors. In early Greece, black, white, red, and "fadedness"(!) made up the primary colors. Later, Aristotle described a seven part color continuum from black to white with intermediate colors of crimson, violet, leek-green, deep blue, and grey or yellow. Some medievals claimed black, red, yellow, and green as the basic building blocks of all others. By 1600, blue finally entered most lists, and black and white were dropped. Newton and his century introduced light into the picture, revolutionizing many of these questions. Today's understanding of color relationships are displayed on a fascinating three-dimensional, quasi-conical diagram showing hues, brightness, and saturation. More and more detail. More and more beauty.

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