Spinning and Dissecting the Colorwheel

by Sister Hilda Kleiman, OSB

In the first chapter of his book Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color (public library), Philip Ball explains that "by tracing their coevolution, we shall see both how art is more of science and science more of an art than is commonly appreciated on either side of the fence" (13).  In their work, painters need to bring together the physical properties of their materials and the possibilities they envision as a result of manipulating those materials.

Chapter two, "Plucking the Rainbow," focuses on the physics and chemistry of color, the efforts of scientists to break down our experience of individual colors and how those colors are related to one another.

Claude Boutet's 1708 Colorwheels - Credit: PD-US

Goethe's 1810 Colorwheel - Credit: PD-US

Bezold's 1874 Colorwheel - Credit: PD-US

Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary 1890-1907 - Credit: PD-RusEmpire

Kuepper's Colorwheel - Credit: CC-BY SA 3.0

Credit - PD

Credit - PD

At the end of chapter two, Ball writes that, for the painter color must be brought into the hand-on experience with their materials:

Color does not mean Newton’s rainbow or (as the Oxford English Dictionary suggests) a material’s propensity for light absorption or a sensation produced by stimulation of the optic nerve.  It is all of these things, but to artists they are mere abstractions.  Painters need color to be embodied in stuff; they need to be able to purchase it and get it smeared across their overalls.  That is the bottom line, and I would not like to see it obscured (as sometimes it has been) among multihued wheels and globes and charts.  Painters need paint.  Color is their medium of expression and communication, but to make their dreams visible, it needs substance (49).