Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Optical Black: Part 4

Let's see if I can finish off this topic, shall we? The first three installments are here, here and here.

I've had a lot to say about the difference between using color to establish darkness, and using black to establish darkness. I've claimed that the black system appeals to an older part of the brain than the color system. I've claimed that the systems are immiscible. And I've claimed that you cannot express the profundity available to the black system in the color system, while you cannot express the sensuality available to the color system in the black system.

I've been thinking over what all this means and how to sum it up. And here's my conclusion: for whatever reason - very likely the scientific reason - the two systems produce (at least for me) these effects:

The color system shows how things look. The black system shows what things are.

These are the sensations I have when looking at paintings in these two systems. Obviously, Rouen Cathedral does not look like this, or this, at any time of day:

But you look at these, and you have the feeling that they catch some profoundly true thing about how this Cathedral looks in light, and air, and time. Similarly, no scene was ever this perfect, and so utterly bleached of real color:

And yet I cannot help but think, when I see this, that this is absolutely solid and real. The Monet is the epitome of appearance, and the Caravaggio the epitome of being.

Your mileage may vary.

You may remember that I claimed these two dark systems, color and black, cannot be fused because they are neurologically distinct in their effects. While I was thinking this over, I turned my mind to the possibility of exceptions to my own rule. I thought of a few candidates: Vermeer, Velazquez, and Sargent. The first two came to mind because Harold Speed claims that, among their virtues, was a panchromatic color system hundreds of years before everyone else figured it out. Let's take one more look at these guys and see what we can see.


Another Velazquez:
Another Vermeer:
You notice anything interesting about these paintings? All of them? Let me tell you what's interesting to me in this context. The eye, to varying degrees in each painting, is convinced that it is looking at a panchromatic system. And yet the shadows are brown or black. Speed allows that this is true - that Velazquez and Vermeer chose lighting situations which resulted in monochromatic shadows.

So this isn't truly color-dark painting at all. It is color-light painting. That makes all the difference, and this is very very interesting.

Why? Because, as painters, we discover something that looks like a fusion (though it isn't really). Go nuts with color in the light areas, but get those shadows to go colorless dark! And you will produce the impression of a full-color world, without losing the profundity of the dark-from-black system. Which brings us to John Singer Sargent.

Your impulse might be to say, Well, Maidman, Sargent works in the full spectrum. Why, I can picture a blue shadow of his right now. I don't doubt that you can. What I'm claiming is that Sargent switches back and forth between the darkness paradigms at will. When he is interested in celebrating the beauty of the world, particularly the outdoors, then he works in the panchromatic system, generally in watercolor:

Those are some blue goddamned shadows right there!

And yet, when the man wants to express something about human nature, he moves indoors, he switches to oil (or, later, charcoal), and suddenly, we're looking at darkness from brown and black:

Examine his work here - he's still working full spectrum in the lights, but the darks are dropping into monochrome. He has grasped the same principle as Velazquez and Vermeer. There is somebody else who figured this out in a very sophisticated and interesting way: Giorgio Morandi. But I'm going to discuss him in my upcoming work on edges.

Some sociology-type people would no doubt have something to say about seeming profundity coming from black-dark scenes being set indoors, not from the color system used. To them I say this:

Rubens, Prometheus Bound.


Shall we consider the case closed on optical black? At least until the suspect busts out of concept-jail once again? Because they always do.

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