A color challenge on white? Why white?
Curiously, everyone will agree on what is white, yet finding two identical whites is a real challenge.
Do you want to repaint your living room in white? Ask your paint dealer, he will laugh in your face. White, yes, but which white?
The color white is highly symbolically charged; its meaning varies according to context, culture and even individual. What emotions inspire you in the different works presented here? What associations come to mind? What do you want to say while using white in the staging of a play or simply in your home? Will you use the “high key” technique of overexposing a photograph to exploit the power of white? Why?
This white walk through the arts is above all pictorial and aims to make you aware of the expressive and symbolic power of whites. The subject is so rich that I decided to divide the article into two parts, according to the themes addressed.
Even more than in the other challenges, the comments on the palette depend on the reproductions. If you see the original works, the color shades will be different; observe them, notice the differences and so you will refine your perception.
But before starting the challenge according to the GORC method (Get inspired, Observe, Reproduce, Create), here is the little scientific touch that makes the particularity of this blog.
A surface is white if it reflects all the light it receives. All of it? In reality, most whites, those of paintings, paper, ceramics, etc., only reflect between 75% and 92% of the incident light. Some shells reach a rate of 98%. Moreover, as we saw here, the surface must reflect each wavelength in the same way, otherwise the white may no longer be neutral: a slight coloring will be noticeable.
However, the surface must be illuminated by a perfectly white light. Such light, as we have seen here, exists only as an ideal. As you can see, there is no such a perfect white – there is, however, a material called spectralon, which is characterized by a practically flat reflection spectrum that reflects 99% of visible light.
Available white is not perfect? It is all about its strength! Perfection is boring. Imperfection is the trace of our humanity and in white, it awakens our sensibility.
And finally, yes, white is indeed a color, just like black and grey. Together they form the range of neutral colors in the sense that no color trend can be detected.
Get inspired and Observe
Don’t worry, this is not about showing you boring monochromes like the “white square on white background” by Kazimir Malevitch (1879-1935), even if the work expresses the fundamental idea of this article: white is multiple.
How to evoke white then? If you look carefully at some of the paintings below, although you can say with certainty that the object depicted is white, the brushstroke may be blue here, yellow or red there or even violet. But how do they make us see white where there is color?
The reverse is also true. Some of the whites in the painting represent flashes of light. We know that the surface represented is not white, and yet there is a bright white. Bright? everything is relative, sometimes it is simply the canvas that has remained blank in certain places. Like a white reserved for watercolor.
Let’s discover these whites and the colors they evoke, following a thematic rather than chronological thread. In this first part, I invite you to discover white in portraits and landscapes.
Rare are portraits of men dressed in white. In the previous challenge, you have discovered “The White Man” by Lyonnel Feininger. The self-portrait of Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) in his working clothes shows his virtuosity. The brightest point at the bottom, well below the figure’s elbow, accentuates the effect of perspective and the figure’s emergence.
On the web, this painting is also referred as “The Revenant”, as if the man was a ghost. In this context, white may indeed suggest life after death, but most often, in the artistic representation, the white is symbol of purity and candor; white idealized above all the woman, and even more so, the young woman.
Before the 20th
James Whistler (1834-1903), whose twilight palette we had discovered in the challenge devoted to the magic hour, offers us here a symphony of whites. Notice the qualities we attribute to these fabrics, all of which are translated by different shades of white: the dress is silky, the heavy hanging with a raised pattern, the transparent collar, the puffed sleeves reveal a material distinct from the body of the dress, except at the wrist.
In the “Portrait of Margarita“, Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) highlights the young woman in a tone that seems luminous to us by simple contrast: the face and the grey wall in the background are slightly darker. The doorway surrounding Marguerite is of an intermediate lightness. Note once again how the variety of whites in the corsage underlines the body, pays homage to the meticulous work of the seamstress, and to Marguerite’s pretty forms.
The palette of Gaston Latouche (1854-1913) in “A Maid in Contemplation” is also very limited in hues. And yet, what a subtlety of tones between the brighter back and the part of the cape closing in on the barely discernible hands. The background, on the other hand, draws the profile of the maid like a back light. The face is the darkest part of the painting if one forgets the hair that can be guessed behind the lace of the headdress. As in the portrait of Marguerite, it brings out the whiteness of the dress. The choice of white is not innocent: softness, fervor and purity seem to be three suggested qualities of this young girl.
A contemporary look at portrait
The portraits of the contemporary photographer/painter Louis Tresseras seem to be influenced by the pictorial tradition presented above. In the three portraits below, the different whites and the material associated with them give us an indication of the personality of the girls, don’t they?
Except in the innocence of a young girl where else can you find an immaculate white? In snowy landscapes of course.
This subject has inspired many painters, here is a panorama of it across Europe, Canada and the United States.
A European overview
Below, the Russian painter Constantin Kryjitsky (1858-1911) invites us into a snowy wood. The sometimes yellowish and sometimes bluish whites reveal the roughness of the terrain. In the background we feel the bluish light of winter while the colors of autumn are still bright.
Several paintings by the German painter Walter Moras (1856-1925) depict snow. In this one, with the pine tree in the back light, it is as if the snow were melting under the sun. With his palette of whites alone, he succeeded in translating the quality of the snow that the sun warms up.
See below how the Russian painter Alexandr Borissov (1866-1934) and the Polish painter Józef Chełmoński (1849-1914) both make the cold and the icy wind feel.
Different weather conditions reveal new palettes. Softness of greys, which the vesperal light colors here with pink, there with blue or green in this landscape by the German painter Paul Müller-Kaempff (1861-1941).
The Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), for his part, lets us guess through the frimats a church as an echo to the fir tree in the foreground; the snow is declined in shades that darken in a gradation of bluish greys melted in the fog. A lighter veil of mist envelops the landscape by Richard Freiherr von Drasche-Wartinberg (1850-1923).
In this European panorama, Impressionism brings its particular vision of the subject.
The bluish greys of the buildings in the painting by Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) below are lost in the horizon and recall the palette of the previous painting. The reproduction that follows is by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), rather qualified as post-impressionist. Here again, despite a very limited range of colors – an exception in his work – the painter guides our eyes all through his painting. This is followed by two paintings by Claude Monet (1840-1926) which are equally admirable.
Sergei Vinogradov (1869-1938) is considered neither as an impressionist nor as a post-Impressionist. But don’t you see a connection between the above painting and Monet’s Magpie? Vinogradov exhibited in Paris in 1906. It seems to me that he must have been seduced by Impressionism.
What about the others?
Of course in this panorama I could have shown you “The hunters in the snow” by Brueghel, or landscapes by Valerius de Sadeleer, or other winter landscapes proposed here but the variety of whites seemed to me less interesting (although the article was a great source of inspiration). The white in the landscape at the blue hour by William Degouve de Nuncques (1865-1935) below, is not so interesting neither – maybe the original painting would – but I cannot resist showing it, as a link to Challenge #7.
Snow in Canada
Canadians will forgive me if I limit myself in this article to the work of Tom Thompson (1877-1917), the most iconic figure in the Group of Seven, even though he was not one of them to begin with. He was undoubtedly a great colorist. Observe in the pochades that follow all the shades of white and the bold colors in the shadows. This synthetic work, which is to painting what sketching is to the art of drawing, brilliantly captures Canadian nature in winter.
Contemporary American Artists
To continue along audacity, here are three contemporary American artists. It is in their filiation to Tom Thompson that I especially appreciate David Langevin‘s paintings. You can find several versions of “What if it doesn’t work?” on the internet. In one the snow is yellow, this one is rather orange but both interpretations are interesting. In the second painting by the same artist, the snow, which the artist emphasizes in the composition, has no chromatic accent, only the differences in clarity give an idea of the relief through the shadows.
Judith Simonian that you will have discovered in the Challenge #4 comes back with an amazing pair of red-blue complements for this mountain landscape called “The Ice Blue Track“. She has taken the term ice-blue at its word. Rick Stevens’ painting could have been included in the Challenge devoted to the magic hour; he does not hesitate to give us snow in a range of brilliant blues, characteristic of our mesopic vision.
And, to complete this walk through snow, let us come back to Andrew Wyeth, introducing the portrait section. Wyeth is definitely the White Master. The two paintings below should convince you.
The sunny landscape
Snow is not exclusive to white landscapes. The photographer Massimo Vitalli has made his specialty of these overexposed landscapes where the white evokes an overwhelming sun.
The American painters presented here are all contemporary, but America has also had many Impressionist painters. Among them, Walter Launt Palmer (1854-1932), who made several study visits to Europe, is well known for his winter landscapes. One of them, “Golden Glow Winter” inspired me. I have also tried to reproduce the palette of Tom Thomson’s “Snow Shadows”. Below is the result of this work done in gouache. The scan unfortunately erases many shades and is not perfectly faithful to the original colors.
What did it teach me? It’s not an easy job: mixing with white gouache extinguishes the color very quickly.
Below are some photographs of snowy landscapes. The photograph introducing the challenge has been taken at the same place. The last reproduction is a photograph of the same series on which I worked with gouache; the small dots are actually drops on plastic.
White and its shades are yours
From now on, don’t pass by a white without observing the shades that dress it. Take advantage of the last offensives of the winter to admire the snow. Observe the alleys flooded with light together with its various shades. Dress in white, veil, lace or poorly ironed raw cotton so that the folds play with the light.
Create your paintings, overexpose your photos, express yourself with all the nuances that white offers, in all its imperfection. And, hopefully, you will come back for the second part of the challenge for other white inspirations. You will be surprised.