LECTURE VII. COLOUR

173. To-day I must try to complete our elementary sketch of schools of art, by tracing the course of those which were distinguished by faculty of colour, and afterwards to deduce from the entire scheme advisable methods of immediate practice.

You remember that, for the type of the early schools of colour, I chose their work in glass; as for that of the early schools of chiaroscuro, I chose their work in clay.

I had two reasons for this. First, that the peculiar skill of colourists is seen most intelligibly in their work in glass or in enamel; secondly, that Nature herself produces all her loveliest colours in some kind of solid or liquid glass or crystal. The rainbow is painted on a shower of melted glass, and the colours of the opal are produced in vitreous flint mixed with water; the green and blue, and golden or amber brown of flowing water is in surface glassy, and in motion "splendidior vitro." And the loveliest colours ever granted to human sight—those of morning and evening clouds before or after rain—are produced on minute particles of finely-divided water, or perhaps sometimes ice. But more than this. If you examine with a lens some of the richest colours of flowers, as, for instance, those of the gentian and dianthus, you will find their texture is produced by a crystalline or sugary frost-work upon them. In the lychnis of the high Alps, the red and white have a kind of sugary bloom, as rich as it is delicate. It is indescribable; but if you can fancy very powdery and crystalline snow mixed with the softest cream, and then dashed with carmine, it may give you some idea of the look of it. There are no colours, either in the nacre of shells, or the plumes of birds and insects, which are so pure as those of clouds, opal, or flowers; but the force of purple and blue in some butterflies, and the methods of clouding, and strength of burnished lustre, in plumage like the peacock's, give them more universal interest; in some birds, also, as in our own kingfisher, the colour nearly reaches a floral preciousness. The lustre in most, however, is metallic rather than vitreous; and the vitreous always gives the purest hue. Entirely common and vulgar compared with these, yet to be noticed as completing the crystalline or vitreous system, we have the colours of gems. The green of the emerald is the best of these; but at its best is as vulgar as house-painting beside the green of bird's plumage or of clear water. No diamond shows colour so pure as a dewdrop; the ruby is like the pink of an ill-dyed and half-washed-out print, compared to the dianthus; and the carbuncle is usually quite dead unless set with a foil, and even then is not prettier than the seed of a pomegranate. The opal is, however, an exception. When pure and uncut in its native rock, it presents the most lovely colours that can be seen in the world, except those of clouds.

We have thus in nature, chiefly obtained by crystalline conditions, a series of groups of entirely delicious hues; and it is one of the best signs that the bodily system is in a healthy state when we can see these clearly in their most delicate tints, and enjoy them fully and simply, with the kind of enjoyment that children have in eating sweet things.

174. Now, the course of our main colour schools is briefly this:—First we have, returning to our hexagonal scheme, line; then spaces filled with pure colour; and then masses expressed or rounded with pure colour. And during these two stages the masters of colour delight in the purest tints, and endeavour as far as possible to rival those of opals and flowers. In saying "the purest tints," I do not mean the simplest types of red, blue, and yellow, but the most pure tints obtainable by their combinations.

175. You remember I told you, when the colourists painted masses or projecting spaces, they, aiming always at colour, perceived from the first and held to the last the fact that shadows, though of course darker than the lights with reference to which they are shadows, are not therefore necessarily less vigorous colours, but perhaps more vigorous. Some of the most beautiful blues and purples in nature, for instance, are those of mountains in shadow against amber sky; and the darkness of the hollow in the centre of a wild rose is one glow of orange fire, owing to the quantity of its yellow stamens. Well, the Venetians always saw this, and all great colourists see it, and are thus separated from the non-colourists or schools of mere chiaroscuro, not by difference in style merely, but by being right while the others are wrong. It is an absolute fact that shadows are as much colours as lights are; and whoever represents them by merely the subdued or darkened tint of the light, represents them falsely. I particularly want you to observe that this is no matter of taste, but fact. If you are especially sober-minded, you may indeed choose sober colours where Venetians would have chosen gay ones; that is a matter of taste; you may think it proper for a hero to wear a dress without patterns on it, rather than an embroidered one; that is similarly a matter of taste: but, though you may also think it would be dignified for a hero's limbs to be all black, or brown, on the shaded side of them, yet, if you are using colour at all, you cannot so have him to your mind, except by falsehood; he never, under any circumstances, could be entirely black or brown on one side of him.