Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Notes on the history of color perception

There is a limit to our knowledge of other people. How can one articulate their own experience of color, for example? "The chair is blue." ("But what is blue?")

According to philosopher Zed Adams, that question wasn't even considered until the 1600s. The perception of color is a relatively new phenomenon, one whose history Adams presented in a talk (and promotion for his forthcoming book, The Genealogy of Color) at Machine Project in Los Angeles.

Interested in how philosophical questions become philosophical questions, Adams discovered that before the 1600s, it was believed that people experienced color in the same way. Then came a shift: a renewed interest in optics led to the discovery that color is but light reflecting off a surface; that light doesn't just make seeing color possible- it produces color. Since each pair of eyes processes light differently, color, therefore, must be a subjective experience.

Many other corollary discoveries came about from the 1600s on, and, according to Adams, five important ones in particular:

1. Light has a speed.
2. Different color experiences are caused by different sources of light.
3. There are lights that we can't see, like infrared and ultraviolet.
4. Other animals can colors that we can't.
5. Color blindness exists.

It's easy to take for granted these long-accepted facts, but it was revolutionary for thinkers like Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes. Newton believed that seeing color was analogous to hearing sound: pitch was believed to come in seven varieties, so why not color? Descartes didn't necessarily think about variation in color perception so much as the fact that our own ideas about color don't resemble their external causes (the blue chair is not produced by a blue-colored light).

That isn't to say that color wasn't thought about before the 1600s; the ancient Greeks named their colors according to how much light was emitted rather than their hue. (The entry for "colour" in the Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilization gives a precise account of this.) The Greek term ochron for example, included a variety of colors - red, yellow, green - because they all have a similar lightness.

Sketch from Rene Descartes, De Homine Figuris, ca. 1633 (Getty Images)

Color circles from Traité de la peinture en mignature, possibly attributed to Claude Boutet, 1708 

Adams' talk, while brimming with food for thought, was at times tiresome: using dates as a device for situating events ("color blindness was first considered in the late 1700s"; "infrared was discovered in the 1800s") is better left for reading material. Then again, he did make the historical focus of his talk clear in its title, "The History of Questioning Color Perception."

And indeed, tying together this history nicely, he concluded with an anecdote: In the 1800s, a man was surprised by the black suit his future son-in-law was wearing as it was the day before his wedding. Turns out it wasn't black; he was just color blind.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

CP's namesake

So that's what contrapposto is...

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Children's book illustrations, for all ages

Using superlatives are a questionable tool, but it's unavoidable in the case of The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats, a new exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center. Based on the luminous and thoughtful work of children's book illustrator Ezra Jack Keats, The Snowy Day is one of the most beautiful, inventive exhibitions I've ever seen. You'll find it rouses your energy on a scale similar to that of their Noah's Ark exhibition. It will invigorate the scroogiest of scrooges.

The Snowy Day proves that book illustrations don't just belong in books. "Finally, he reached the King's high palace" has the glow of a Klimt and the sublimity of a Caspar David Friederich painting. It takes your breath away, in what can only remotely match the awe of a traveler who has reached his destination.

Ezra Jack Keats, “Finally, he reached the King’s high palace.” Final illustration for The King’s Fountain, by Lloyd Alexander, 1971. Paint on marbled paper, mounted on board.
Courtesy Skirball Cultural Center 

But of course, book illustrations are meant for books, and this show is a testament to the value of the hand-held page. One can imagine words scrawled into the space Keats left for them, be it a marbled sky or a mound of snow. But his illustrations, too, can easily stand alone.

Jack Ezra Keats gained notoriety after his publication of The Snowy Day in 1962. It was the first full-color, modern book to feature an African American protagonist-- an important addition to the conversation on civil rights. He went on to publish other books with African American protagonists, a choice that led many to think he was black. Keats, in fact, was the son of Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn.

Ezra Jack Keats, “After breakfast he put on his snowsuit and ran outside.” Final illustration for The Snowy Day, 1962. Collage and paint on board.
Courtesy Skirball Cultural Center
Ezra Jack Keats, “He said goodbye to his mother and father, and off he went.” Final illustration for John Henry: An American Legend, 1965. Collage, paint, and pencil on paper.
Courtesy Skirball Cultural Center
Ezra Jack Keats, “They added a picture of swans . . . leaves . . . and some paper flowers.” Final illustration forJennie’s Hat, 1966. Collage and paint on paper.
Courtesy Skirball Cultural Center
Installation view (replete with interactive bathtub), The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats.

The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats is on view at the Skirball Cultural Center (Los Angeles) through September 7, 2014.