Sunday, 29 April 2012

Temperamental Roses: On the beauty of colour circles

On the occasion of the imminent publication of my anthology on the theme of colour and colour theory here is an extract from it. I have been working very closely with the cover artist David J Markham, who was commissioned to come up with a contemporary take on the Goethe/Schiller circle from 1799. This short piece includes David's comments on the commission.

'Languages of Colour', a collection of writings and artwork on the subject of colour and colour theory, will be published on 31 May 2012 by The Frogmore Press.
90 pages, 20 colour illustrations, more than 30 contributors.
ISBN 978-0-9570688-0-3
£10 incl. postage if ordered directly through the Frogmore Press.
The cover is also available as a high quality Curwen Studio print, signed by both the artist and the editor. Limited edition of 12. £95 plus postage.

On the beauty of colour circles
 The image on the cover of this anthology was inspired by a colour circle from 1799, the result of an inebriated and excited exchange about colour between Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. Here the two German poets align colours with the traditional four temperaments choleric, sanguine, melancholy and phlegmatic. In an even earlier sketch Goethe assigns sensual and character qualities to colours, such as good, powerful and gentle. These aspects of Goethe’s research are later explored comprehensively in the didactic part of the 1810 edition of his Theory of Colours, arguably the most comprehensive — and criticised — work on colour theory published in the 19th century. Just as this colour circle developed from a conversation so did the image for the cover of this book. Here is the artist David J Markham’s account of it:

“After submitting work for the publication I struck up a conversation with Alexandra Loske about the design for the cover. As the conversation ebbed and flowed Alexandra brought to my attention the Goethe/Schiller ‘Temperament Rose’ from 1799. I think we reached the conclusion simultaneously to create a modern interpretation. I was struck by the beauty of the original circle. What I've tried to do is put a new spin on the circle that has a bearing on the original, the role of the target in art and the interpretation of what became a symbol of a 1960s youth movement.  The original circle is paler and less conspicuous than my interpretation. I wanted to generate a bright image that was dynamic and embraced colour, while shadowing the original copy and retaining the words in the correct boxes. Jasper Johns and Peter Blake both found inspiration from targets and this is how the colour circle emerged for me. Alexandra’s location near Brighton conjured images of the Mod movement and their use of the target. Isn't it strange how a target can one minute represent the RAF and then the next a youth movement? Same colours just a different emotional and ideological attachment. That’s the story of how a circle became a target.”

Goethe/Schiller: The Temperament Rose, 1799
    © Klassik-Stiftung Weimar 
Throughout history writers on colour have attempted to visualise and schematise the order and arrangement of colour. In many cases the result is a circular shape, sometimes based on overlapping triangular shapes which denote the three primary and three secondary colours. Even Newton, who in his Opticks from 1704 eschews a symmetrical order, proposes a colour circle, which he duly cuts into uneven cake slices to represent his seven prismatic colours in accordance with musical scales. Newton’s illustrations were about colour but not in colour, but the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century saw a surge in publications on colour theory, many of which included hand-coloured illustrations.

Moses Harris

In 1766 the English entomologist Moses Harris offered two detailed colour circles, a re-interpretation of Newton’s prismatic order with a total number of eighteen named tints in each circle. Advances in printing generally and lithographic methods in particular resulted in a wave of stunningly beautiful illustrations in the field of colour, culminating perhaps in 1810 in a coloured etching created by the German Romantic painter Philipp Otto Runge, showing us four views of a three-dimensional colour sphere. Flower shapes, and roses in particular, are often alluded to in title and design, as is the human eye; the latter certainly by this point seen as the place of perception, of visual decoding, and perhaps as a gateway to understanding, as well as to the soul. At one point Goethe designed a small vignette showing his own eye under a rainbow.

Philipp Otto Runge
In England one of the most productive colour theorists of the early to mid-19th century was George Field, who experimented with star and flower-like shapes, always based on a circular order. The only known female colour theorist of that time was the now largely forgotten flower painter Mary Gartside, apart from including a standard colour circle in her books An Essay on Light and Shade (1805) and Essay on a New Theory of Colour (1808), also created colour blots for each of her proposed harmonious colour arrangements. These blots, although faintly resembling flower heads, are of a stunning abstract beauty. This was perhaps unintended but might have influenced artists such as J.W. Turner. In the early 1840s Turner painted two canvasses with the title Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory). These swirling and almost completely abstract compositions with their direct reference to colour theory bear a striking resemblance to Gartside’s colour blots. 

Mary Gartside

This is perhaps an indication that artists tend to think of colour and light as circular or concentric in structure and shape, but could also highlight the close connection between colour, vision and the human eye, as well as expressing notions of completeness and perfection. With scientific knowledge increasing in the later 19th century, representations of colour order change dramatically, but among artists and ‘colourmen’ (producers and suppliers of pigments and paints) the circle, or variations on it, survives, as can be seen in the example of a standard painting manual from the early 20th century at the beginning of this book. By commissioning a modern take on a colour circle from 1799 I was hoping to continue the tradition of beautiful, if often highly unscientific, representations of colour.