Color


A mysterious experience beyond other definition than transdendental

A mysterious experience beyond other definition than transdendental
A mysterious experience beyond other definition than transdendental
On this Page:
Colors aren't Fixed, as Marketeers Claim
The Scientific Perspective
Cultural Interpretations
Mystical Symbolism
How much can we truly appreciate Color?
Leibniz: Color in God's Own Vision of His Creation
Wittgenstein: Color as Transcendental Experience
(Click the images for a lightbox slideshow)

Colors aren't Fixed, as Marketeers Claim

Branding makes us believe colors are fixed and immutable
Branding makes us believe colors are fixed and immutable

While many have scoffed at the ridiculousness of considering something as simple as color in any depth, consumerism has indubitably transformed color into a commercial tool. We've been subjected to a long propaganda process that numbs our appreciation of our own senses and leads us to accept sales presentations on color as inviolate and necessary truths. One need only witness the incredible number of packages and brands distributing an enormous variety of lipstick and eye makeup colors at the entrance of any local pharmacy, where once there were medicines and common household goods instead. The growing proliferation of 'color for sale' inside our stockhouse caverns excessively dwarfs our appreciation for the complex subtleties of visual apperception. Perhaps most significantly, the choir of named shades and hues lures us into some illusion that color is a fixed, immutable property. But it is not.

In just the same way as capitalism would rather we forget why we see color at all, we are also deluded into believing the colors we buy are the colors we actually see, when they only rarely even approximate their appearance under carefully designed shop lighting.

Thus we might be impressed by housepaint colors in a hardware store. But even after we take home a little swatch card and think we've chosen just the right one, then sometime after we paint our whole house, we notice it just doesn't look quite as bright or vibrant as we had believed. We had been 'programmed' into seeing the color as it appeared under the directed bright lights of the display stands. Rarely do we ever consider that the apparent hue and saturation, as well as the brightness, will vary immensely across sunny days, cloudy days, and night, and as a consequence, the impression of the color to others will vary too, depending on the lighting they see the same 'fixed, immutable' color we bought. Typically we don't think too much about the impressions other people have, because we've been seeing color ourselves all our lives. So we assume we know all we need. In fact, it's helpful to go right back to the beginning and consider why and how we see color in the first place, which most people rarely, if ever, consider at all.

The Scientific Perspective

The visible spectrum centers on the color of the photosynthetic organelle, the chloroplast
The visible spectrum centers on the color of the photosynthetic organelle, the chloroplast

Evolutionists are proud to point out that the green color we perceive from the photosynthetic mechanism of plants' chloroplasts is at the exact center of our visible spectra. We are attuned to see this green most of all, because that mechanism is how plants create and sustain all life on the surface of this planet. The hues around the green of growth are therefore most frequently easiest for animals' eyes to see, as well as us. Nature is therefore dominated by peculiar evolutionary developments, such as flowers and fruits with tones around the color of chloroplasts, to attract and encourage animal life in the most bizarre forms of symbiosis there is: enlistment of animals to propagate the seed of the sedentary plant, and in return, providing the animal with food.

Thus evolutionists are also proud to point out that the green color of plants is almost universally the most 'soothing' color; and that the colors of fruits are often the most popular, followed by the colors of water, vegetables, and meat. The 'nature versus nurture debate' however has not been able to determine how much of our varying personal preferences is due to genetics versus social conditioning; and social conditioning at an early age definitely plays an important part.

Carrara color shader
Carrara color shader

Before that, however, we need to consider the scientific aspects of how perceived color is different in different lighting conditions. And it's not simple at all. This picture shows the 'color shader' in a 3D modeling program called Carrara, which is one of the simpler interfaces for defining object color in 3D programs, illustrating a semi-opaque shiny cerulean-blue sphere with dark red refraction lit by a large, white unidirectional light source. The checkerboard visible through it is thus tinted pink, with small white highlights, and there's a slight rainbow around the top of the darker underbelly.

Basically, different objects may have varying qualities of light absorption, reflectivity, specularity, and opacity. All four of these basic four factors interact to affect the perceived hue, saturation, and brightness. Thus there is no simple, universal rule as to how color changes in different lighting conditions. Factors include not only the light intensity, but also: the light's own hue and saturation; whether the lighting is direct or indirect; the light's distance, which affects how much the light falls off on object points further from the source; and the light's size, which can affect how much the light rays are parallel or spreading out, altering the apparent specularity, reflection, and refraction, if the light is sufficiently close that it's rays cannot be considered parallel. With multiple light sources, all these effects combine with each other from each source to varying extents on different parts of the object, depending on each light's angular vector.

Different captures of Van Gogh
Different captures of Van Gogh

These photos of Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' in Munich look entirely different because they were taken at different times. The one on the left is in ambient daylight, and the detail on the right was taken when the sun was shining directly on the window (click image to zoom in). Not only are the colors different, but the second has more reflection and specularity–Particularly where Van Gagh used more chrome yellow in his paint mix, because his chrome yellow had tiny little specs of metal in it. Van Gogh was actually very fond of this rather new pigment, as a consequence of which he has sometimes been said to have Xanthopsia (an overriding yellow bias in vision).


Van Gogh
Van Gogh

Whether Van Gogh had Xanthopsia or not, he usually wore his rather thick glasses while painting (as shown in his first self portrait). He also liked to paint in the rain, which did not really affect the heavy palette-knife oils he favored; but it did make him see rings around lights, and bigger smudgy lights than he would've seen without glasses. His letters ramarked how exciting it was to paint 'Starry Night' during a particularly strong storm. Yet even while is said to be one of the most popular paintings in the world, almost no one knows why he painted the stars so large with rings around them, or even why he painted such a swirling night sky.


Camouflage based on edge enhancement
Camouflage based on edge enhancement

But that's not all. Distance also alters the psychovisual experience of color, because edge enhancement in the front optical cortex, immediately after the eyeball's rod and cone cells, increases the contrast of color boundaries. That's over and above the normal optical illusions caused by edge enhancement, illustrated in the this picture of a snake (top) and a leopard below. Can you even see the snake? If you focus on one part of the leopard's body, other areas of his markings appewar to fluctuate or waver.Camouflage patterns work by disrupting an eye's edge enhancement. It was one of the first perception mechanisms to evolve. Even insect eyes have edge enhancement. Recently it was found that the stripes on zebras confuse tstetse flies so much they keep missing when they swoop in for a landing.

Edge enhancement creates a number of different visual artefacts that we learn to ignore, but they can still always catch us out. Generally speaking, when seeing a small area of bright color against a dark background, the edge detection and enhancement mechanism in the very beginning of our optical cortex chain causes the bright color to appear brighter, and vice versa. This also applies to uniformly colored objects at different distances. The further away the object, then the edge detection increases its contrast to the background, making light objects appear brighter and dark objects appear darker. If the surface is not smooth, as for many houses, intensity variation is even more pronounced, because it reflects more or less light, depnding on the angle of the sun and the nature of the surface.

For eyes that can focus, like ours, camouflage makes edges fluctuate, blur, or change color where focus is not pinpointed. Additional cross-neural routing between the eyes means that stereoscopic vison can cause similar artefacts later in the optical processing chain, depending on the ratio of the distance between the eyes and the distance between the perceived edges.

This is an often unconsidered factor for people when choosing colors for exterior housepaint. Also, if using swatches to choose the color, avoid the ones witm multiple little dark swatches on a glossy white background. Large areas of the paint will look much lighter).

Additionally, if the object also emits light, its color changes under different lighting conditions in an entirely different way, because the primary colors are different—Green instead of yellow for emitted light.

Moreover, we don't actually see color at all if is dark, and instead slowly see monochromatic shadows with a secondary light-preceptor protein in the eye, commonly called visual purple; but we do not think the objects are different colors when it is night, even though that's what we actually see.

Rothko intended his art to be lit with candles and moonlight
Rothko intended his art to be lit with candles and moonlight

Art galleries always display the giant canvases of Rothko in uniform bright light.

Yet Rothko himself intended that his colors vibrate in the warm flickering glows of candles, from early sunset into the darker shades of varying moonlit nights.

We can only imagine the layers of lambient and vibrant sky above some purply black terrain, as it might appear if this canvas was illuminated as Rothko desired.

Yet we normally are unaware of how we perceive objects as changing color and brightness depending on the conditions in which they are seen. We unconsciously infer whatever we know the color would be under uniform light without edge-enhancement, totally omitting optical-processing artifacts from our conscious mind, unless we make a real effort to consider how the environmental conditions are altering what we actually see, or unless the object's characteristics or the overall environment is so unfamiliar that our normally unconscious adjustments malfunction.

The Amazing Color in Monet
The Amazing Color in Monet

Modern art often plays with colors as we actually see them, rather than they actually are. For example, Monet's Haystacks play with the changing of color's appearance at different times of day by emphasizing those tonal variations, engendering a dynamism to the paintings that explains why so many people find them meaningful.

Some, such as Randian objectivists, believe any argument on the nature of color should end there, unless it serves some material purpose, such as selling lipstick, to which the limited effectiveness of our visual range is only an irritation. Yet most complain not of the massive act of domination on our visual perception by our association with Regnum Plantae, instead considering the visual spectra only with pleasure, for of all the benefits that plants engender to animal life and human experience, color perception is one of particular delight. Such delight may or may not be a property of the object, depending on one's metaphysical view, so scientific explanation alone is not sufficient (for those who say delight is obviously not a property of the object, that's not what a buyer thinks at an art auction, so it's not so simple).

Look again at this painting or Monet, perhaps now the striking scarlets in the haystack appear in new shades of our imagination. In the distant hazy cottages we may infer, from this color, the joyful and industrious party of farmers embarked on celebration of their haymaking. We may infer, from this color, the warmth inside the haystack itself, lingering more slowly inside the straw bundles, during the twilights of sunset. Others may share the imagination and inference of Monet's intent. But within Monet's own silence, we find no confirmation of our speculation, and our insights persist only as hypothetical inferences of his intent. Those who claim some perfect understanding of reality may have deep contributions to make on its underlaying precepts, but for most of our knowledge of others' experience, the veil of postulation is too impenetrable to remove the bias of personal perspective.

Vlaminck
Vlaminck

The fauvist painter Vlaminck was one of the first to deliberately paint with opposing colors on a color wheel. The appositions create a sensation of 'hyper-reality' that extends our appreciation of visual experience into new dimensions. Technically, the collision of directly opposed colors put the eye's edge enhancement into overdrive, making flat colors appear phosphorescent, and even while later processing in the optical cortex tries to flatten the colors again, the rarity of the intense color composition defeats our normal visual experience.

This depiction of an orchard last sold for five million dollars to a private collector, so it's unlikely we will be able to see it in different light conditions for ourselves. Photographs reduce the original color composition to its appearance in a single lighting condition, so we cannot know how the mixtures of pigments will change in appearance from their different absorption, reflection, and emanescent spectra as lighting conditions alter.

Cultural Interpretations

From the primary purpose of color perception, which is to find food as described initially, each culture has attached its own secondary associations. For example, in the West, scarlet is associated with danger, and forbidding of action; whereas in the East, scarlet is the color of parties and festivities, across cultural, familial, and political realms.

In China, red means a party
In China, red means a party
In the West, red means danger
In the West, red means danger

Our understanding of color is shaped by cultural forces that identify conceptual associations in an arbitrary manner, or rather, without logical necessity, yet still existent and powerful enough to be a causal agent. We are influenced by color, both by deep evolutionary forces, and by abstract cultural associations; yet the colors themselves possess no intrinsic properties to cause such influence. The colors themselves are no more than labels we apply to a physical phenomena. Yet within us, colors work at deeper levels to shape our experience of sensation.

Mystical Symbolism

Yantric diagrams are said to define links between color and symbols within the mind during meditation. During tantric meditation on such diagrams, we are encouraged to perceive beyond the direct physical manifestation, and to discover the strange and illogical passions to which such phenomena can bend our unconscious will. To the insights from such introspection the tantric gurus attach the names of Gods and forces to which they claim direct and irrefutable knowledge. It is the path of Wisdom to pass by such exaggerations without verbal debate; for if some person becomes convinced of a supernatural connection at the borders of perception, there is no verbal dissuasion possible from the delusion.

Chakric colors called
Chakric colors called

Of course, there are good reasons to doubt the claims of those stating they have some 'supernatural intuition' that we do not. If colors are connected to objects, then it is still reasonable to say any claims to exclusive understanding of some Mystic Absolute are definitely dubious. On the other hand, if colors are properties of objects, it is also reasonable to question whether colors of such objects as 'auras' always have the same meaning. So either way, the tantric meditator has some more convincing to do.

Yet even so, the irresolvable remains: we have the capacity to consider the nature of experiencing a color, such as the paradoxical nature of scarlet's different meanings in different cultures, without connection to any physical object directly, but merely as a property of itself. The word 'merely' is in this case no diminishment, but rather remarkably, in some ultimately unknowable absolute sense, a humble portal to a deeper understanding of conceptual reality.

How much can we truly appreciate Color?

Monet painted haystacks in many lights
Monet painted haystacks in many lights

In some respects, our understanding of color must always be limited, for, how much can we truly appreciate the different associations of any particular color to different cultures? It even remains perplexing to those who share in communal joy, for example, this picture of haystacks by Claude Monet, even while others pass it by in disdain and scornful abjuration of those who find peaceful appreciation within it. Of course, empirically, we know Monet's haystacks are loved by many, because he painted the same haystacks dozens of times, evoking different asccoications with different palettes in each.

For any introspective insight we obtain, no matter how wise it may be to ourselves, remains only for ourselves, if we find no way to apply that insight for the omniversal influence of society. From our insights we may choose sides, and argue for example that such concepts as color could exist without any contemplation of such concepts by any thinking being. If so, we may pause to consider what concepts remain yet to be considered. For if there exist concepts by themselves, not in the thoughts of any conscious entity, then there might remain concepts of reality as yet unknown by any person at all.

Caravaggio
Caravaggio

Painters like Caravaggio and Rembrandt were experts in a technique known as chiaroscuro, an Italian word that translates to “light-dark.” Chiaroscuro creates a three-dimensional appearance by contrasting deep, dark colors with lighter hues. Chiaroscuro artists used a color palette including yellow ocher, sienna, umber, white, black, and a brownish or orangey red. Gold-leaf frames accentuated the luminous quality of the paintings. This is Caravaggio's 'St. Jerome,' painted in 1605, now in public view at the Galleria Borghese, Rome.

Leibniz: Color in God's Own Vision of His Creation

We may also choose to believe there are no abstractions beyond those conceived by conscious entities. Leibniz argues that we see imperfectly that which is totally and perfectly understood by God, from which our own abilities of understanding and imagination propagate. Modern thinkers prefer to remove that more majestic conception with Occam's razor, diminishing us further into the effervescent randomness of physical events.

Yet no matter how much the nihilists and cynics scoff, too many are struck by the beauty of material order and fantastic structures of rational thought, leading to mathematics, the physical sciences, and the natural sciences. Too many find something more in their perception than a senseless conglomeration of senses; in awe, in wonder undeniable in strength, some demand there must be deeper motivation for existence than our own understanding permits, however much it has evolved, or dregraded, into scientifically quantifiable facets, over the passing of days, and seasons, and eras of our civilizations.

Closeup of Rembrandt
Closeup of Rembrandt

As well as chiaroscuro, Rembrandt had another secret technique called 'impasto' that was only fully understood via new X-ray chromatography techniques in 2019. Rembrandt layered lighter colors over darker colors in semi-opaque paint, then cut through it with brushstrokes into the paint while it was still wet. Then after drying, he applied shiny white pigments on top.

When examining the result close up, the painting appears more to be like a post-impressionist artist, with apparently random and disruptive brushstrokes of mixed colors in conflict with each other (the same is even more true for Van Dyck).

Impasto in Rembrandt
Impasto in Rembrandt

But from the distance, the eye combines the elements, smoothing some discontinuities due to their tiny resolution, and emphasizing others due to the edge-detection enhancements in the frontal cortex. The little white dots and splashes make areas appear more shiny. Darker areas appear more distant from the light source, adding a three-dimensional effect. Many seeing a Rembrandt portrait for the first time remark how 'incredibly realistic' it is, 'almost like a photograph.' Then one takes them up to look at the canvas from inches away. Their jaws drop in astoundment. As did mine, the first time...but Van Dyck's are even better!

Wittgenstein: Color as Transcendental Experience

Some of the last thoughts by the metaphysical logician Wittgenstein were on the mystical nature of color. He asked whether color was imbued in physical substance, or is an artifact of our perception, to which it may be said he did not reach any final answer. In his earlier thought, that would have been all that could be said. In his later thought, the discussion of color becomes meaningful when we wield the concept like a tool, as consumerism now does. Yet even after his later thought, in the very last days of his life, Wittgenstein returned to discuss color in a new and mystical way. It was his final topic, and in his very last words, he rejected language games, and posited the perception of color as a mysterious experience beyond other definition than transcendental. When we reach the last days of our own lives, may we all discover something more of that transcendentalism for ourselves.


“ I have seen sunsets like a flock of roses, drifting they were, their pretty burns afloat, glistening with dew like jeweled breasts of queens, and the sun as pink as curdled salmon under strokes of puce in the upper reaches, marching into a coloured circus, caught in a whirl of air, an irritant, a catch of the heat, a bubble of air in a vast aorta....and a thousand animals of cloud soaked in wet ash parading from North to South; great whales no less than lions with their manes, tigers no less than fawns, cloudbeasts of the earth and sky, lifting their heads to cry, to howl, to scream, but they had no voices, and their jaws remained apart, gulping the fast air as they began to melt into boiling coral, turquoise, and grey, before dismembered by a gathering storm, awash in the brooding Western spaces, ominously streaked with sheets of distant rain; gyrating between spats of doused fire, until darkening into black soot stirred with cat's blood, they in their last gaspless death throes slowly descended down beyond, sputtering their final distant gleams of defiance into a murky pit of moonless night.
— Mervyn Peake on sunsets, "Gormenghast Trilogy", condensatur et extenditur in eodem genere.