Five billion years ago a molecular cloud wandered through the cold vacuum of space until it was brought into contact with a moment of gravitational instability, which caused its free floating atoms of hydrogen and helium to destabilize and form clusters of dense matter. As the cloud collapsed a star was born, its core of thermo-nuclear fusion radiating out waves of light and energy across the void.
Stars Being Born & Dying
On a clear night, gazing up at the sky, we might chance upon these invisible waves of light. Their particles enter our eyes, penetrating the boundaries of our body to form an intangible bridge that unites us with the stars, eliding the gap between past and present, near and far. As they impact on our retina they stimulate our brain to perceive their source as a distant pinprick of effervescent white; one amongst millions that bespatter the black canvas of the sky with a spectrum of whites tinted with the palest of blues, reds, and yellows. But this tint is frequently overlooked; passed over for the more obvious constellation patterns that give order to the night sky. Yet for scientists these colors are highly significant; contributing to our knowledge of realities that we will never see: a star’s age, composition, and distance from the earth.
However, by day this subtle palette of starlight disappears, obliterated by the intense luminosity of our own star-the Sun. As our brains interpret the evidence from light that is gathered by our eyes the world becomes clothed in an array of rich colors; a seemingly impenetrable skin that lends our experiences a sense of solidity. But whilst it may provide the world with form, substance, and infinite variety, color is also subversive, allowing intimations of the intangible to enter this material reality.
Rainbows have long been associated with this incursion of otherness into the everyday, providing a moment of wonder that some have interpreted as a sign of divine covenant and promise. Others, however, have seen it as a natural phenomenon, and been inspired to analyze and understand it; to undertake experiments with water filled glass flasks and to sit in darkened rooms lit only by a narrow slit. In 1307 Theodoric of Freiberg, reflecting on his observations of dew-drops collected on a spiders’ web, traced the refracted path of light through the raindrop to the eye. And then, almost four hundred years later, Sir Isaac Newton’s experiments with prisms helped him to identify light as the source of color sensation, and allowed him to propose the spectrum of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet that even now is used to tame the apparently continuous colors of the rainbow.
Newton’s Opticka, which contained the results of his study of light and color, was published in 1704. Three hundred years later we now know light travels as electromagnetic waves and that the different primary colors of the spectrum are the result of the differing speeds of these wavelengths. We have also come to accept that an objects’ color is determined by its ability to reflect, scatter, or absorb these different wavelengths, whilst biologists have identified the three types of color sensitive receptors, or cones, in the eye that enable us to ‘see’ color. And more recently, neuro-biologists have even begun to chart the neural processes that transpose the raw data received by these cells into our color vision.
And yet the systematic theories of objective science cannot fully explain the actual, subjective experience of color. Outside the laboratory, in the artist’s studio it frequently behaves in ways that contradict the expectations and principles proposed by theory and experiment. As Ludwig Wittgenstein demonstrated in his book, Remarks on Color , color defies the limitations of language, and disrupts our desire for universal principals. To every claim, there is a counter claim; a different color theory, an alternative color wheel. It is as elusive, and fleeting as a kingfisher’s darting, iridescent flight; a presence that cannot be pinned down, as can be seen in the inconclusive discussions by scientists, artists, and philosophers that have surrounded the identification of the primaries; those pure colors from which all others can be potentially mixed.
There have been many subjective contributions to this debate but none has proved decisively conclusive. The Roman author Pliny identified four primary colors, whereas Newton’s spectrum contained seven. There are three color receptors in the eye, which are sensitive to the three primary colors of light – red, green, and blue; these form an ‘additive’ triad which when mixed together equally become white. But then those who work with paint or dye replace the green with yellow, and these ‘subtractive’ primaries of red, yellow, and blue, or cyan, magenta and yellow, when equally mixed create a black or very dark, muddy brown. In the early twentieth century A.H.Munsell, Paul Klee and Johannes Itten each developed color theories that proposed five primaries, whilst Kandinsky worked with six.
The arbitrary nature of our color experience can be partially explained by the fluid nature of our environment, where the objective passage of light can be refracted and altered by the atmosphere through which it travels and the objects which may impede its path. What is produced as a result is the constantly changing world of color that bedazzles our eyes. But it can also be explained by recent discoveries made by molecular biologists studying the amino acids in the eye that affect and influence color vision. They have learnt that miniscule differences in these amino acids can occur between individuals, and as a consequence there is the potential for us all to perceive color slightly differently. We can therefore never hope to reach a fixed consensus in our investigation of color. For this we must look to that intangible space of light. It is here, in this invisible territory where color awaits its birth, that we find the possibility of a universal and objective language.
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