Commonplace Book - Autumn 2006

Color

Print

By André Bernard

September 1, 2006


 

 

There’s nothing in the American Constitution to the effect that all front doors have to be white or dark green. Have you ever considered the possible charm of a turquoise-blue door in a pale gray stucco house, with boxes of frilly pink petunias under the front windows and a pair of dwarf apple trees beside the steps? . . . Nothing adds so much to the beauty and happiness of this world as color. Most of us don’t get enough of it into our houses and our lives. We need it about us every day we live, almost as much as we need sunshine and fresh air and water and food. Without it we droop. . . . Now promise me that you won’t read any more until you paint your door, and get started.
—Dorothy Draper, Entertaining Is Fun! 1941


Picasso liked to say that modern art is what we have kept. To his eyes Brancusi was Cycladic; Stravinsky in the Sacre du printemps was a primitive Russian. Conversely, the bisque-colored, black-maned prancing tarpan of Lascaux, the very definition of archaic painting, is one of the most characteristic works of 20th-century art, for quite literally ours are the first eyes to see it ever. It was painted in the deep dark of a cave by torchlight, an uncertainty to the man or woman who painted it. The best way to see it has always been as a color reproduction in a book; and now this is the only way to see it; 20 years of tourists’ breaths caused bacteria to grow in the paint, and Lascaux, the most beautiful of prehistoric caves, has been closed forever.
—Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination, 1981


There are beautiful café au lait–colored Creoles with blue or green eyes or paste white skin and black-as-night eyes and tawny blondes with big brown eyes and Celts with natural red hair and copper skin and opal eyes and freckle-faced children with black, black hair and inch-long lashes. The combinations for beauty increase geometrically with each generation.
—Rosemary James, “New Orleans Is a Pousse-Café,” in My New Orleans, 2006


My father, backing through the casket selection from unit to unit, would nod empathetically and move to another metal casket that shone like a new penny. “This is a 32-ounce solid copper, a permanent metal. Unlike steel, which might rust or corrode, copper and bronze oxidize with age—that green you see on old rooftops, statues, eaves, troughs . . . it gets stronger and stronger. These precious metals are the best value in protective caskets.”
—Thomas Lynch, Bodies in Motion and at Rest, 2001


It is well known that a large plate of glass will have a green tint, owing, as the makers say, to its “body,” but a small piece of the same will be colorless. How large a body of Walden water would be required to reflect a green tint I have never proved. The water of our river is black or a very dark brown to one looking directly down on it, and, like that of most ponds, imparts to the body of one bathing in it a yellowish tinge; but this water is of such crystalline purity that the body of the bather appears of an alabaster whiteness, still more unnatural, which, as the limbs are magnified and distorted withal, produces a monstrous effect, making fit studies for a Michael Angelo.
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, 1854


There is, of course, no justification for the assumption that, just because a people have no word for a colour, they are unable to see it.  Gladstone asserted that the ancient Greeks were insensitive to blue. Homer uses no such word; and there has been much scholarly speculation about exactly what Homer meant by his “wine-dark” sea. Homer’s Greek does indeed have few words describing hues. The term for green has alone survived for current everyday use; and that can serve to describe alike the vegetation and the sky-blue national buses.
—Hazel Rossotti, Colour: Why the World Isn’t Grey, 1983


I unlock the casket of memory, and draw back the warders of the brain; and there this scene of my infant wanderings still lives unfaded, or with fresher dyes. A new sense comes upon me, as in a dream; a richer perfume, brighter colours start out; my eyes dazzle; my heart heaves with its new load of bliss, and I am a child again. My sensations are all glossy, spruce, voluptuous, and fine: they wear a candied coat, and are in holiday trim. I see thee beds of larkspur with purple eyes; tall holly-oaks, red and yellow; the broad sun-flowers, caked in gold, with bees buzzing round them; wildernesses of pinks, and hot-glowing peonies; poppies run to seed, the sugared lily, and faint mignionette, all ranged in order, and as thick as they can grow; the box-tree borders; the gravel-walks, the painted alcove, the confectionary, the clotted cream:—I think I see them now with sparkling looks; or have they vanished while I have been writing this description of them?
—William Hazlitt, “Why Distant Objects Please,” in Table Talk, 1822


Dark clouds sailing overhead across the fields of the stars. Stars which are unusually bold and close, with an icy glitter in their light—glints of blue, emerald, gold. Out there, spread before me to the south, east, and north, the arches and cliffs and pinnacles and balanced rocks of sandstone (now entrusted to my care) have lost the rosy glow of sunset and become soft, intangible, in unnamed unnameable shades of violet, colors that seem to radiate from—not overlay—their surfaces. A yellow planet floats on the west, brightest object in the sky. Venus.
—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, 1968


The basic issue may then be rephrased: Does striping result from an inhibition or a deposition of melanin? If the first, zebras are black animals; if the second, they are white with black stripes. Biologists often look to teratologies, or abnormalities of development, to solve such issues. Bard has uncovered an abnormal zebra whose “stripes” are rows or dots and discontinuous blotches, rather than coherent lines of color. The dots and blotches are white on a black background. Bard writes: “It is only possible to understand this pattern if the white stripes had failed to form properly and that therefore the ‘default’ color is black. The role of the striping mechanism is thus to inhibit natural pigment formation rather than to stimulate it.” The zebra, in other words, is a black animal with white stripes.
—Stephen Jay Gould, Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes, 1983


The best food in the world is all the better—and foods less good are considerably helped—by being served attractively and in interesting containers. These need not be handsome or expensive. Salad is never more appetizing than when served in a large wooden bowl. And think of the delightful effect of crisp red radishes mixed with lettuce and water cress when so arranged. Or a ring of tomato jelly, thoroughly chilled and filled with string beans marinated in French dressing. . . . Remember, lovely color plays a lot of tricks with our appetite. If you are serving a white meat, like creamed chicken, for instance, don’t add the pallid effect of mashed potato, plain boiled rice, creamed celery, onion or cauliflower. Instead, think of a color scheme. If you have a white meat and one white vegetable, such as boiled rice, then serve a green vegetable, peas or string beans. Add the piquant color as well as the flavor of cranberry sauce or currant jelly. And do give the creamed chicken a sprinkle of paprika.
—Dorothy Draper, Entertaining Is Fun! 1941


André Bernard was the longtime vice president and publisher at Harcourt Trade Publishers. He is now vice president and secretary of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.


Comments are closed for this post.