THE ART OF COLOR: Color and Transparency

"Soap Bubbles" by Jean Simeon Chardin. Images from Google Cultural Institute. Painting at National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

“Soap Bubbles” by Jean Simeon Chardin. Images from Google Cultural Institute. Painting at National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

CONTRIBUTED BY S.W.M.

Depiction with oil paint is a magical process, and color is perhaps the most significant part of that magic. By studying digital photographs of paintings–sites such as Closer to Van Eyck or Google’s Cultural Institute–we can see how an artist creates an illusion, down to the very brushstroke. Without risking the ire of a museum guard, we can get as close as we like and learn something of how illusions are created. By zooming in on a small detail of even the most representational painting, we can contemplate that segment objectively, as if it were an abstract work of art.

Consider the difficulty of painting something transparent. Jean Simeon Chardin’s “Soap Bubbles” is an example, a tour de force. With two concentric arcs of gray, small strokes of yellowy-beige, and touches of white, he brings the bubble into full and tangible roundness. The flask in “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” by Joseph Wright of Derby is limned with gray-greens, elusive as smoke. In “The Merchant Georg Gisze,” Hans Holbein the Younger paints a vase of flowers with enthralling delicacy, using silver whites, gold whites, green whites, and yellow whites along with blacks and browns. Focused on this tiny passage, we perceive not only the delicacy of the vase, but also the water within it, and the way that the liquid alters both the glass and the stems submerged within it. Zoom in as closely as possible and you would think you are looking at something sculptural and solid; zoom out again and the miracle of transparency reappears. Edouard Vuillard’s “Roses in a Glass Vase” gives us an even more charged example, as the grays and whites are joined by an array of reds, blacks, browns, golds–and a little torrent of purple. Though Vuillard’s vase is impressionistically rendered, the illusion of transparency is equally strong.

HolbeinGroup

“Soap Bubbles” painted by Jean Simeon Chardin and detail.

"An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump" by Joseph Wright of Derby at National Gallery , London.  Images from National Gallery's web site.

“An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” by Joseph Wright of Derby at The National Gallery , London. Images from The National Gallery’s web site.

"The Merchant Georg Gisze" painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. Images from Google Cultural Institute. Painting at Gemaldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

“The Merchant Georg Gisze” painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. Images from Google Cultural Institute. Painting at Gemaldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

"Roses in a Glass Vase" by Edouard Vuillard. Images from Google Cultural Institute. Painting at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.

“Roses in a Glass Vase” by Edouard Vuillard. Images from Google Cultural Institute. Painting at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.

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