Friday, June 18, 2010

True colors

Endless Conversation

Express Staff Writer

Many years ago, I had a pair of glacier glasses with the proverbial rose-colored lenses. They turned the Colorado skies in summer into a deep cerulean blue and the sandstone walls of my college campus in Boulder into a fiery gold. I believed it was my own private mystery how I saw the world of colors—as secret as the music in my earphones or the thoughts in my head. If I were a painter, I would have been hard-pressed to render the vivid tableau of my surroundings on canvas.

In our age of digital innovation, it seems unlikely that a particular color could be disappearing from us. But that is the case with manganese blue, a blue pigment for oil paint that is being hoarded by painters because it may soon go out of existence.

For many centuries, artists and craftsmen have used everything from beetle's wings and berries to flower seeds and semi-precious stones—like lapis-lazuli and malachite—to make pigments, all in an effort to approximate, and sometimes exaggerate, the brilliant colors found in nature. But mining the materials used to create manganese blue creates toxic byproducts, which will lead to its eventual demise.

Artists describe the endangered pigment as "electric" and have struggled, unsuccessfully, to recreate it synthetically. Eventually the color will be lost from artists' palettes, found once again only in the sky, a bug's eye or in the waters of the sea.

What every artist knows is that the objective qualities of a color register not only on a light meter—they also register on human emotions. Scientists have come to realize that visual perception, on the whole, is a subjective and even creative process; our brains are constantly interpreting what the eye sees, based largely on previous experience.

In the basement of the Naropa Institute in Boulder, in the 1980s there were meditation "color rooms" designed to sort out emotions and their corresponding mental states. The Tibetan-designed rooms were bathed in red, blue, yellow and white light. Entering them, one would become soaked in a particular mood. Patients at the now-defunct Wind Horse clinical psychology program at Naropa were "prescribed" certain periods of time in one or another of the colored rooms to accentuate certain mental states and alleviate others.

I often wonder what the Tibetans would think of the cold glare of fluorescent lights that surround me at work. Maybe I need a prescription for blue shades in the morning, or red ones in the afternoon. In any case, the way we see color changes over time and perhaps the emotional connections we have to certain colors depends to some extent on who we are and where we are from.

The French Impressionist painter Claude Monet brought earthy colors to canvas and showed the world a new way of seeing. His paintings of the same water-lily pond over many years showed sharp changes in the colors of his palette, from deep blues and greens to more reds and browns. The changes were due to cataracts on his eyes, which gradually altered his vision.

"I see blue—I don't see red anymore, nor yellow," Monet said late in life. "This bothers me terribly because I know that these colors exist, because I know that there is red, yellow, a special green, a particular purple on my palette. I don't see them anymore as I used to see them in the past. However, I remember very well how it was like."

In spite of his deteriorating sight, Monet continued to paint until 1926, a few months before he died.

Tony Evans is a staff writer for the Idaho Mountain Express

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