Color and Illusion

I’ve long been obsessed with color. It might not seem like it; so many of my works contain washed-out colors, off-whites and off-grays, and brown, brown, brown. It’s true–many of my paintings start out vibrantly, and slowly start to edge toward foggy and vague versions of the once-bold color they started with. It’s a constant push and pull.

Perhaps it would be safer to say my obsession has been with the notion that all color is an illusion. This realization first came upon me in high school, when biology taught me about the nature of sensory organs, and chemistry taught me about spectrums of perceptible wavelengths. The visible light we know represents barely a sliver of wavelengths broadcast by cosmic events daily. We are lucky enough to be able to perceive what we can, with sight and sound, but even our sensory perception is severely limited. Our sensory organs have developed specifically to tell our brains about our surroundings in a manageable way. All color is easily understood as being a molecular material with a particular frequency; it reflects or absorbs photons in a specific pattern and frequency so as to describe color, texture, luminosity, etc.

An arresting idea took hold: if all color is only expressed through our eyes, which not even all animals on the planet have developed as a means to their evolutionary survival, then we humans are alone in our journey to assign color meaning. And with the realization that all color is a convenient lie told to our eyes by our brains, all I could see was a world of gray matter. Gray classrooms, gray people. Gray solid streets, gray liquid shores, gray gaseous air (which just masquerades as a transparent form of matter, of course). Even lightbulbs, emitting photons, were blocks of gray emitting waves of further gray intangibles.

There’s a great video on Youtube about color and perception, which brought a lot of this to the fore of my thinking again. It’s possibly the most worthwhile nine minutes you could spend on Youtube this week:

User Vsauce has lots of great food for thought here, and one of the most compelling to me is the idea of trying to describe sight, or even the nature of color, to a blind person. This kind of question is mostly a thought experiment for me–I do not work with the blind often–but it’s very relevant to my thoughts on individual perception, on the illusory nature of color and light, or the concept of palpable in-between space. For someone who is blind, life is so often about reaching out into areas of in-between. It’s only by finding the boundaries of where one thing ends and another begins, after all, that we find where we are in relation to both.

In addition to the video above, the following readings have been very useful along my journey to figure out the boundaries between our precieved and our real worlds:
“Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees”, by artist Robert Irwin (found here)
“Chromophobia”, by David Batchelor (found here)

1 Comment on “Color and Illusion”

  1. #1 Mom
    on Oct 4th, 2013 at 1:19 pm

    There was a radio show recently, a back and forth about the cones of some superbly uber-color sensitive people. I wish I had noted where it originated from, but I have a feeling it might have been a BBC piece that was aired over NPR. I may or may not have mentioned it when we talked the last time…? Extremely interesting – basically a study (maybe just a series of interviews) with people who perceived color on a more highly charged level. Some had jobs dealing with color (such as interior design).

    Tag, you’re it!

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