Today’s post comes from Will Kyle, class of 2019 and Art Center Student Docent.
I took a class called “Color” taught by Peter Charlap, the chair of the art department. The class mostly involves lots of exploration and experimentation with a “color aid set,” a few hundred pieces of paper printed with every color known to humankind. Each sheet is printed with different color that the eye can perceive. The colors vary three ways: their color, their shade, and their intensity. Seem simple enough? It would be, except that we’ve learned that colors can shift and change based on the context in which you find them. Depending on the colors around it, one color can look darker or lighter, more vibrant or dull, or even change its position on the color wheel. In class we explore the effects that we see when one color is put next to other colors. It turns out that not just beauty is “in the eye of the beholder”—color is too.
Since I’ve started the course, the paintings of the Loeb have taken on a whole new level of meaning for me, especially the abstract paintings of the 20th century. The first time I walked into the 20th century gallery of the Loeb, I was blown away by the abilities of the artists to play with colors and make beautiful combinations with them. These were painters who were very aware of the strange and beautiful ways that colors can be used. Since impressionists had explored relationships between colors and the human perception of colors in the 1870s, painters of the 20th century were free to explore this new territory in unusual and lovely ways. One painting from this part of the collection that has always jumped out at me is Woman in a Hat by Alexej von Jawlensky.
The painting, painted in 1910, is a fascinating example of colorful experimentation. A young woman in a hat fills the frame of the portrait. Jawlensky used bold black outlines, large expanses of flat color, and smaller patches of highly contrasting colors in a style that sacrifices realism for the sake of creating a striking and colorful portrait. Jawlensky’s paintings of the woman in the same titular red hat are well known. This painting is an experiment with color and aesthetic, but at the same time Jawlensky is portraying his relationship to the woman through expressive use of line and color.
The first thing that many people notice in this painting is the woman’s face. Her skin contains a surreal collection of colors and is mainly a green that makes her look almost sick, yet her skin manages to appear natural in the context of the painting. Mingling among the pale green are spots of dark ochre, blue, pink, yellow, and purple. Although this sounds like a recipe for nonsense, Jawlensky is in fact looking at the subtle colors that appear within the woman’s skin in real life and exaggerating them. Within the context of the painting, her green skin doesn’t look as unnatural as one might think. Green has long been used in oil painting as an underpainting for skin, the first layer that artists paint. More paint is often layered more on the brighter areas of a painting, leaving green to show through in areas of shadow. Seemingly whitish skin can actually have a green tint to it in shadow, partly because of the blue from veins, and partly because skin often has a lot of yellow in it while shadows tend to make things appear blue, which together make a subtle, unsaturated, yellowish green, the same green found in Jawlensky’s painting. The woman isn’t sick, as some people think; her face is merely in shadow.
The rest of the unusual colors in the woman’s face are also real colors that have been exaggerated. The edge of the woman’s neck is a strong yellow. Next to her green skin, the yellow gives the impression that light is strongly illuminating the woman from behind. This sharp area of yellow makes our eyes less confused to see the rest of the woman in darker, bluer colors. The many shades of green in her skin give the impression of areas of shadow. The places of deepest shadow, however, are left dark ochre, making the skin look more natural overall. Rose colored patches of color on the woman’s cheek and nose give the impression of her skin being flushed. She could be blushing, or just a little sunburnt. The purple in the painting gives the impression of a deep, warm shadow around the woman’s eyes. Her eyes are a blue, with black irises. This makes her seem like she has dark eyes that appear black in the shadow, and although the blue is not a color you would ever see in eyes, the color blends naturally into the rest of the face which is in shadow.
You may be wondering by now how can our eyes accept all of the fantastic colors in Jawlensky’s painting as being colors that represent skin, when they are all so varied and unusual. The answer to that lies with the woman’s hat. Her red clothing demands a viewer’s attention because red is an instinctually alarming color. The uninterrupted red of the dress and hat is bright and vibrant, especially compared to the rest of the painting. The viewer’s eye gravitates there first. Then, all of the other colors seem more uniform because the red is so distinct from all of them. The green background is another important factor, since it makes the scene seem like it is filled with green light. Against the green background, the pale yellow-green in the woman’s skin seems more subdued and natural. Woman in a Hat is a painting that explores a full range of color, yet uses the theory of color to make a painting that appears natural to our eyes.