When I was an art student, I did a lot of copies. One of these copies was of a Turner painting (Landscape with a River and Bay in the Distance, circa 1845.) I’d only ever seen it in reproduction, but I fell in love with the brightness and lightness of the work, the seemingly simple blue/orange colour harmony, and how powerful that combination was. I assumed, as I began, that the power came from the contrast: the blue vs. the orange, the dark vs. the light, and so as I painted, I exaggerated those differences without realizing it. The result was astonishing, and astonishingly bad. As I pushed the lights further towards a true white, and the umber of that bridge darker by contrast, all the air went out of the picture. The power of it was lost. I of course thought the problem was that I hadn’t pushed the contrast far enough, and exaggerated it even more. Inevitably, this resulted in more astonishing badness, and more loss of impact. I did this over and over for an embarrassingly long time (I’m nothing if not stubborn), before realizing what it was I was doing.
So I stopped and looked at the Turner. I really looked at it this time, without all my ideas about why it was so powerful. I mixed up piles of colour, applying none at all to my own canvas, but holding them against the reproduction to see how far off my estimates were. I learned that the drama in Turner’s paintings was not from an accentuated contrast, but from the vivid exploration of tones within a surprisingly narrow range. The darkest dark and the lightest light in this picture weren’t nearly as far apart as I had thought, and to pretend they were destroyed the beauty of the colour harmony. Even In my measly poster reproduction*, if I was patient enough to see it, there were exquisite cools and warms in the lights which were far more effective at conveying the subtlety and beauty of the painting. I learned from Turner that exploration within a narrow range can be more powerful than hitting the viewer over the head with a tube of Titanium White.
I think of this now as I work on my sky paintings. Several times I’ve tried to push the paintings in directions I think they should go, and I have exactly re-created that early lesson. But, as I pull the contrast in, the colours start to work with one another rather than against. It is like the difference between hitting single notes on a piano, and hitting a chord. The notes are all well and good, but they exist in one dimension, while the chord becomes more than the sum of its parts. That’s how it is with colour. When a combination of two, three or infinite tones truly works together, it creates a kind of visual “hum”. Just as music creates a vibration that travels through space and hits the eardrum to make itself known, the vibration of the colour harmony is taken in by the viewer.
(*within a year of doing this copy, I saw the original Turner hanging in the Louvre. The reproduction I worked from had captured maybe a fraction of what was in that painting. My copy, though useful to me as a learning tool, would have been a grossly inept imposter. But, that’s Turner for you).