Green Lion Primary and Secondary Colours
A colour wheel organises colour space into a symmetrical pattern in which primaries and secondaries are alternated, and which is practical enough to work for the purpose of mixing colours: in physical terms, a colour wheel is, intrinsically, an artificial device, since the light that it denotes increases in frequency from red to violet before crossing a discontinuity back to red.
The artist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) investigated the properties of light. Based on findings Goethe created a colour circle and Michel Chevreul, in 1861, a colour wheel. Chevreul worked as Director of Dyeing at the Gobelins Works so he had a commercial interest in using a colour wheel and, and in resolving practical concerns such as achieving maximum colour contrast. The chemist George Field constructed a colour circle from the basic colours of red, yellow and blue, wishing to take up a position opposed to that of Isaac Newton. Following on from the commercial applications of colour wheels by Michel Chevreul, later colour theorists have suggested improvements to the designs developed by Newton and Goethe to assist artists.
Primary Colours in Art
After his first stay in Pont-Aven, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) returned to Paris in time for the 1889 international exposition marking the centennial of the French Revolution. Refused space at the official art exhibition, he mounted an independent show with several colleagues near the entrance to the huge fair, billing their work impressioniste et synthétiste.
"On an instrument, you start from one tone. In painting you start from several. Thus, you begin with black and divide up to white - the first unit, the easiest and the most frequently used one, hence the best understood. But take as many units as there are colours in the rainbow, add those made up by composite colours, and you will reach a rather respectable number of units. What an accumulation of numbers, truly a Chinese puzzle! No wonder then that the colourist's science has been so little investigated by the painters and is so little understood by the public. Yet what richness of means to attain an intimate relationship with nature!
"They reprove our colours which we put [unmixed] side by side. In this domain we are perforce victorious, since we are powerfully helped by nature which does not proceed otherwise. A green next to a red does not produce a reddish brown, like the mixture [of pigments], but two vibrating tones. If you put chrome yellow next to this red, you have three tones complementing each other and augmenting the intensity of the first tone: the green. Replace the yellow by a blue, you will find three different tones, though still vibrating through one another. If instead of the blue you apply a violet, the result will be a single tone, but a composite one, belonging to the reds.
"The combinations are unlimited. The mixture of colours produces a dirty tone. Any colour alone is a crudity and does not exist in nature. colours exist only in an apparent rainbow, but how well rich nature took care to show them to you side by side in an established and unalterable order, as if each colour was born out of another!
"Yet you have fewer means than nature, and you condemn yourself to renounce all those which it puts at your disposal. Will you ever have as much light as nature, as much heat as the sun? And you speak of exaggeration - but how can you exaggerate since you remain below nature?
"Ah! If you mean by exaggerated any badly balanced work, then you are right in that respect. But I must draw your attention to the fact that, although your work may be timid and pale, it will be considered exaggerated if there is a mistake of harmony in it. Is there then a science of harmony? Yes.
"In that respect the feeling of the colourist is exactly the natural harmony. Like singers, painters sometimes are out of tune, their eye has no harmony. Later there will be, through study, an entire method of harmony, unless people neglect it, as is done in the academies and most of the time also in studios. Indeed, the study of painting has been divided into two categories. One learns to draw first and then to paint, which means that one applies colour within a pre-established contour, not unlike a statue that is painted after it is finished. I must admit that until now I have understood only one thing about this practice, namely that colour is nothing but an accessory. I 'Sir, you must draw properly before painting' - this is said in a pedantic manner; but then, all great stupidities are said that way.
"Does one wear shoes instead of gloves? Can you really make me believe that drawing does not derive from colour, and vice-versa? To prove this, I commit myself to reduce or enlarge one and the same drawing, according to the colour with which I fill it up. Try to draw a head by Rembrandt in his exact proportions and then put on the colours of Rubens - you will see what misshapen product you derive, while at the same time the colours will have become unharmonious."
"Notes Synthetiques", by Paul Gauguin From the manuscript, c. 1888.