The Hiss of Colours

Posted by on Jul 30, 2011 in Featured, Thoughts | No Comments

When I think of colour, a myriad of things come to mind, a plethora of people who have inspired me, a menagerie of memories in my own stages of creative development. I find it hard to bring any order to these thoughts as they don’t seem to be linked by any traditional taxonomic rules, they’re ethereally connected like an aurora of the mind. They dance through my visual cortex in a Mandelbrot waltz, like a wild beast.

Around 300 years ago Isaac Newton published his second major book, titled ‘Opticks‘. It is considered one of the greatest scientific publications in history, and you can read the full book on Google for free. Around 200 years prior to this, Leonardo Da Vinci was among the first to theorise the principles of colour and give terms to the behaviour of light and colour in art.

Isaac Newton

Leonardo Da Vinci

These two chaps are mountains… but when I think of colour, the first person to pop into my mind is Edwin Babbitt. I’m not sure why? He didn’t think much of Newtons theories. I’ve read large portions of a book he published in 1878 with the glorious title “Principles of Light and Color”. The book as more of a poetic diary of personal thoughts, rather than a scientific document, and perhaps that is the appeal.

“LIGHT reveals the glories of the external world and yet is the most glorious of them all. It gives beauty, reveals beauty and is itself most beautiful.” Edwin D. Babbitt

The Psycho-Magnetic Curves from Edwin Babbit's Principles of Light and Color
The Psycho-Magnetic Curves from Edwin Babbit’s Principles of Light and Color

Babbitt believed everyone emitted a field of colour. He believed sickness was an imbalance of the natural harmony of the colour field and that psychics could see this. He invented several medical devices that used colour and light to heal. The Chromo-lens was a coloured, lens shaped bottle that would charge contained water into a healing medicine. Chromatherapy became very fashionable and was dubbed by the media “Blue Glass Mania”.

Theosophist’s Annie Besant and Leadbetter described eminating auras as “Thought forms” believing that thoughts are radiating vibrations and floating forms. These ideas were presented in their treatise, Thought Forms, 1901.

Thought Forms Colour Chart - Annie Besant
Thought Forms Colour Chart – Annie Besant, 1901

Another chap of the time, Colonel Dinshah P. Ghadiali turned colour into a whole medical practice, suggesting diabetics stop using insulin and and “irradiate yourself with Yellow Systemic alternated with Magenta on Areas 4 or 18″. Ghandiali was imprisoned for 3 years for endangering lives by delaying the appropriate treatment of serious diseases with a machine that was proven to be medically ineffective.

Spectro Chrome - Colonel Dinshah P. Ghandiali
Dinshah Ghadialih’s Spectro-Chrome, 1920

Although chromatherapy is considered an alternative medicine, colour has always had a profound effect on artists. Kandinsky remarks, “Colour directly influences the soul,” and was not only inspired by Gauguin’s brilliant colours but also the writings of chromotherapy; “Anyone who has heard of colour therapy knows that coloured light can have a particular effect upon the entire body”. Kandinski was a synesthete, a condition where cognitive or sensory pathways can cross over causing involuntary reactions in others. In Kandinski’s case, he could hear colours.

“Sometimes I could hear the hiss of colours as they mingled” Wassily Kandinski

Kandinsky intended to reproduce the effects of synesthesia within his paintings. He wanted to create musical effects with alternating colour combinations in order to prove the unseen power of colour. He wanted to create physical reactions within the viewer of his work.

“Colour which, like music, is a matter of vibrations, reaches what is most general and therefore most indefinable in nature: its inner power” Paul Gauguin

Wassily Kandinsky Squares with Concentric Circles 1913
Wassily Kandinsky – Squares with Concentric Circles 1913

I first discovered Franz Marc at the age of 12. I painted a blue version of his ‘Yellow Cow’, perhaps influenced by Sonic the Hedgehog. He wasn’t my first experience with colour in art but he was certainly the first artist that opened up the world of colour to me. Previous to this I had only thought of colour as a true representation of reality, probably not in those words though.

Yellow Cow - Franz Marc
Yellow Cow – Franz Marc

Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky were both key figures in the movement ‘Der Blaue Reiter‘.

White on White - Kasimir Malevich, 1917
White on White – Kasimir Malevich, 1917

Kazmir Malevich’s more famous works don’t necessarily jump to mind when most people think of colour, as these are mostly black or white. It can be just as powerful to use little or no colour as it is to use highly saturated, vivid colours. His best known works are ‘Black Square’ and ‘White on White’, both having very little colour. But both incredibly important works of colour. They do actually contain a slight hue, ‘White on White’ consists of a slightly nicotine stained off-white square within another slightly different slightly off-white square. For Malevich, ‘Black Square’ represented “the supremecy of pure feeling”. Moving away from representation and subject matter, his work focused on the purity of geometry and colour. He described the square oxymoronically as a “full void”, showing how powerful, very little could be.

“Color is the essence of painting, which the subject always killed” Kasimir Malevich

Malevich - Black Square
Black Square – Kasimir Malevich, 1913

I have always felt a strong connection between Malevich’s ‘White on White’ and John Cage’s 4’33″. Both of them conceptual pieces defined by a lack of form, and defined more by the context of which they are experienced. It can be said that in a similar way to Cage’s 4’33″, Malevich’s ‘White on White’ is defined by the ambient light that falls upon the canvas from the environment it is in. Perhaps beyond that, it is further defined by the reaction of the viewer, that aren’t influenced by the usual cultural associations of form and subject matter.


Several remixes of 4’33″ by various artists recording the ambient sounds present whilst listening to the original track by Cage.

Suprematism (Supremus No. 58) - Kasimir Malevich, 1916
Suprematism (Supremus No. 58) – Kasimir Malevich, 1916

For Rothko, color was “merely an instrument.” He used colour along with abstract forms to communicate emotions. Many people would break down and weep upon viewing his paintings. I never did myself. When I first saw one of his paintings in the flesh I was at first surprised by how big it was, and then very underwhelmed by the anti-climax of not being spiritually moved or physically affected in anyway. I was impressed by the colours, but by Rothko’s standards that meant I had completely misunderstood. The emotional connection can only be made if the viewer has experienced the emotion that is locked within the painting. I had obviously not. I was far more taken by the people that had been staring into the image for what must have been hours, carving out their own exhibition space, and willing themselves to be taken by the colours.

Untitled - MarkRothko, 1949

Oskar Fischinger is one of the many great bridges between painting and animation. He made over 50 films and painted several hundred canvases. The films he made were abstract visual music pieces that could be considered the first music videos. He had problems working with film studios as he was unable to pursue his personal ideas as an independent filmmaker. He designed the J. S. Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor sequence for Walt Disney’s Fantasia, but quit after his designs were given representational forms. Although the final piece is heavily influenced by Fischinger’s style of animation, he does not appear in the credits.

The Centre for Visual Music CVM in California is a great resource for information on Oskar Fischinger and similar artists. They sell a great DVD called ‘Oskar Fischinger: Ten Films‘, which includes ten classic visual music films that you can’t really see anywhere on the web.

Fischinger wasn’t only interested in animation, in 1950 Fischinger patented his colour organ, the Lumigraph. This isn’t the first of it’s kind but it was the first I had heard of such a device. It’s basically an instrument to play light rather than music.

Lumigraph sketch by Oskar Fischinger
Lumigraph sketch by Oskar Fischinger

This is an excerpt from a performance of Oskar Fischinger’s Lumigraph c. 1969:

The Lumigraph was used in several public performances and in the 1964 science fiction film, The Time Travellers, against Fischingers wishes, they used the name Lumichord rather than Lumigraph.

The Lumigraph as seen in The Time Travellers

The Lumigraph was one in a long line of colour organs designed over the centuries. These things are quite incredible. They are essentially analogue versions vjing software.

In the 18th Century Louis-Bertrand Castel invented perhaps the first colour organ. He named it the Clavecin pour les yeux, the Ocular Harpsichord. I love this crossover between sound and colour, the idea that sound and colour are two ways of experienceing the same thing. Castel believed his instrument could paint sound that even a deaf listener could enjoy the music it produced. The creators of such instruments also seem closely linked to the science of sight and sound. Castel opposed Newtonian colour theory, suggesting that Newton “reduced man to only using his eyes”. I don’t think his scientific contributions have stood the test of time, but from the name of one of his scientific publications ‘A Treatise on the Melody of Colours’ I can’t help but think that science has lost some of the romance it once had. Castel believed that the colour music produced by his Ocular Harpsichord was the lost language of paradise, where all men spoke alike. I think perhaps my little music box friend speaks this language.

Some other colour organs:

1916 – Mary Hallock-Greenewalt created the Sarabet, a colour organ named after her mother. She also came up with a technique, or fine art of, playing colour called Nourathar.

1919 - Thomas Wilfred born Richard Edgar Løvstrom named his visual music lumia and designed several colour organs he named Clavilux from the Latin meaning “light played by key”.

A modern interpretaion of the Clavilux:

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The Clavilux 2000 is an interactive instrument for generative music visualization, which is able to generate a live visualization of any music played on a digital piano.

Okay, so now I’m digressing from things I know well, and I’m exploring the web for more amazing ideas about colour. I just stumbled upon this guy called A. W. Rimington. He believed that light and sound were intertwined with the brain, or they had a common nerve structure that gave them connected laws. He came up with a music colour code to show how the frequencies of sound and colour were connected:

Below is a from a speech he made for the opening of a “Colour In Art” exhibition in 1919. This really captures my soul.

“What is colour? Many accept it unquestioningly. A few, I believe, are unconscious of its presence. For others, it constitutes an aesthetic pleasure or an interesting scientific phenomena – the result of light vibrations acting upon the optic nerves. But there are many for whom colour means far more than this. To them, it brings the conscious realization of the deepest underlying principles in nature, and in it they find deep and lasting happiness. For those people, it constitutes the very song of life and is, as it were, the spiritual speech of every living thing.”

Actually, another guy that needs mentioning regarding colour and light is Jorden Belson. You know when you stumble across something that seems to tie a number of elements in your life together, well Jorden Belson did that not so long ago. If colour organs are my yellow, fulldome is my blue, then Jorden Belson is the vivid explosion of light that is begat from the two. So, I was checking out the Centre of Visual Music and looking at buying the Oscar Fischinger DVD when I first happened upon Jorden Belson. At the time I had just started working on my first stereoscopic fulldome production, I have been working in fulldome for over 4 years now, although I don’t write much about it here. Well, I had been speaking to a guy called Roberto Ziche from Autodesk who had written a stereoscopic fisheye shader for mental ray in his spare time that I had been testing out. It is quite incredible and was and still is the best solution for generating stereoscopic fulldome renders. The guy lives in California, the same place as the Center of Visual music. After some discussions about the continued development of the shader he said he hadn’t got anywhere to test out his fulldome shader. Due to the future of stereoscopic fulldome hanging in the balance, we (at the place I work) got in touch with the California Academy of Science to see if he would be able to use their dome to do some testing. After some jiggery pokery they managed to arrange some dome time for anaglyph testing in the renowned Morrison planetarium… Then… I started reading more about Jorden Belson and how he did a number of shows called the ‘Vortex Concerts’ at the Morrison planetarium in California. So, it’s not that big a deal, but it was one of those moments when you say, “what are the chances of that?”, and I did, although it was just to myself. Anyway, the important thing is that I immediately bought the DVD, thinking this is a pivotal moment of my life, I must act upon it. True enough, I was absolutely blown away by his work. He was very ahead of his time. He is a master of colour and light, and I recommend anyone who is interested in the spiritual speech of everything living should get the DVD of his work from CVM. Fountain of Dreams is a stunning display of dancing cosmic auroras.

Some other interesting things I found on my mid post web adventure:

Colour theories for cartoons: http://antikewl.com/daily/2006/10/30/john-kricfalusis-colour-theories John K, of Ren and Stimpy and Spumco fame, is currently doing a very interesting series on his colours theories on his blog. Although he’s talking about colour in cartoons, the information could easily be applied to most artistic mediums.

John Whitney-Matrix III (1972)

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