Light and Color in Art

Light and Color in Art
An Illustrated Lecture by William Woodward, Artist and Prof. Emeritus, The George Washington University

Tuesday, June 21, 2016 at 5:30pm
Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium
Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery
8th and G Streets NW, Washington, DC

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Throughout history, in ancient Egypt and other early civilizations, light was a source of wonder and inspiration. Light appears in the opening phrases of the Book of Genesis: “And God said, Let there be light, and there was light… God made two great lights-the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night and the stars... and set them in the dome of the sky.” Color cannot be seen by moonlight, only form and texture. Color and light are, therefore, inseparable.

Humankind has always perceived the differences among colors as seen in a rainbow, or through a crystal, and the colors of objects seen in nature. But it was not until the era of Galileo and Newton -- with the advent of the telescope, microscope, and prism -- that the components of light were intensely examined, bringing about a shift in how artists perceived and addressed light and color in their work.

In this three-part presentation, we will see how artists have utilized light and color over time, until the present day, in the words of Henry Purcell: ‘to charm the senses and captivate the mind.”

The first part explores the uses of color and light, and their meanings in ceremony and ritual; we define the terms Value, Tone, Shade, Chiaroscuro and Tenebrism, and how these elements are employed in paintings from various periods.

In Part Two, we examine the “Color Wheel,” and how artists create color harmonies and use Complementary Colors. We show examples that permit the viewer to experience at first-hand the After Image, the dazzle effect of Tonal Lustre, and the effect of Simultaneous Contrast, and we explain how these are used in art.

Part Three discusses Transparent Colors; their uses as glazes by the Venetian masters, which resulted in distinct period styles that led to the development of Mannerism and foreshadowed the Dutch Masters. We show how artists achieve color harmonies through Analogous Color, Dominant Hues, and Patterning. 

In conclusion, we reveal, on-screen, a rare aesthetic accomplishment: the reconciliation of formal opposites -- the breathtaking integration of illusionistic three-dimensional volumes into a flat tapestry-like pattern – an effect achieved by only a mere handful of painters in the entire recorded history of art. (Aha!)

Color in a New Light is made possible by lead sponsor Benjamin Moore logo
Additional funding is provided by The Shepherd Color Company