True Colors

A bird-watcher I know complains about wildlife photographers who can’t resist using Photoshop to make the plumage of birds more colorful than it actually is. She has specifically exempted me from criticism because I am a fine arts photographer and therefore have artistic license to do whatever I want. As it happens, I do a lot of landscape work, but I am not really fast enough on the draw to photograph birds in their natural habitat. (By the time I get my camera and tripod set up, the birds would have flown south for the winter.) And while I use Photoshop and other add-ons during post-production, I am mostly concerned with making the picture as close as possible to what I saw in my mind’s eye. I use the term “mind’s eye” advisedly, because even though my perception of the subject may appear to be what I actually saw, I know it takes place in the theater of the mind.

It is easy enough to make adjustments in Photoshop so that colors are more vibrant than what was captured in the raw image. The issue, both from a technical and philosophical standpoint, is what the subject’s true colors are to begin with. The question might appear at first to be fairly straightforward, like comparing color swatches at the paint store. Indeed, in the era before color photography, naturalists used color charts to make precise written descriptions of plants and animals they found in the wild. Charles Darwin, in his famous voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, made extensive use of a little handbook called Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, published originally by German mineralogist Gottlob Werner and then updated in 1814 by a Scottish flower painter named Patrick Syme.

The names the handbook attached to various swatches were often as colorful as the hues themselves: Arterial Blood Red, Asparagus Green, Skimmed Milk White, Velvet Black and Wax Yellow. Such vivid nomenclature enabled Darwin to describe the specimens he found with precision and poetry. Here, for example, is a notebook entry on a dogfish:

Body “blueish grey”; above, with rather blacker tinge; beneath much white:— Its eye was the most beautiful thing I ever saw.— pupil pale “Verdegris green”, but with lustre of a jewel, appearing like a Sapphire or Beryl.— Iris pearly edge dark.— Sclerotica pearly:— In stomach was remains of large fish.

When Darwin’s account of his voyage was published in 1839, one reviewer called him “a first-rate landscape-painter with the pen.”

Lyricism aside, Werner’s color scheme enabled Darwin to guard against the inevitable fading of colors when specimens were shipped back to England. Darwin collected rocks, fossils, animals, and plants, and the perishable items were preserved in alcohol. Back in England, his colleague, the Reverend Leonard Jenyns, observed that the specimens were “much altered by the action of the spirits.” Naturalists often avoided problems with depicting true colors by publishing only black-and-white illustrations of their discoveries. A notable exception was John James Audubon, whose monumental Birds of America was released starting in 1828 with hand-tinted copper plates of indigenous bird species. He worked from actual birds in natural settings, but colors remained tough to get right. Audubon’s later collaborator, John Bachman, once groused that "color is as variable as the wind."

The truth about true colors is there aren’t any – or at least none that remain constant. Does an object appear in light or in shadow, at dawn or midday, in winter or summer, outdoors or in – and if the latter, under incandescent of fluorescent lights? Claude Monet, the French Impressionist painter, mostly worked outdoors, where he found himself in a never-ending race against the shifting light. “Color, any color, lasts a second, sometimes three or four minutes at most,” he complained. For his series on the cathedral at Rouen, he set up his canvasses side-by-side in the window of a lingerie shop across the street, working on each in turn throughout the day as sun and shadow played across the cathedral’s stone façade.

Is color the property of the object or, as Galileo asserted, does it exist only in the eye of the beholder? Monet believed he was painting light, not the objects the light fell upon. And yet in his case there is a twist that -- if you will excuse the pun -- sheds more light on the issue. As the artist grew older, he began to experience changes in his perception of color due to nuclear cataracts in both eyes. Nuclear cataracts absorb light, desaturate colors and produce a yellowish cast over everything. Monet tried to compensate by working from memory and carefully reading the labels on his paint tubes. Nevertheless, the effect of cataracts was quite pronounced on his later work, including on his magnificent water lilies. The brush strokes were bolder, the details less distinct, and the colors muddier, with a shift from greens and blues to yellows and browns. Werner’s color chart would have done little to correct the misperceptions, since presumably the swatches themselves would be subject to the same cataract-induced distortions.

So where then does color reside: inside of oneself or out there in the world? Science is of relatively little help here, since color as such – the redness of a rose – has no measurable existence in scientific terms. It falls into the realm philosophers refer to as qualia, those subjective, non-physical aspects of our experience produced by our senses and emotions. And yet, if there are no colors out there in the world, how do you explain the fact that you and I can agree that an asparagus stalk matches Werner’s color swatch for Asparagus Green? Surely there is something about asparagus that signals greenness to both of us. But if so, why does my color-blind son look at Werner’s Asparagus Green swatch and find it indistinguishable from brown?

Clearly, color cannot be explained exclusively in terms of “in here” or “out there,” but where exactly does the boundary lie between the two? The 19th-century physicist Ernest Mach pondered this question and came to a radical conclusion. “There is no rift between the psychical and the physical, no inside and outside, no ‘sensation’ to which an external ‘thing,’ different from sensation, corresponds,” he wrote. “There is but one kind of element, out of which this supposed inside and outside are formed…” Quantum physicists later confirmed Mach’s observation. “Subject and object are one,” declared the Nobel Laureate Erwin Schrodinger. In other words, there is not one color in my mind’s eye and another adhering to an object in the world. There is only one color.

Mazviita Chirimuugta, “The Reality of Color Is Perception,” Nautilus (July 23, 2015)
Michelle Nijhuis, “The Book That Colored Charles Darwin’s World,"
The New Yorker (January 27, 2018)

© Copyright 2004-2014 by Eric Rennie
All Rights Reserved