Blue With Overtones of Purple

blueA couple of months ago, as I was working on my memoir (from which I adapted my last post), and as I wrote about the blue of which my friend spoke at her mother’s funeral (T.S. Eliot’s the blue of larkspur and Mary’s color) I wondered, what does larkspur look like anyway? I searched Google and was confronted with the flowers that covered my wedding cake twenty-one years ago. Delphiniums. How could I have forgotten them? When my friend spoke of cheering her mom into “the blue,” the blue hit me like a ton of bricks. I wonder, was this because it was the same blue I chose for my wedding cake? At twenty-three, before I ever felt ill or the slightest bit mortal, did my choice of blue flowers for my marriage mean I was already thinking of what lay far ahead?

It seems to me I am not one who has spent much time thinking ahead. I have been too busy being wowed and overwhelmed by what surrounds me. I spent much of my twenties and some of my thirties painting. This meant I spent much time choosing and applying colors in hope of what would result.  I usually did not articulate my hopes to myself. Most of the time I did not really think before adding a color, I just had a desire to try one, held my breath and watched what happened when I did. But my decisions were not random – I had been painting since I was fourteen – I had already chosen colors and hoped countless times before. I held my breath and waited because I wanted to let grace – the kind of divine alchemy that belongs to artists that I don’t have a good word for – come in and finish my paintings for me. I had trained myself to practice this colorist’s faith. What I knew of colors and their relationships, by grace, gave birth to paintings. And I felt my paintings were answers to my prayers.

Almost two years ago, one morning while on a walk with my dog, I saw a least a hundred different yellows and greens in the grass. I had forgotten such variety of color and that my world had exploded with them after I began to study painting. An hour later, while sitting in a Bible study, I saw that a participant who sat across from me every week looked as though he had just walked out of a painting by Ghirlandaio to come sit in his favorite chair, and I saw a rainbow-like aura around the black silhouette of my priest. That day I realized Lyme disease had sapped my ability to see color – whether because the disease in my brain took the colors away, or because it took my desire to see them away.

But even when I made a daily practice of longing for and pursuing colors, they remained evasive. This is because colors, like personalities, are moving targets, being always what they are only in relationship to each other and to us.

In relationship to us – did you know you have one warm eye and one cool one? If you spend some time alternating looking at a white wall through one eye and then the other, you may see that not only does each of your eyes have a different perspective because they each have a different place on your head, they each perceive color differently too.

Yesterday, as I was cleaning out a basement room that contains my artwork to make it into a bedroom for my teen-aged son, I picked up Ralph Mayer’s classic The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques. I began to savor this manual in my teens, particularly the section on pigments in which deliciously scandalous words about color are found. “Mummy” is perhaps the most alarming pigment, though no longer in use:

MUMMY.  Bone ash and asphaltum, obtained by grinding up Egyptian mummies. Not permanent. Its use was suddenly discontinued in the nineteenth century when its grisly composition became generally known to artists.

On page 34, Mayer describes the intractable word “undertone”:

The undertone is discerned when a transparent color is spread out on glass and viewed through transmitted light or when a opaque color is used as a tinting color, diluted with much white. Some pigments have undertones which are distinctly different from their top tones…..

This is a wonderful concept. Testing it by making a chart of colors and comparing how they combine with white reveals the incomparably primordial purple in ultramarine blue and the doleful green of Prussian blue. Studying color reveals that nothing you think you see remains what it is when you interact with it.

I think I wanted to wed myself to color in my adolescence when I found it surprising and sexy without making the demands relationships with people or God tend to make. I think I thought I could flirt with color without it forcing me to change. But what I grew to discover about color is that when it surrounds you it demands that you feel for it and that feeling for something leads you to change.

Feeling surrounded, choosing a color to paint a room poses problems for me. As when I feel tension at the dinner table and I avert my eyes, I used to try avoid these problems by choosing white. But whites are not neutral but are warm or cool. And I know that I may think I am choosing a particular color but how I perceive it will change based on its surroundings.

I know often when someone paints a room a color she longed for she changes internally so she can no longer stand the color and must paint the room again. This seems to happen to children. They fly from one internal state to the next as they go from one developmental stage to another – perhaps they choose a favorite color that corresponds to whom they have just become.

Liturgical seasons and holidays change colors according to mood but also predictably. The priest’s vestments and altar cloth tell me what to feel and in doing so give me a rest from myself. It seems that I did this for myself – that, in a sense, I officiated at my own wedding when I sermonized on what to feel with heavenly blue delphiniums on my wedding cake. And I think I do this for myself now in how I seal my physical, emotional, and spiritual healing in applying blue paint to a few pieces of furniture and in imagining how blue will look on the walls in my downstairs bathroom.

But what kind of blue? Delphiniums sometimes have a touch of white and green, or are very dark with undertones of purple. Twenty-one years ago I liked how the darker tones of blue delphiniums hum in purple harmonies and this is why I chose larkspur for my wedding cake. Now I think deep violet walls might look nice with a ceiling of cerulean (lightish blue with a green undertone). Or perhaps the walls and ceiling should be inverted, bringing the blue of heaven down and the ceiling becoming purple earth. If I use color in this way, what am I hoping will happen then?

Next time, I’ll write about purple with overtones of red.


  • As someone still agonizing about whether the color she painted her kitchen is the right one, I found this particularly charming. What I find most intriguing is the way light changes my relationship to that color. On a sunny morning, I love it. At night, with the florescent fixture on, I don’t. I am honestly thinking of changing the light fixture before I change the wall color. I’m sure there’s something metaphorical about that, but more prosaically it means another agonizing choice — WHAT LIGHT FIXTURE??? And so it goes…

    • Hi Sandra,
      My painting teacher used to tell us a story about how he finished a painting at night under an incandescent light and woke up the next morning and, seeing the painting in natural light, found the yellow he thought was in it was not there. The artificial light had supplied the yellow and therefore he had neglected to paint it. Yes, I would change the fixture instead of repaint the room! We used to mix florescent and incandescent bulbs in our basement studio hoping the yellow and purple would cancel each other out. It kind of worked.

  • I really enjoy both the painting and writing of this piece! This past June, at the Met, Achilles was commenting on the beauty of a particular blue in a painting. An art historian from Italy standing nearby said in a delightful accent that it is a pigment that comes from the stone lapis lazuli. We had never heard of it. But there it was, plain as day, in Ralph Mayer’s book, it is the pigment that creates ultramarine blue. Fascinating. If I had been reading the Artist’s Handbook more avidly, I’d know about that stone and the mummy too!!

    • Hi Pascale,

      I remember reading at an exhibit of Japanese prints that the genre was transformed by the introduction of Prussian blue in the 1800’s. Looking at the prints from before advent of Prussian blue and the prints from after it, you could see it was true. It was jarring to me to think that Hiroshige and Hokusai did what they did because a blue pigment. Sorry to take a while to respond to comments. They were hiding under a spam comment in Spanish that, as far as I can tell, refers to another sort of colorfulness.

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