Updated: Jun 4
Color is the place where our brain and the universe meet.
Paul Klee, Swiss Painter
Colors make me happy. Ridiculously so. I can almost taste them. They nourish me – and without any effort. Simply sitting on my deck, I am fed as I gaze across the valley at an emerald meadow surrounded by tall evergreens, or by the rust red of the ladybug crawling on the table. Just a few moments ago, an ordinary fly landed on this white page. Have you ever looked closely at their wings? Like a stained-glass masterpiece, each wing reflects blue and green iridescence.
I tilt my head back, overwhelmed by the hundreds of wisteria blossoms covering the pergola above me. Each delicate flower is gathered in pendulous clusters of pale violet to lilac to purple. Bees in black and yellow visit one flower, then another. Painters know that each hue on a canvas is in dialogue with surrounding colors, the presentation of any given pigment dependent on the pairings. They transform each other. Thus, the beauty of the delicate blossoms above my head is amplified by the rough brown bark of their twisting limbs, by the just-emerging tender green leaves, and by the swatches of blue sky that fill every space between, looking much like a Japanese woodcut.
Color is a language - a universal language that knows no borders. Like many indigenous languages, it is able to convey nuance and connections that elude the English language. The brilliant American painter Georgia O’Keefe put it this way: “The meaning of a word – to me – is not as exact as the meaning of a color. Colors and shapes make a more definite statement than words.”
I notice that the visceral experience of colors can inform my state of mind, or shift my mood. For example, I have been brokenhearted, like many, by the aftermath of the CZU Complex fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains where I live. It occurred during the late summer of 2020 but it wasn’t until several months after the fire was extinguished that I ventured up the winding road several miles from my home to see the damage. My mind and heart reeled with the devastation: blackened tree trunks, gray ashy soil and burned-out cars. But, almost guiltily, I found myself delighted by the surreal lime green shoots sprouting like petticoats around each charred redwood. Not only because of the inspiring resilience - new beginnings out of the ashes - but because the pulsing color felt like it could slide down my throat, just like the lime sherbet my mom gave me when I was feverish to cool the throat and raise the spirits of a bedbound child. And here’s the thing, it took me a whole paragraph of words to convey what immediately washed through my being as I glimpsed the lime greenery.
I also resonate with the words of another visual artist, Paul Gauguin: “Color! What a deep and mysterious language, the language of dreams." I sometimes have dreams – more like visions – that are only about color. The entire dream may be a single object rendered in striking hues. One displayed a shawl with alternating sections of turquoise and coral. I woke happily convinced that these two colors relish each other’s company, like good friends who bring out the best in each other.
Sometimes a striking daytime viewing almost feels like a dream. The other morning I was about to move debris from the side of the driveway when a king snake slid from its hiding spot, treating me to its brilliant markings: bold rings of red and black and white. Almost garish. To what purpose, I thought? Snakes only see in hues of blues and greens. Unlike the rattlesnake’s dusty brown diamond shapes, these startling patterns are the antithesis of camouflage. It’s almost as if this display were simply there for the pleasure of the world. And even more precious because it only lasted a fleeting moment before the snake quickly slithered into its hole, each vibrant ring disappearing, one after the other.
* * *
Recently, I have fallen in love with Willa Cather’s 1915 novel, The Song of the Lark. Not only did Cather give unusual focus, for those times, on a female’s relentless and demanding creative pursuit to be an opera singer, but Cather also gave voice and agency to landscape, plants, and the elements. The reader senses a relationship between the natural world and the characters, the descriptions flowing from her pen like a clear running stream.
In the section, “Ancient Peoples,” I found that Cather was as beguiled by the sensorial world as myself. Thea Kernborg, the main character, is recuperating from the strain of her Chicago musical training in a remote area in northern Arizona. She spends hours each day wandering through remote cliff dwellings, then dozing in the sun:
Here she could lie for half a day undistracted, holding pleasant and incomplete conceptions in her mind - almost in her hands. They were scarcely clear enough to be called ideas. They had something to do with fragrance and color and sound, but almost nothing to do with words. She could become a mere receptacle for heat, or become a color, like the bright lizards that darted about on the hot stones outside her door; or she could become a continuous repetition of sounds, like the cicadas… She was getting back to the earliest sources of gladness that she could remember.
This was the medicine that healed her. This is the medicine I seek when worn down. Free for the taking, this tonic only asks that I soften my gaze and sink below my busy mind into a connection with the sensory world. Through this lens, everything looks and feels much different. Assumptions, descriptions, nomenclature, even identities fade.
One late afternoon, as the sunrays began to slant horizontally, I willingly succumbed to the intricacies of light playing with form. What I had previously identified as oak leaves instead became reflective ovals that shifted between shades of greens and silvers as they caught light and wind. Birds, once junco, hummingbird and swallow, were now varied shapes in fluid motion - landing and uprising, gathering and dispersing, a choreography of contour and color.
I once invited this same state while viewing four fancifully hued cows in Franz Marc’s oil painting, Cows Fighting. Rather than several cows circling each other, it became a party of colors, a whirlwind of pigment, red, black and green in pursuit of each other.
Sometimes, however, I don’t have to invite the state – it captures me. This recently happened in the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City with Georgia O’Keefe’s Music in Pink and Blue No 2, 1918. As I stepped in front of it, everything around me disappeared but this canvas. Smiling, my focus alternatingly softened and sharpened as I hovered, like a hummingbird before a flower. Where would I sip first? Would it be that clustering of pinks becoming rose becoming magenta? Or would I slide down into that center, a pool of blue that I could disappear into and happily never return. Pure Eros. Who knows how long I hovered.
* * *
Color, like music, can be transcendent, even magical, and yet, for me the wonder isn’t diminished, but augmented, by understanding the physics behind their existence. How incredible that our eyes are translating electromagnetic wavelengths. The human visible light spectrum is a narrow band of wavelength frequencies, only a small segment of the enormous electromagnetic spectrum. Until I investigated this topic, I used to think the surface of the object contained the hues that we see, but in fact the colors our eyes imbibe are merely the hues that bounce off the object, not the ones that are absorbed into it. Essentially, we view what the object declines.
Then there are rainbows, long a symbol of hope and promise. Who doesn’t feel blessed by the sudden emergence of these gossamer arcs of seven colors? I recently learned what this good fortune entails: it requires that we observe it from a 42-degree angle opposite the light source, while light, having entered atmospheric droplets of water, is reflected on the back of the droplet and then refracted once again when leaving it, thus creating a full spectrum color display. No wonder the old saying: truly, it is a phenomenological pot of gold.
Last week I was talking with my neighbors when a large jet-black crow flew close by, carrying a crimson morsel in its beak, perhaps a strawberry or a cherry. Looking back, nothing stands out about that day – the dialogue has vanished, the work I did, the meals I made – except that crow in focused flight. Somehow such images embed themselves, creating an internal landscape, and will likely remain in my memory for years, even though there is no explicit meaning or utilitarian purpose. The painter, Paul Klee, said it succinctly: “One eye sees, the other feels.”
This is the extraordinary gift of being human – that we not only use our senses for survival, but also to enrich our existence. What would this world be like without this hued sustenance, without this color wheel kaleidoscope that never stops turning?
Willa Cather writes that Thea Kernborg’s sensory recollections can never be taken from her - they are part of her mind and personality – just as I will always house the lavender wisteria, the disappearing king snake, and lime green redwood shoots. I can simply close my eyes and choose my evening viewing, a lifetime of images stored within, waiting for my attention to nourish me yet again. What incredible riches. Entirely free and always available. This is our birthright as earth creatures. True wealth.
To listen to the essay read by the author, click below:
All photos in essay were taken by author except the king snake (Wix photos).
For additional color delight: I have included these exquisite close-up photos taken by my friend, the writer and teacher Carolyn Brigit Flynn, on her morning strolls through her neighborhood. These are from her photography series, "The Walking Cure."
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