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Color as Light


Sir Isaac Newton was one of the first scientists to investigate color theory. Around 1671-72 he discovered the origin of color when he shone a beam of light through an angular prism and split it into the spectrum - the various colors of the rainbow.


Color Theory in Art


SIR ISAAC NEWTON (1643-1727)The refraction of light through a glass prism.

SIR ISAAC NEWTON (1643-1727)
The refraction of light through a glass prism.

This simple experiment demonstrates that color comes from light - in fact, that color is light. Scientists investigate the properties of color theory whereas artists explore its visual effects.


Impressionism and Light


CLAUDE MONET (1840-1926) 'Rouen Cathedral in Full Sunlight', 1893 (oil on canvas)

CLAUDE MONET (1840-1926)
'Rouen Cathedral in Full Sunlight', 1893 (oil on canvas)

'Impressionism' was a new style of painting that emerged in France at the end of the 19th century. The Impressionist artists were interested in trying to capture the changing effects of light on the landscape by using a more exact analysis of tone and color. Their ideas were inspired by Eugene Chevreul's scientific research into color theory.

The Impressionist artists abandoned the old idea that the shadow of an object was made up from the color of the object with some brown or black added. Instead, they enlivened their canvases with the new idea that the shadow of any color could be mixed from pure hues and broken up with its opposite color. For example, the shadow on a yellow surface could have some strokes of lilac painted into it to increase its vitality.


Impressionist Technique


CLAUDE MONET (1840-1926)'Rouen Cathedral in Full Sunlight', (detail)

CLAUDE MONET (1840-1926)
'Rouen Cathedral in Full Sunlight', (detail)

As the Impressionists had to work quickly to capture the fleeting effects of light, they had to sacrifice some of the traditional qualities of outline and detail. Nevertheless, the freshness of the Impressionist technique instinctively appeals to most people, and most painting since has been profoundly affected by it.

Claude Monet, the greatest exponent of the Impressionist style, created several series of paintings exploring the effects of light. The illustration above is from a series of around twenty paintings of Rouen Cathedral (1892-94) which show the building at different times of day, at different times of year and under different weather conditions.

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