If colors can talk: or do they?
In 1960, French artist Yves Klein registered his own shade of ultramarine pigment International Klein Blue (IKB) and painted canvases with the color for a certain period of his life. This blue period or l’epoquebleue, as he referred to it, included a series of monochromes in IKB and performance art pieces where models painted in the color rolling and walking on a canvas.
Klein’s blue period is mentioned in a short passage of Maggie Nelson’s rumination of the color blue ‘Bluet’. Nelson as well had her-own blue period collecting blue objects throughout the years, researching the color’s history and writing a poetic study on hers’ and others’ relationship with blue.
Her book travels across time and space visiting lapis mines of Sar-e-Sang in present day Afghanistan, which centuries ago remained the only source of blue pigment and hundreds of Europeans traveled to secure the color, and the Tuareg of the Saharan desert in modern day Algeria, Mali and Niger who typically wear blue robes they dye themselves where the process leaves their skin tinged blue leading many outsiders to refer to them as blue people for the longest time.
Blue has been sung about in country songs, it has been used to refer to emotional states of sadness or despondence. It is the color of detachment, of distance and longing, of desire. It is also the title of a film by Derek Jarman that tells the story of his loss of sight and sensitivity to blue following AIDS-related medication’s side effects.
Cultures that had developed a rich palette of colors were unaware of the color blue and did not have a word to refer to the shade. Blue came much later for many communities. Even in remote areas in Ethiopia, blue is commonly mixed up with green. Water was just water and the sky was the sky. Some animals even have a special affinity for colors. Male satin bowerbirds collect blue objects like feathers, stones, pieces of plastic and whatever in the area to build a bower. This bower or mating place, adorned in blue is supposed to entice the female bowerbird for a tryst. Horseshoe Crabs’ naturally blue blood has been used to ensure the safety of medicines since early 20th century.
Color has been the subject of much reflection and research by many including Goethe in his text Theory of Colours, Newton in Opticksand Wittgenstein in Remarks on Colour.
‘The eye may be said to owe its existence to light, according to Goethe, and color the ‘most delicate operation of nature’. The birth of the primary colors begins with the perception of light as yellow and darkness, or the absence of light, as blue, which then mix to create green. The color index then grows to include reddish tints in their various gradations. Color, says Goethe, can be divided into three distinct realms: physiological, as seen by the eye and is famously flawed, the physical and chemical colors.
Cobalt blue was the last color to be discovered in 1802 until Oregon State University discovered a new shade of blue called YInMn Blue (yttrium, indium, manganese). This new shade was an accidental discovery when heating chemicals and has led many to understand that there may be new inorganic pigments yet to be discovered. Artists used color to carefully depict reality or their thoughts and emotional landscapes. But it isn’t just the shade or grade of color that matters. The chemical components of the pigment, its reaction with the canvas, medium of application, brush type, light and moisture exposure all play a large role in how a piece of art turns out. How long a certain paint lasts once applied is a big determinant of quality and the range of time is 50 to 500 years, says GetahunHeramo.
Getahun is the sole manufacturer of artist paints in Addis Ababa, and probably the country. His company Nita Color Center has been producing watercolor, acrylic and oil paints since 2005. For many years, artists had bought high priced imported paint until Getahun saw the scarcity and decided to enter the market.
His shop located off Olympia road is deceptively small, hardly noticeable unless one knew to look for it.
He began the business, he says, after a caller on a radio show he was on encouraged him to start making art paints. The process would apparently be easy for his company since he was already making the more complicated printer ink. This led to Nita’s strong relationship with visual artists of the city. Nita is the sole provider for countless suppliers, they are often the supplier of paint to the Addis Ababa University Ale School of Fine Art and Design and the prices are incredibly low. In an art supply store located in a high-end mall just across the street, a small container of acrylic paints can cost twice or three times as much as Nita’s. “My biggest joy is seeing painters work, and change their lives,” says Getahun.
He met with resistance from artists; he combated by purchasing pieces artists created using his paints and showing them to prospective clients. And thus began his art collection. He has amassed many paintings from over 50 painters and has now converted the second floor of his house into a gallery. He showcased this collection at Ale entitled ‘Not For Sale’ in 2007. He frequently commissions artists to produce works.
Getahun is a man of many interests,which he has cultivated over the years. A chemical engineer by profession, he has made it his duty to study color and its psychological effects on people. His company consults with building owners and architects on the choices of color in a new building. He has different palettes he offers depending the function of the establishment, such as hotel or hospital. He also connects these establishments with artists he knows. More places now hang local artists’ works on their walls, opting out of the imported mass-produced bland pieces of interior furnishing.
The color index may be vast but art paints are very specific since there is a lot of mixing going on. He explains that there are 12 chemical pigments of red but only two can be used for commercial art paint. This has led him to refine the chemical process and produce consistent paints. He considers the type of canvas commonly found locally.
“The knowledge of colors is restricted to few. After Windsor & Newton first produced paints at an industrial scale in England, many artists came to rely on that.” He is an avid reader and made it his life’s work to collect as much information about this as possible.
Early artists relied on natural substances to make paint. HenokMelkamzer is one of the few local artists that produce their own paints from scratch. He gathers leaves and flowers at Entoto Mountain,where his home and studio are also located. He creates telsemor talismanic pieces influenced by ancient Ethiopian religion, mythology and zodiacs, full of repetitive patterns and symbolism. Paint making is part of his art making ritual–he gathers the resources from the earth to depict and pay homage to the celestial and ephemeral.
Getahun relays the tale of how artists made their own paints for many centuries,“it is only after the industrial revolution that the process became more standardized and paints were sold in stores”. Paint making knowledge sharply decreased following that event. Henok also laments that very few understand the process, in an interview the Reporter had with him in March of last year. The medicinal value of the plants used and the larger implications of the seven basic colors, pigments in the process of paint making and in applying colors in vines and branches on canvas are almost forgotten. The bias modern Christianity has towards telsem could also be attributed to the decline in usage.
Television also has an interesting history in connection with color. When color in movies was introduced to pigment black and white movies in Hollywood, there were many companies that offered the service competing for studio contracts. All the companies had their own color distinct scales. Some had vivid reds and greens but a cow could appear purple or muted tones were not visible. Each company would come with a color consultant or expert and their own set of cameras designed to pick up their distinct color scale and special projectors once the movie entered cinemas. Coloring was a difficult process until Technicolor came to dominate the market. The fourth process of the three-strip Technicolor relied on a dye transfer technique that was adopted by many studios and the story of Natalie Kalmus, part owner of Technicolor, is worth a read for those looking to study motion picture history a bit more. Kalmus, also ex-wife of the co-founder of Technicolor Herbert Kalmus, was a color consultant on many movie sets in the 1930s and her highly opinionated interference with directors is famous among cinephiles.
A local social media initiative called Colorize History excavates old black and white photographs from history books to digitally scan and pigment approximations of the natural colors. The colors are toned down and feel very distinctly like it is the past but the loss of black and white usually associated with history creates a dissonance. These realistic renderings put the past to the modern format of instagram or facebook, making the scenes depicted alarmingly relatable and resonant to our present.