Have you ever committed—I mean really committed—to watching paint dry? Have you ever turned off your various Internet-enabled devices, cleared your calendar, put in some ear plugs, and plopped yourself down in front of a freshly painted wall on a lazy Sunday afternoon?
To liken something to watching paint dry, after all, is to dismiss it as dull, uninspiring, and predictable. Your mom might use the phrase to describe a particularly boring conference call at work, or your sports-averse friend might use it to describe the basketball game you made him watch last night.
But what might you gain from watching paint dry?
Patience, for sure. And maybe even a trance-like meditative state. But also an appreciation for color. And maybe even a roundabout interest in abstract art.
Color is really unlike anything else in the world. It can stain something deeply (think of tomato sauce on a white T-shirt), but it can also dance through the air, here one second and gone the next (think of sunlight shimmering through stained glass). It’s also a purely visual phenomenon. While most objects—a pencil, let’s say—can be both seen and felt, color can only be seen. Yellow can make us have certain feelings, yes, but we cannot actually feel it. If you close your eyes, you can’t be sure that the pencil you’re holding is yellow.
Color is one of those things we take for granted. It exists, we see it, and we forget that we see it. We have names for colors—blue, for instance, or Crayola Cornflower. We assign them hex codes—#3a5996, for instance—so that we can easily replicate them in Internet graphics. We claim them as intellectual property so that we can make money from matching them consistently. Think about that the next time you’re stuck in the paint aisle at a hardware store as your parents try to decide between “Harmonious Gold” and “Golden Nectar.”
Isn’t there more to it than that, though? Isn’t there a reason why famous philosophers, such as Isaac Newton, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Johann von Goethe, wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages on the subject of color?
If you were to devote an afternoon to watching a painted wall dry, couldn’t you see that wall’s color change dramatically as different degrees of light and shade move across it? Couldn’t something that looked pale gray in the freshly opened paint can start to take on hues of blue or purple once applied to the wall? Couldn’t you see different colors on different parts of the same wall at the same time? Couldn’t watching paint dry actually be watching something?
Have you ever been to a museum and seen an artwork like this?
That’s the type of artwork that might make someone say, “Why is this in a museum?! My kindergartner could paint that!” Someone else might say, “It just looks like Mario Kart!”
But if you’re someone who’s dedicated an afternoon to watching paint dry, you might be able to appreciate a painting like this. You might be able to chime in with a different response. You might be able to say, “This is actually really interesting! Instead of painting an object, it’s like he’s painting rhythm! It’s like he’s painting the way music makes you feel! It isn’t about the thing we’re seeing. It’s about the way we’re seeing it! It’s like he’s painting the way the same color can look so different at different times! It’s like he’s painting unreality instead of reality!”
The year Sauvage made Colored Rhythm, 1913, is the same year a groundbreaking art show, known as the Armory Show, took place in New York City. At this show, a group of American artists introduced the country to a new, challenging style of art. European artists like Léger, Picabia, Duchamp, Kandinsky, and Picasso displayed their works, challenging American artists to develop their own distinctive style. Instead of focusing on classical beauty—making your paintings look like the things they’re supposed to look like in the most perfect form possible—the artists at this show explored concepts like abstraction—trying to capture change, instability, movement, uncertainty, flux, change.
I wonder, for instance, whether Wassily Kandinsky ever sought inspiration from watching paint dry!
The next time you’re looking at a painting in a museum, look beyond the things in the picture—the people, the animals, the inanimate objects—and try looking at just the color. How does it spread across the entire scene? How does the color of any one object in the painting change, depending on how the light hits it? Or the next time you’re watching a movie, think about how a particular color might keep coming back at different times, and what it might mean. Think about how some scenes might look muddy, where everything is the same color, and others might have sharp differences in color. Think about how the beginning of the movie might take on a different hue than the middle and end of the movie. What do those changes mean? How are they significant?
In other words, don’t just take color for granted. Really look for it. And really look at it. We might have reached a point in human history when we can label colors with computer codes and reproduce them with mass-produced color swatches, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t look at color with wonder. Color doesn’t just have to be a way you depict the world. In a way, color is its own world!