This is from Jarman's book on colour, written as he grew ill in 1993 in hospitals and Dungeness. He died in 1994. It's perhaps unsurprising that he returns to themes of time, of pigments fading to ghostly whites and greys, of memory, erasure and fading vision, particularly in the blue chapter.
It's literate, historical and above all personal, and rather than argument or thesis the method is an accumulation of coloured impressions and traces. A rather meditative, often beautiful book. It's primarily about painter's colour - there's not much on natural, printer's or electr[on]ic colour. My comments below are in square brackets.
Fast colour. Fugitive colour. [p1]
[on the surface this is about colour-fastness - some colours being bleached by long-term exposure light, others being resistant - but both "fast" and "fugitive" seem to hint at neuro-optic or psycho-optic properties of colour...]
Chemistry and romantic names - manganese violet [...] distant places, Naples yellow. The geography of colour, Antwerp blue [...] Colour stretching to the distant planets - Mars violet; named after Old Masters - Van Dyke brown. Contradicatory - Lamp-black. [p3]
White is the colour of mourning except in the Christian West where it is black - but the object of mourning is white. Whoever heard of a corpse in a black shroud? [lilies] [p11]
All the ancient monuments are ghostly white, the statues of Greece and Rome were washed of their colours by time. So, when the Italian artists revived antiquity, they sculpted in white marble unaware that their exemplars were once polychrome [...] The world had become a ghost for artists. [p13]
The advance of white in the twentieth century was delayed by the Second World War. [...] In the ruins of war, colour was reinstated. The pastels of the 1950s, each wall a different shade, pale shades of Mondrian's bright and scintillating Broadway Boogie-Woogie. [p17]
On the television the battle for purity raged: Persil washes whiter than white, blue-white [p18]
Shadow is the queen of colour:
Pliny [Natural History] says that painters wore bladder masks to protect themselves from the dust of vermilion as they painted the statue of Jupiter. We must explore this subject more closely, he says. [p23]
[Citing burnt ashes Aristotle thinks the earth is naturally white, deriving its colour from moist dye. His On Colour doesn't mention painting, and the Younger Pliny reads it one afternoon during a thunderstorm.] [pp24-6]
Pliny is eloquent [...] because he puts himself and his prejudices so strongly into his writing. Most later books on colour fail to do this, and therefore remain colourless. [p27]
On seeing red:
Red protects itself. No colour is as territorial. It stakes a claim, is on the alert against the spectrum. [p31]
[Until the flourescent yellows and oranges of health and safety warnings.]
Red tetroxide of lead, the classical minium secondarium or 'sandarach'. Gave its name to the miniature. It is the colour of red letter days in a medieval manuscript. These days it's used as a rust resistant more than an artists' pigment. [p36]
Four stages are distinguished in alchemy: MELANOSIS (blackening), LEUCOSIS (whitening), XANTHOSIS (yellowing) and IOSIS (reddening). It is in these colours that the modern pharmaceutical industry was born. [p38]
I've placed no colour photos in this book, as that would be a futile attempt to imprison them. [...] I prefer that the colours should float and take flight in your minds. [p42]
The romance of the rose and the sleep of colour:
The long sleep of Aristotle descended on the Middle Ages. Colour went on a Crusade, and came back with strange heraldic names: Sable, Purpure, Tanne, Sanguine, Gules, Azure, Vert, on a host of fluttering flags. [p45]
It's not until our time that colour sparkles in the colour fields of contemporary American painting with this strength and purpose [as it did in medieval painting...] flying buttresses made possible large windows filled with stained glass which reached its apogee in the Sainte-Chapelle, a dancing glass kaleidoscope. [pp46-7]
the passing centuries rubbed the colour off old walls, but in the manuscripts hidden from the light that creates and destroys, you can see colour bright as the day it was laid down by the illuminator. [p48]
[This characteristic, that light both constitutes organic or camera vision possible, whilst in excess being what prevents vision via a blindness or bleaching, is worth returning to.]
[Augustine] Shadow is the Queen of Colour. Colour sings in the grey. Painters often have grey studio walls, for instance the grey-papered walls on which Gericault hung his paintings. [And Matisse.] [...] Grey allowed the high-key colour to rush over it in the future but retained a presence [Mantegna, Giacometti, Johns, Beuys, Kiefer] [pp51-2]
At the edge of the horizon, behind the grey bulk of the nuclear power station, lies the grey area of secrecy. Home of the colourless atom, but grey in the mind's eye. The cornerstone of the half-truth on which governments build their defence, atomic half-truths [half-lives] which we live here. [p54]
Uccello [...] shut himself in his studio for days on end. His angry wife believed he had taken Perspective as a mistress. [p57]
[Ficino, godfather of the renaissance, dies 1499]
[Dark Ages:] woods claimed back the Roman roads and palaces. These woods were the home of the Green Man.
Archaic green colours time. Passing centuries are evergreen. To mauve belongs a decade. [...] Blue is infinite. [...] We feel green has more shades than any other colour. [p66-7]
Napoleon died from arsenic poison as the green wallpaper in his prison on St Helena rotted in the damp. [p71] [Remember too the green-black fingers and tongues of the poisoned monks in The Name of the Rose.]
Reynolds's use of bitumen turned his portraits a ghostly grey. Some colours faded, like the death of the copper greens in Venetian paintings, the violets that turned to white. The soot-black reds. Now they seem to be the artists' intention. Other colours, like the lapis blue, with which the Venetians painted distance, scream at you from the horizon [...] It was this that led Caravaggio to say, 'Blue is poison'.
The most stable of the greens is Terre Vert. The most elusive, the copper greens [...] Fugitive colour flies in time, and leaves us in a perpetual autumn. [...] The under painting of many Renaissance paintings is green, which gobbles up the pink, so the face of Masaccio's Madonna has taken on the green hue of a ghost. [p72]
Green is a colour which exists in narratives [Oz] ... it always returns. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. [p74]
How now brown cow:
There are more browns than greens. The names of the browns [pigments] give us a clearer picture [...] Cooking is present in brown [raw, burnt umbers] Sepia is the odd one out - the ink of the cuttlefish [... Dyes:] are sweet and edible. You can buy a coat in caramel, toffee... [p79]
[Eliot: Unreal City... brown fog ... brown as the slow colour of] returning spring. The smell of damp humus, rich, slow, somnolent. Brown is a slow colour. [pp81-2]
[And of comforting/intensifying food: HP and Worcester sauces.]
The perils of yellow:
[A bunch of noxious, dangerous, warning, evil yellows, anti-semitism, thieves... p89-93]
Ultraviolet reflects yellow strongly, so insects fall over themselves and hallucinate. Although yellow occupies one-twentieth of the spectrum, it is the brightest colour. [pp 89-90]
Indian yellow, banned. Cows were poisoned with mango leaves and the colour was made from their urine.
Orpiment poisonous arsenic sulphide [... Cennini:] 'Beware of soiling your mouth with it' [or Zappa: don't you eat that yellow snow]
Naples yellow, lead antimonate [...] lasts forever, and is manufactured from a mineral found in volcanoes. [p93]
What came first?
The name or the fruit?
Naranga, za Faran the saffron. [p95]
invented chiaroscuro which was taken up by Caravaggio in the next century. [L: shadow is a diminution of light, darkness is the absence of light... a luminous body will appear less brilliant when surrounded by a bright background... the more brilliant a light, the deeper the shadows..., p99]
[Jarman's imagined backstory, The Smile on the Face of the Mona Lisa: L completes the portrait of a chattering banker's wife without the mouth, then substitutes the smile of her boy servant. p100-1]
Poor Mona Lisa has faded, drained of colour by time. Yet of all the paintings it has achieved the impossible. You can see her with your eyes shut. [p101]
Into the blue:
[This is the voiceover, or an adaptation of it, of his film Blue.]
Tacitus tells us of a spectral tattooed army, the Pictish Britons nude in the colour of the Ethiopians, Caeruleus. Dark blue, not the sharp blue from the paint tube.
Gun metal blue. The patina of copper, Verdigris on the edge of green. [Blue as discolouration, evidence of change. p103]
The blue work clothes of France. The blue overalls here in England, and the blue Levis that conquered the world. [cheap, hard-wearing blue? p104]
Bluebeard [pirate? Vonnegut?]
[Indigo arrives in Europe and is banned because it threatens the woad industry] hedged with legislation [or, we might say, caught up in red tape.]
The Japanese slept under blue mosquito nets to give the illusion of peace and cool. [pp105-6]
[a painful record of illness and fear, pp106-120]
The damaged retina has started to peel away leaving innumerable black floaters, like a flock of starlings swirling around in the twilight. [p122]
The most refracted rays produce purple colours and those least refracted red... [p125]
Mauve is a chimera. It barely exists except as a description of the 1890s, the Mauve Decade. [p127]
Christ's robe in many medieval paintings, Piero della Francesca's Resurrection, for instance, is bright pink. [p128]
When Queen Mary visited my father's RAF station at Kidlington early in the Fifties, a pink lavatory was built for her visit. [...] In the event she never used it. [p129]
Mauve [...] after aniline dye was produced from coal. [...] It seems to have had little time to gather much mystery - where does it appear in poetry? It is confined to the chemistry lesson. [p130]
Tyrian purple. It was extracted in minute quantities from a shell, Murex, and cloth was boiled with dye and exposed to the morning sun on the seashore, turning it into the most costly product antiquity. Its manufacture was controlled by the Imperial Family in the Collegium Tinctorium under the auspices of Melcanth the Phoenician God. As no example of purple cloth remains from antiquity, we do not know what it looked like. [p132]
It was said that Alexander the Great's urine smelled of violets. [Another thing not provable centuries later. Smell: deeply ephemeral, yet clearly powerful temporally (Proust).]
Violet paint is rarely used. [...] The Impressionists created violet shadows in the Mauve Decade. Monet's haystacks awash with pinks and violets in the sunset. [pp134]
In the black coal fire lives the spirit of storytelling. Flickering blue and scarlet flames. It was around the fire at night that men and women told their stories in the pitchy black. [p139]
Behind the green centre of the Moslem world lies the black stone - the Ka'abo.
The world as black as ink. Books are printed in black. [black boards] [p140]
Silver and gold:
[The difference between silver/gold and the colours.] metals? Is it because of their lustre or their value?
The most golden painting - just a little blue lapis on the virgin's robe - is Simone Martini's Annunciation. Gold medieval paintings. Yves Klein throwing gold bars into the Seine. [p143]
Silver is useful. I can't think of a painting. It's far away from the spectrum. [...] Silver is for the night. Silvery seas [p144]
[Holbein's Henry VIII and Queen Jane Seymour, both c 1536-7: his shirt and her sleeves]
Who has not gazed in wonder at the snaky shimmer of petrol patterns on a puddle [p145]
[What is iridescence if not (merely) dancing, ephemeral colours?]
Glass is the key to the exploration of our world. It was through glass that Galileo explorer the solar system; it was a glass prism that gave Newton the spectrum. As the manufacture of glass in the seventeenth century advanced so did discovery. Grinding of lenses. Magnifying glass. Glass spectacles [another reflection on The Name of The Rose]. Lustrous, hard and brittle.
It was through an 'absence' of colour - colourlessness - that we measured the stars, created the spectrum. Then came microscopes to reveal the invisible within. [...]
Glass is as vital as oxygen. The Hubble telescope has a lens ground to an accuracy the Galileo could never have imagined [albeit not without inaccuracies still]. Glass is the salt of the intellect - a seeing through, its transparency pushes into dark corners. [pp147-8]
See also: Batchelor: Chromatopia, Itten, et al. Some notes on invisible colours. Cabinet magazine's excellent series on colours (to read): mauve, cyan, silver, ivory, pistachio, ultramarine, sulphur, rust, safety orange, hazel, ruby, ash, beige, and bice.