Tuesday, March 25, 2008

rhapsody in boo

“I saw a stable with four coffee-colored cows…the stable bluish-white…and a great green curtain in the doorway…I saw another very quiet and lovely thing the other day, a girl with coffee-tinted skin…ash-blonde hair, gray eyes, a print bodice of pale pink…against the emerald leaves of some fig trees”
--Vincent van Gogh

When Vincent van Gogh traveled to Paris and encountered Impressionist art for the first time, he said he felt the power of color “awaken” within him. It was as if he had never seen colors before, as if he had never truly noticed colors in the natural world until he saw the intensity with which the Parisian artists captured them on canvas. The awakening dramatically changed van Gogh’s art. It is easy to divide his paintings into those that came before the Paris summer of 1886 and those that came after. There’s a Wizard of Oz kind of threshold moment that separates the two periods. A door opened and he went from painting coal miners in dimly-lit, sepia-toned rooms to painting blossoming plum trees and powder blue skies.

Vincent van Gogh, Drawbridge with a lady with a parasol (1888)

Nora is also awakening to colors. Has she discovered them on her own or are we teaching them to her? I’m not sure. All I know is that somewhere in her wanderings, she has noticed that a thing can be a thing and simultaneously a member of a certain category of things known as blue or red or yellow or pink. We had a false start a few weeks ago when she excitedly pointed to a group of blue circles in a book and exclaimed “boo!” over and over as she pointed to each one. Only when she used the same word on red circles and purple circles did I realize she thought they were all balloons. But today, she tells me that her shoes are a “boo” and Gabie’s sweatshirt is a “boo” and the sippy cup I have handed her is a “boo” as well. These things are all blue and are not round and do not contain helium so I think she’s got the right idea.

Do the awareness of color and the language to describe it come together? Is Nora just discovering that things are “boo” or is she simply finally gaining the word to let us know what she already knows? Did Vincent appreciate vibrant colors—the coffee-colored cows and emerald-green trees that he describes in a letter to his brother—before he had the means, the new pigments and the desire to paint them?

Gabie has left his box of Crayola 64’s on the table. I pull out my favorite color in the box: periwinkle blue. Call me unoriginal; I’ve learned from Crayola’s website that periwinkle is #7 on their list of the 50 most-popular shades of crayon. It’s just a great color. I wear it whenever I can. I would dream in periwinkle if possible. In Vincent’s painting of the drawbridge, there’s a tiny patch of periwinkle in the sky over the bridge—in the right-hand corner, just above the little white building—where light blue blends for just a moment with a touch of lavender. But Vincent would never have used the term periwinkle (or even its equivalent in French whatever that is). The word was only first used to describe a color in 1949—more than 50 years after Vincent’s death. So what did he call it? Did he have a special term for the new shade as he created it, blended it on the palette or discovered it on the canvas? Or was it just a variation of blue—or boo? I suspect he noticed it. And if he didn’t give it a name, at least he saw it and he liked it and he left it there for me to find.


TARA said...

As always, delightful post.

You know I have to.... it's bleu pervenche. Although I'd admittedly rather hear Nora's "boo!"

Bea said...

Both my children learned all the colour words - and knew that they meant colours - well before they figured out how to match up the right word with the right colour. I can remember Bub at Sears one day, dazzled by a display of multicoloured vacuum cleaners - he spent about half an hour moving from one to the other and announcing, "Blue! Red! Green!" in a completely random way, with no connection to the actual colour of the vacuum. It seemed so odd to me - that one would learn about the category so noticeably prior to figuring out the individual instances within that category.

Sea Star said...

I love how you relate everyday life to beautiful paintings and the artists who painted them. I really enjoy your thoughts!

My Ice Cream Diary said...

I loved when my daughter was first trying to learn her color names. She would get all excited upon recognizing a color and shout out its name. Even when she was wrong and I corrected her she didn't care, she just laughed and repeated the word I gave her. The joy was more in the color than in the word.

LaughingElk said...

Reminds me of a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon:

CALVIN: Dad, how come old photographs are always black and white? Didn't they have color film back then?

CALVIN'S DAD: Sure they did. In fact, those old photographs are in color. It's just the world was black and white then.

CALVIN: Really?

CALVIN'S DAD: Yep. The world didn't turn color until sometime in the 1930s, and it was pretty grainy color for a while, too.

CALVIN: That's really weird.

CALVIN'S DAD: Well, truth is stranger than fiction.

CALVIN: But then why are old paintings in color?! If the world was black and white, wouldn't artists have painted it that way?

CALVIN'S DAD: Not necessarily, a lot of great artists were insane.

CALVIN: But ... but how could they have painted in color anyway? Wouldn't their paints have been shades of gray back then?

CALVIN'S DAD: Of course, but they turned colors like everything else in the '30s.

CALVIN: So why didn't old black and white photos turn color too?

CALVIN'S DAD: Because they were color pictures of black and white, remember?

(CUT TO: EXT. Tree limb, Calvin talking with Hobbes)

CALVIN: The world is a complicated place, Hobbes.

HOBBES: Whenever it seems that way, I take a nap in a tree and wait for dinner.

Nan said...

Two of my boys saw "geen" first, and spent weeks colouring everything geen. My middle boy chose black when he was first scribbling, and he turned out to be red/green colourblind. Watching him paint is interesting: he does beautiful watercolours, with blocks of colour that look amazing to us but to him, normal.