The Phenomenology of Color in Painting

Document Type : Research Paper


Tehran University


this paper intends to be an attempt of using the phenomenological approach with regard to paint itself in painting. The way of approaching this topic was suggested to us by the two great phenomenologists, Edmund Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Roman Ingarden. We hoped to show that paint is not a mere material in the hand of painter, otherwise, the painting come to live by paint. In other words, the painter does not work on paint, but she works with it. Ancient texts show that color has not been the determinant element of painting. Greek terms denoting painting, such as skiagraphia, iconographia or zographia testify that color has been absent in the Greek conception of painting. This historical fact indicates the traditional prevelge for drawing reducing coloring as a secondary feature of painting. This general trend has been reversed by Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics particulary in his interesting ideas about painting (as a romantic art). We will see then that the color has been described by Hegel as the spiritual moment of painting by which it is distinguished from other hand-mad pictures. Color has a specific magic function which transform the light to the depicted objects on canvas. It is in and by the color that painting establishes its visual world. The perceiver sees not simply the color, but world-color, or, in other words, world as it is appeared through color used in painting. According to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, color has a disclosing function: it reveals the depth of Being otherwise inaccessible to the viewer. The visible is, so to speak, the self-disclosing color itself. Describing Cézanne works, Merleau-Ponty emphasizes how the Cézanne’s coloring methode could be regarded as the phenomenology applied to painting or, to put it otherwise, phenomenological painting. We will see that the impressionists introduced the time to painting through color. By painting a single landscape through different time scale of the day, Monet for instance depicts changing color-light-time as a visual whole. It’s the time which is embodied in the color changments of the landscape. Due to impressionism, the time is transformed to color and vice versa. We used the notion of “Intentionality” to clear that paint is an intentional visual element, which represent the intentionality of painter’s mind. Ingarden was interested to the ontology of work of art. We have tried to apply one of his ontological concepts to the painting. Color could be thus regarded as a place for viewer interpretation aiming to determine the aesthetic object as a work of art. Having in view the concept of “places of indeterminacy” from Ingarden’s phenomenological aesthetics, we tried to show that paint is a potentiality that is realized by both painter’s intentions and the attitudes chosen by conceiver of the work. It is by the act of intentional seeing that a colored field transfom to painting. As a result, an aesthetic object and its elements – the paint – can be a work of art if it appears itself to a conceiver who determines its indeterminacies.


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