A Colour Out of Colourspace
To try and illustrate what colourspace is I’m going to switch to a “missing shade of green” example rather than a “missing shade of blue”. Cause we all remember mixing paints in art class at school, right? Mixing blue and yellow to make green? You’ve got red, yellow and blue as your primary colours. Then you’ve got orange, green and purple as the secondary colours you get by mixing them. You can arrange them on a colour wheel that models the transitions more gradually — red, reddish-orange, orange, yellowish-orange, yellow, and so on. And if you mix the three primary colours all up together you get the tertiary colours, the browns and greys. Simple, no? Of course, it’s not so simple at all, not by a long shot, but we’ll run with that RYB model as the one most people find intuitive. For now.
So, if you had a pile of mint leaves on your left and a pile of jade gemstones to your right, say, each is a different shade of green. Somewhere between them -- in potential terms -- is a shade of green that's not as light as mint but not as deep as jade. Maybe that shade occurs in nature -- in some particular type of sandgrass, say -- but maybe it doesn't. Ever. Maybe there's a grass that's almost at that precise mid-point but just a little too yellow. Maybe there's a leaf of a type of tree that's almost at that precise mid-point but just a little too blue. But this precise
shade of green? No. Even if that particular shade doesn't occur in nature, if we've never seen it before, generally we can still imagine it. We can look at the mint and the jade and imagine something between them, half as light as one, half as deep as the other. Or we can look at the grass and the leaf and imagine one a little less yellowy, the other a little less bluey. If you close your eyes and visualise an evening sky, shading from dark blue on one horizon to light blue on another, can you visualise that sky with sort of a greenish tint, turquoise rather than azure? If so, I’d say it’s entirely possible that some point in that spectrum of shading might be a shade of green that doesn’t occur in nature, that you haven’t actually seen.
Why can you do this? Because all the shades we see in nature and call "green" are basically within a zone of colourspace, an area we might well describe in terms of proportions of the primary colours that are the basic dimensions of that colourspace. This idea of colourspace might be a bit harder to get your head round than the obvious Cartesian dimensionality of those other aspects of vision — the up and down, left and right, forward and back of physical space — but it’s the same principle. Light of mixed wavelengths stimulates the sensory receptors in our eyes and we input that data into an internal model, plot a point in colourspace that signifies that particular mix. Imagine it as a 3D space, where any shade is a point defined by it’s co-ordinates, (x, y, z), where X, Y and Z map to red, yellow and blue, the higher the co-ordinate value the richer it is in that colour. These are the symbolic dimensions by which we construct a shade of colour not just in our imagination but in our sensation itself. Right just a tiny bit. Up a way. Back a way. That’s the green we’re looking for. The colour wheel is all very well, but it’s basically a 2D spectrum looped round to form a circle of contiguous shades. It can’t account for browns because it doesn’t allow for the mixing of three primaries, so we need a colourspace rather than a colour wheel in order to factor on brown. Actually we kind of need an extra dimension of light-dark because the ratios of richness will give you a shade’s pigment, but that pigment can be also lightened or darkened in tone — which is where greys come into the picture, where you have contrasting shades even when the pigmentation is low, leading to a washed-out effect.
(Anyone not up on their colour theory should know that colourspace is actually modelled in terms of RGB, which you’ll probably know about from the way colour is defined for display on computer monitors, or in a CMYK system (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) which is used for printing, or in various other systems which are useful for other reasons. Colour perception can be modelled in an XYZ system of three stimulus values, an L*C*h system of light, chromaticity and hue, or an L*a*b* system which I’ll skip over just now cause it’d just confuse the issue. Anyone who is
up on their colour theory should note that I’m steering clear of terms like “saturation”, “chromaticity”, “hue” and whatnot, talking in terms of “pigment” and “tone” precisely because mine is a spurious model based on a pretence that the old subtractive system of RYB actually works. OK then.)
The result of having this colourspace: I'm not saying we can just imagine up some Lovecraftian invention of a colour out of
colourspace, a "squamf" or "zeebluth", “umpshzud” or “flim” that would constitute an entirely new dimension to our colourspace. We can however generally imagine the halfway point between "mint" and "jade" as two broadly-defined locations in colourspace. We have this imaginative model in our heads already, so it's (mostly) just a matter of developing our awareness of that internal palette. We know where these shades sit in relation to each other because they’re defined
in relation to each other, mint “over thissa way” where the light shades of green sit, jade “over thatta way” where the deep shades of green sit. That colourspace is what we're actually working with at the perceptual level, underneath the words like “mint” or “jade” by which we label this or that particular shade, words which are really just benchmarks, nominal labels for familiar zones. Is “aquamarine” essentially a shade of blue or essentially a shade of green? The question is bollocks; “aquamarine” is a nominal label for a blue-green or green-blue point in colourspace that some people will insist is in the blue zone and that others will insist is in the green.
An example of where the nominal labels get silly: I had a weird conversation the other night when a mate who went to Art School referred to a cushion as green and everyone else in the room said, "no way, that's grey." I agreed with everyone else at first, but then shut up to take a proper look. At which point, after a bit of frowning and musing I figured that, yeah, the pigment was really low, so it was a very faded, greyish
green, but if you subtracted out the light-black tonal qualities, it was
actually in that region of colourspace you could reasonably call "green". What the whole discussion really came down to, I think, was that my Art School mate and myself were mapping that shade to a point in colourspace, because we've both had reason to develop that imaginative faculty at some point. Everyone else was fitting the shade of the cushion into their own discrete set(s) of nominal terms. As far as they were concerned, you've got "green" as a superset of various shades -- "jade", "mint", "grass" and so on. And "grey" is a distinct superset of quite different shades -- "ash", "steel", "slate". If a shade is in one superset, as far as they’re concerned, it can’t be in another. For them the shade had to be either grey or green. But the two of us were seeing it as a shade which you could say, in my RYB colourspace terminolgy, had X amount of yellowyness and Y amount of blueyness — combining, as those primary colours do, in an additive system, to a Z amount of greenyness.
If you get this sort of conflict between nominal and spatial modelling with our ideas of colour, we might want to ask ourselves, how far might the whole discourse of ideation be permeated by such a conflict? All Hume’s talk of impressions and ideas seems a little nominal to me. It’s “horse” and “horn”, not “equine” and “horned” — or “hooved”, “maned”, “male”, “female”. It’s like an idea is this… snapshot of an impression that’s a snapshot of an object. It’s a thing, an entity, an essential form we can name, just like “mint” and “jade” are, in the nominal view, sort of treated as essential forms of green. Like “aquamarine” is an essential form that can only be either green or blue. Because essential forms are discrete — “distinct and simple”.
My take on all this, by the way, comes from having worked in the dyeing industry, beside people that had been in the job for decades. Many of them could pretty much look at a sample of green thread and say not just, "this is too yellow" or "this is too blue" but "this needs redyed with X amount of one particular yellow dye and Y amount of another particular blue dye to be the right shade of green." They basically had the ability to map that shade to a point in colourspace in their heads, imagine the point that the dyed thread was meant
to be at, figure out from that exactly how far it needed to be "shifted" in each dimension, and
calculate how much of what particular dye they'd need to achieve that with a redye. I'd lay down good money that, with that level of visual imagination, these people basically knew their own conceptual colourspace so well that imagining that shade of green between mint and jade would be a piece of piss to them.
Caveat 1: Of course, colour-blindness throws a spanner in the works at the level of the perceptual/conceptual colourspace itself. Anyone who's dealing with one or other form of colour-blindness could be dealing with all manner of disordering in that system. Like having the "axes” of the 3D co-ordinate system of red, yellow and blue knocked out of whack, sitting at 45º angles rather than 90º angles, so that the various zones people generally discriminate within that space and label nominally with words like “jade” and “mint” are all squidged-in or overlapping. (Again, this is not what’s actually happening, cause my colourspace is a fabrication, but we’ll gloss over that for now.) Absolutely, that's going to affect someone’s ability to… play around with the colourspace in their head. It might well make it impossible for them to imagine that missing shade of green. This says nothing however about the capacity of those who aren’t colour-blind, does not support a proposition that it is essentially impossible to imagine a shade that one has never seen. Existence of a few unusual actualities is not proof of an essential truth.
Caveat 2: Most of us may not be great at visualising colours without recourse to benchmarks in the real world, of course. Hell, clearly the benchmarks are pretty important, because it's a damn sight easier to conjure up a shade of green in a reader's imagination by describing it in terms of mint, jade, grass, leaves and suchlike than by describing it in terms of ratios of chromatic saturation and whatnot. Saying that somewhere is halfway between this subway stop we know and that subway stop we know might be a lot easier for most of us to handle than if we were given an address in a city we’re not familiar with. But allowing for differences in natural talent we can
generally develop our imaginative capacity in that regard with a bit of practice simply by getting to know the territory. Once you get to know Manhattan, realise that it’s mostly laid out in a blindingly simple system you don’t just know that "the corner of First Avenue and Tenth" is in the East Village; you know exactly where
it is in the East Village. A painter, I'd say, is likely to be working with that sort of sense of the palette itself in their head. They're likely to think about colour in spatial terms, rather than nominal terms, be able to picture a shade in their head even before mixing the paints they need to get that colour. A predominance of actualities as the norm is still
not proof of an essential truth, especially if there are exceptions who negate it.
What does this mean in terms of ideas and impressions and the articulations of those that we call “art”?
Well, any creative work, I’d argue, as an articulation, could be considered as similarly… plotting a point in some vast, conceptual, multi-dimensional framework of potential articulations. With writing alone, all the words in the language, all the grammatical structures they can be fitted into — these are your dimensions. The infinite unturned pages of The Book of All Hours on which those potential articulations may or may not be written one day — those unarticulated articulations are your missing shades. And the whole of that book up till now is a history of unplotted points being plotted, unwritten works being written. I don’t see how one could deny the blindingly obvious development from the first page, with its tallies of goats and sheep bought and sold, to the page you’re on now, the page of everything only just written, countless poems, plays, short stories, novels. Much of what you’ve flipped through reiterated and remixed what came before, sure, but there’s always been something new on every other page at least, some articulation that had simply not been written up until that point.
All the words in the language and all the words you can coin. All the grammatical structures they can be fitted into and all the structures you can construct that flout that grammar. Infinite unturned pages of unarticulated articulations, every one of them the creator’s equivalent of a missing shade of green. You’re as likely to be original by accident
as by intent, I’d say.
How do you find your missing shade of green? If you see the “jade” of one artist, the “mint” of another, and you realise the shade you’re looking for is somewhere between, the way you reach it is not necessarily by sampling and remixing, “deriving” it from these “sources” just by slapping together equal parts of both. More likely it’s by mixing it on the palette yourself. You don’t use pure red, blue and yellow pigments in their boldest forms, no, but you don’t weave your own canvass either. So: a big dollop of cadmium green squeezed from the tube, a little chromium oxide green, a smidgeon of cobalt blue, a hint of hansa yellow pale to balance it, some titanium white to lighten it. What this is is a navigation of colourspace in the attempt to reach a certain point. What it’s not is a mating of “jade” and “mint” with a little baby “jade-mint” as some sort of hybrid progeny. Forget the nominal labels and the shades they’re slapped on. Forget any notion that what we’re dealing with here are essential forms clipped out and recombined — like some sideshow unicorn that’s really just a horse with a horn stuck to its head, or a baby chimerae stitched together from a lion cub and an eagle. That shade of green you end up at is a point in colourspace just like every other shade of green, but it just so happens to have an additional quality of newness simply because nobody has ever thought to use that exact shade before. It’s original.
So is originality just that… novelty? And if so, is it really worth shouting about? Maybe your painting is marginally more interesting with that previously-unused shade of green, but it could still be banal tosh. Maybe your new OS has bells and whistles, but maybe we don’t want that klaxon every time an email arrives. Maybe nobody’s built a dog-waxing machine before, but maybe that’s for a very good reason. Maybe you’ve found the lost chord, but you worked it into a shit jingle. Maybe you invented a whole language for your one million page fantasy novel, but it’s still turgid, reactionary bollocks. Hell, maybe you were trying so hard to be original you neglected every other facet of your craft and still managed to reinvent the wheel because, well, that missing shade of green…? Actually, all the rest of us have seen it umpteen times.
I’m not interested in celebrating originality for it’s own sake, only in recognising it as a potential quality. Actually, I think Jarmusch is right to focus on authenticity, and I’m as wary of the viewpoint that idealises originality as I am of the viewpoint that denies it. Because articulation is
inherently combinatory and the sense of inspired genius that attaches to originality is
romantic bollocks, but at the same time that articulation does more than just cannibalise what came before and the sense of derivative remixing that comes with the absolute denial of originality is reductive essentialism. With this whole colourspace analogy, actually, I feel like I’m trying to articulate my own missing shade of green, somewhere between the “jade” of one and the “mint” of another.
I’ll see if I can at least get close to it.Aesthemes and the Real Colourspace
OK. So Hume is strangely happy to accept that we could imagine that missing shade of blue, even though he thinks it a vaid counter-example to his theory — an idea not born of an impression. The notion of colourspace explains why we should be able to do that, but at the same time it does so by redefining the shades he sees as distinct and simple things
into different terms entirely — into nominally labelled zones artificially delimited within a framework of potentialities. While this deconstruction of the notion of ideas and impressions as essential forms might well be reconcilable with an idea that all conception is born of perception (assuming the colourspace itself is a development of our perception), it might also suggest that what’s born is actually an entire system that’s capable of generating all the concepts that could possible be perceived (assuming that once we have the colourspace we can visualise any colour within it). The question is: just how dependent on perception is that colourspace? How much perception has to take place before we’ve learned the system and can navigate our way around it?
Here’s an idea to throw into the mix: maybe that question is the wrong way round, because those colours that define colourspace — red, blue and yellow — well, maybe they should be classed as ideas rather than impressions, concepts rather than percepts. They are, after all, entirely spurious.
See, all the light has is a mix of wavelengths — from long to short. The variances of intensity at each wavelength could actually be plotted on a 2D graph, but this is not what we do. We measure the proportions of light of different wavelengths with receptors of different sensitivities, but where red and blue map neatly to long and short wavelengths, to model everything as a variance of intensities along the spectrum of purples between them would be sod all use to us. A lot of pure red, a little pure blue, a hint of violet, a shitload of magenta, a dollop of fuschia — all you end up with is muddle of purple. You don’t just want to end up at whatever middling shade of purple you get by mixing those shades together in the relevant proportions. We don’t just want to know the average wavelength; we want to know the general shape of the curve we’d be plotting on that graph if we had receptors sensitive to wavelengths at regular intervals. So we measure the medium wavelengths too. And what we sort of get, roughly speaking, is a sense of the relative proportions of long and short, long and medium, medium and short. Leastways, this is my understanding of it.
This is where it gets interesting, because those medium wavelengths are modeled with a dimension of their own, but it’s not yellow. Actually, it’s green
. All that stuff about green being a mixture of blue and yellow? That’s how you make it with paint, but it’s not how you make it in your head. In your head it’s a primary colour, a basic dimension of colourspace. But this doesn’t mean we just abandon the RYB model for an RGB system. Oh, no. Because yellow is also
a primary colour in your head. It doesn’t even map directly to its own distinct range of wavelengths — our sense of it is the perceptual product of a mix of wavelengths that’s heavy on the long and medium but light on the short — but despite it being constructed basically from a mix of red and green light, we perceive it as a colour in its own right. The way it actually works is we have three sets of primary colours paired off into “opponent processes” — white-black, red-green, yellow-blue. For each process, stimulating a perception of one member of the pair inhibits the perception of the other. These are the three axes we’re really working with and they’re the basis of that L*a*b* system I glossed over earlier — L
representing luminance, a
representing a proportional relationship of red and green, b
representing a proportional relationship of yellow and blue. Those are the real X, Y and Z axes of the colourspace in our imagination, and the official CIELAB colourspace that defines it scientifically (with red and yellow on the positive sides of their axes, green and blue on the negative,) is the most complete model there is, capable of describing all the colours visible to the human eye. What’s actually happening with the clour-blindness I glossed over earlier is most often that the absence of one type of cone fucks with your ability to differentiate along one axis (most commonly the red-green). For the rest of us, that colourspace is what lets us imagine a missing shade of blue or green we’ve never seen. The shades aren’t discrete. It’s just that an easy way to navigate is to use the names of objects as benchmarks. This colour is “mint”. That colour is “jade”.
But think about. This is like hearing a choir of voices, each singer singing one note that you could play on the keys of a piano, but at different volumes. It’s like not being able to discern the individual notes, being sensitive only to ranges
of notes. It’s like hearing the high range of notes as a /r/ sound, the low range of notes as a /f/ sound, and the medium range of notes as an /l/ sound which is really pretty weird. It’s like having a /s/ sound which you hear only when there’s low and medium notes at high volume but the high notes are quiet, which is weirder still. It’s like hearing that entire choir in “shades” of pitch defined by the fact that you can’t hear /r/ and /l/ together or /f/ and /s/ together, but you can still create a mix of sounds, combined with a quality of loudness, that you can distinguish an incredible amount of detail in. It’s like labelling particular “shades” of sound in this soundspace with the names of objects in the world that hum in a distinctive mix of frequencies at various volumes, in a world where everything is in a constant state of reverberation. This sound is “granite”. That sound is “quartz”.
That the dimensions of that colourspace model are as abstract as that, as purely symbolic really, as the specific smell you sense when a certain chemical comes into contact with a sensory receptor in your nose — this radically undermines Hume’s theory that all ideas are generated from impressions. It is only, I think, the predominance of our visual and kinaesthetic sense of physical orientation, the highly spatial focus of our experience, that leads us to concentrate on those types of perception which model the world as a sort of wireframe simulation, a point-to-point mapping that represents (re-presents) rather than symbolises. Because of this, I think, we end up ignoring the very real extent to which many of our impressions are themselves ideas
. Our perception is intrinsically conceptualised in many respects. Red and green, yellow and blue — these are arbitrary symbols we’ve invented. They’re aesthemes, base units of a sensory and
ideational language in which they no more represent
their signified than the letter “I” represents
the person writing this blog entry, no more than the sound of the word “you” represents
the person reading it. No more than those /r/ and /l/ or /f/ and /s/ sounds would actually represent
the frequencies of vibrations in the air.
These aesthemes are products of semiosis, not mimesis, and it’s not just that we’ve made one memory or set of memories a signifier for another, as with the inner voicing of the word “cat” and the memory of the cat we’re referring to. We just made the signifiers up. Oh, maybe we didn’t do it individually but as a species, in an evolutionary process of developing innate conceptual tools for making sense of the info coming in through our eyes. But there’s a chance, as I understand it, that the absence of words for certain colours in certain languages is an inheritance of that process playing out, the development of aesthemes and their organisation into opponent processes traceable in distinct stages. Either way, these aesthemes are, at the end of the day, complete fabrications, entirely spurious ideas on which the impressions themselves are built.
Think of it this way: If we took a spectrum of human heights instead of the spectrum of visible light, within any given area on a map we could gather information on the number of people of certain heights. There are equations in colour physics by which, if we mapped that range of heights to the appropriate range of wavelengths, treated it as the data you’d get from a spectrometer, we could calculate a point in a model of colourspace, define a shade. We could assign that shade to that area on the map, colour it in, and if we did this with every area on the map the result would be a colour-coded modelling of the proportions of different heights across the territory. The colour-coding of our vision is no less arbitrary than the colour-coding of that map. Red, green, blue and yellow are
the "squamf", "zeebluth", “umpshzud” and “flim” we’ve evolved. In terms of modelling the mixtures of wavelengths in light they’re clearly useful, but they’re far from precise; there’s the problem of metamerism, for example, where quite different sets of data can result in the same shade, meaning we can’t actually be sure what mix of wavelengths that shade is referring to. Just as “cat” might refer to a beloved feline or a groovy hipster, dig? That’s how symbolic our ideational impression of colour is.
The point of all this… colour aesthetics geekdom is that the whole “missing shade” question offers a good perspective, I think, on the whole question of “originality”. The idea that all creative works an artist could conceivably bring into existence will be responses to and reworkings of the creative works they have experienced reads to me as an assumption of nominal parsing, content-oriented perspective. It’s the idea that everything we can imagine will be a response to and reworking of (our experience of) the imaginative products of others. It reads as an assumption that there’s these “distinct and simple” things
which any work of art contains
— characters, plots, themes, etc. — things that have been “put” into them by a creator who themself has to “get” them from somewhere. It’s the idea that there’s these “distinct and simple” shades which any image-in-our-head contains — “jade”, “mint”, “grass”, etc. — and which we have to “get” individually by experiencing each in turn. The assumption is that if the creator has these things in their head to use it’s because they themselves have “taken” them from somewhere. And the assumption is that the somewhere in question is some sort of huge cultural trove of tropes that are “contained” in previous works. The creative worker can’t really be original because everything they’ve done can be traced back to that trove. Every idea is actually a representation/re-presentation of experience.
Given that something as basic as colour is actually an ideational impression, a semiotic artifice composed of arbitrary aesthemes, this just reads to me as essentialist philosophy contradicted by real science. That you can construct a novel shade in colourspace, in fact, implies to me that with any such aesthetic system we might construct an “idea” that is entirely new, at least to ourselves. Playing around with an artistic medium, dissatisfied with this
existing articulation, we might set them in opposition in order to identify their differences, in order to relate
them in terms of a framework of potentialities, in order to plot the midpoint where those differences are resolved, to formulate an articulation that is our own creative artwork equivalent of a missing shade of green. How far might originality reside in articulating that midpoint when everyone else is insisting that only this
is possible? How far might it reside in plotting another point entirely that places the three in balance as corners of an equiateral triangle, or in articulating the greater complexity of a zone that contains both by plotting a whole host of points, defining a sphere which this
are only specks on the surface of? How far might ideas that some see as “distinct and simple” be viewed by others as mere labels for points in a vast framework of ideational potential? How far might unoriginality
reside in a habitual tendency to rely on those conventional sets and supersets of labels, as if one were to live under the assumption that the only places in a city it was even possible
to go were those subway stops marked with names on a topological map of the underground?
One might push Hume’s supposition further. Suppose our test subject was raised in some grim environment where everything was painted in tertiary colours — shades of brown and grey. He’s never seen a bright red, a true blue, a pure yellow. He’s never even seen orange, purple or green. All he’s ever seen are reddish-brown, blueish-grey, yellowish-brown, orangey-brown, purpley-grey, greeny-grey. Still, by relating those colours he has
seen to each other he might be able to develop an understanding of the colourspace inside his head, an understanding that the reddishness of certain browns is a constituent feature as is the yellowishness of other browns, the bluishness of certain greys. He might be able to abstract the underlying structure, the aesthemes they’re composed of — white and black, red and green, blue and yellow — to imagine these shades in a purity he’s never seen simply because they’re the basic constituent qualities of every shade that he has
seen. If he could place however many reddish-brown objects in a row in front of him, each a little more reddish than the last, could he project a continuation of the series to a true red? If he can’t
quite visualise the pure colour in his head, maybe he’d have a niggling certainty of its existence, an idea that he can’t quite articulate in his mind’s eye of a strange new shade that could be achieved if only one could subtract the similarities, eliminate the redundancies, the qualities of brown that render everything much of a muchness. Maybe this would lead to an attempt to make that shade. Scraping, melting, grinding, burning, dissolving, mixing, sifting — there’s a lot of shit you can do to the objects around you that might end up in an unusual outcome. All he has to do at the end of the day is claw at his own skin to see what’s underneath and, if he did so, seeing the sudden brilliant red of his own blood, maybe he’d recognise
it as exactly what he’s been looking for, this part of a puzzle he’s been trying to put together. The unrealised potential in a system of possibilities encompassing far more than simply what is actual.
That senario is not so far off, I think, from one sort of ideation process you find in creativity. I’m tempted to say it may well be the core process — the artistic drive a large-scale version of that feeling you have when a word is on the tip of your tongue, when you can think of a half-dozen other words that sort of fit but none of them is quite right, the difference being that when you scale it up you’re not always dealing with articulations that are conventional — because they’re basic components of the language — but may well be seeking to articulate something that has never before been articulated. You’re doing this not for the novelty of it, but because the model in your head means you can imagine what meaning resides in that locale but until it’s made manifest, articulated, the full detail of that meaning is simply not evident. You know almost exactly where you want to go but, working with imagination, you know only vaguely what it looks like there. The drive may be exacerbated by a conviction that nobody else has articulated what you’re striving to, but it’s not that you want to be different, it’s that the absence is a problem, that there’s some issue that what is absent may resolve.That
is creativity, as far as I’m concerned, and when you find that articulation, at whatever magnitude and with whatever outcome, that