|A ‘Turner evening sun’ photographed from the steps of the Turner Contemporary gallery and its reflection in their café’s window. It’s of no direct relevance, but this is a relatively long post and a relaxing first image may help the reader ...|
In earlier posts I have reflected on aspects of my series of modest contributions to the work of the Learning Team at the wonderful, and for me wonderfully local, Turner Contemporary gallery (e.g. here and here). It’s also rather nice that I get a credit in a couple of short films that have come out of our contact (here and here) – and even one of my many tweets is quoted in another of their celebratory videos (here – see if you can spot it, it’s near the beginning). My own appreciation of art and of those who work within and for its promotion has been transformed by my contact with the gallery and its team. However, I think this is the first time I’ve devoted an entire post to a project of theirs in which I was able to make a contribution. It’s associated with their current exhibition of some of JMW Turner’s wonderful paintings and drawings, Adventures in Colour, and it gets an entire post by virtue of the fascinating background I unearthed whilst reading up for my role.
Our protagonists. (Centre: the Turner Contemporary’s exhibition leaflet; left: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe above Sir Isaac Newton; right Joseph Mallord William Turner. Goethe’s and Turner’s images are adapted from those at www.tate.org.uk, Newton’s from http://www.biography.com/people/isaac-newton-9422656#synopsis)
|Goethe’s colour wheel showing the complementary colours on opposite sides of the circle (Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_Colours)|
The issue that faced me on the day of the Teachers Tea Party was how to try and encapsulate some of these concepts and theories into a 20-30 minute chat prior to going into the gallery itself. I have no idea whether what I attempted truly worked or not, since that depends very much on whether the participants are able to use the suggestions and ideas offered given the reality of their primary school classrooms. However, I’ll try to outline here a few of the things I tried out on the day by using some ‘home-made’ images.
|In terms of Newton’s theory of colour, life is relatively easy in that most people have seen a spectrum – from water droplets as they generate a rainbow and probably also from a prism. The image top left provides a good example of the generation of a spectrum by splitting white light into its colours. This splitting occurs via a process called refraction: when light enters a medium, in this case the prism, the speed of light varies depending on its wavelength (i.e. its colour) and this causes the light to be ‘bent’ to different degrees. My simplified demonstration used a couple of laser pointers, one red and one green; I attached them to a ruler in order to help ensure they were pointing in the same direction. They enter the prism at the same angle, but emerge at different angles. Although I only possess an inexpensive perspex prism, the demonstration worked tolerably well and a clear separation between the red and green spots on a distant wall was easy to see.|
Returning now to our prism, it’s possible to use it to replicate something more of what led Goethe to state that colour emerges from the juxtaposition of light and dark. Instead of adopting the ‘Newtonian’ setup and using the prism to cast it rainbow spectrum from sunlight, try instead to look through the prism towards the window and look carefully at what happens in the vicinity of its stiles/rails or grills. There’s a need to experiment a little with the orientation of the prism, but eventually coloured bands will emerge at the edges – and the order in which the colours appear will differ depending on whether one is looking to the left or right, or above or below, the light/dark boundaries between glass and frame. This made no sense to Goethe in the context of Newton’s theory: not only had he seen colours not part of Newton’s basic seven-colour spectrum when exploring shadows (e.g. magenta from green illumination as above) but now even the spectra he observed through a prism differed from Newton’s.
For those wanting to learn more about Goethe’s observations and ideas I recommend the four-part video which begins here.