The Color White in Fine Art and Decorating

John Singer Sargent Framed Art

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, by John Singer Sargent

What is your favorite color?

If you were to ask people you know, “What is your favorite color?”, more than a few people would answer with one or more of these: “Red, green, blue, yellow, orange or purple.” Fewer people might answer with one of these colors: “Blue-green, blue-purple, red-purple, yellow-green, red-orange and yellow-orange.” Perhaps a few might say that “white” is their favorite color, but try asking and see how many actually think of it as a color choice, rather than an absence of color – which it isn’t.

Is white a primary color, like red, yellow and blue? Primary colors cannot be mixed from any other colors.
White can actually be mixed, but not with a material like paint. However, if light is the medium used to create white, all the colors of the rainbow are needed to create white light.

Innocence, serenity, neutrality, purity and goodness are emotional responses people located in the western world have associated with the color white. White is the goodness of angels, the purity of a wedding gown, the innocence of white kittens or the cleanliness and neutrality of lab coats for physicians and scientists.

As a physical association, white is a reflection of light. It refreshes and warms. White can evoke a sense of trust and excellence. In fine art, the color white is sometimes used for its own value, such as in abstract expressionism. In art that is representational, such as in classical or impressionist paintings, white is an illusion of light on, or from within the subject. When white is painted to represent light on a subject, it is rarely pure white at all.

The artist John Singer Sargent is well known for his portraits of high society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Wealthy gentlemen of that time in the United States and England competed with one another for portraits of their wives and children by Sargent, which was considered to be something of a status symbol.

Many of Sargent’s female portrait subjects were painted in elegant white gowns of the period. What was notable about his technique of painting light is that he often used every color in the rainbow when painting white gowns and still was able to create the effect of light reflecting and absorbing into white fabric. In a watercolor painted by Sargent of an Arab cloaked in white, there is no white pigment directly used in his rendering of fabric at all, yet the illusion of it being white remains true.

Sargent was also influenced by the impressionist painters such as Claude Monet. He painted landscapes in England, with and without figures in an impressionist style of his own. He also depicted interior home scenes and still life paintings in an impressionistic style.

In any subject, Sargent used white, which included other pigments, to create sharp reflections of light, which gave his paintings a feeling of life, freshness and serenity.

Architecture and fabrics in paintings are sometimes depicted in white. When viewing such a painting, notice how the artist created a three dimensional illusion of that particular white object. What colors are in the shadows? Is the subject reflecting a particular color of light? Does it shine or glow? Is it a cool white or a warm white? What emotional response does the white subject matter seem to evoke?

In décor, it requires just as much discernment to pick a white that is appropriate for a living environment as it does to choose any other color, particularly if there is artwork in the décor. Commercial paint stores offer an array of whites and “off white” in their color samples for that reason. The same emotional responses one has when viewing white in a painting can be applied to how it feels to be in an environment that utilizes white in its color scheme.

When it comes time to decorate, try to spend the extra time to create an environment which evokes a particular feeling. If white is your choice, view as many samples as you can, even if you wouldn’t normally think of using some of them. How does your artwork stand against one white sample as opposed to another? Choosing a dominant color out of your artwork and tinting white with it can support a unity of color and feeling in your living environment.

Framed Art Decor web site is an excellent source for viewing and obtaining prints of great artist’s paintings, such as those by John Singer Sargent.


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