When thinking of color, too often ideas about the “local color” interfere. We think too much about color as a rigid construct. The sky is blue, the grass is green. These thoughts are meaningless. When thoughts of local color take over, we have paintings of things. Looking to other artists for knowledge, we find many thoughts and solutions to color.
In Johannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, ca. 1657-1658, the local color is abundant: the dress is yellow and red, the apron is blue, the cloth on the table is blue. The light areas are light versions of the local color, the dark areas are dark versions. Everything is as we expect it should be.
In John Singer Sargent’s, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892, we still see the local color, though Sargent cools all of the color to give us an idea of cool light in the studio. The sash is violet, light, local, and dark, painted with luscious, flowing strokes. The chair is an off-white, again in light, local, and dark color. The flesh is a “peachy” color. Sargent’s virtuoso brushwork and wonderful drawing lift this painting to new heights.
In Anthony van Dyck’s Samson and Delilah, c. 1630, again we see the local color in light, local, and dark versions. Each cloth or piece of clothing has its own color, the flesh is a particular color. The gold on the chair is gold. Van Dyck was an exceptional draftsman and beyond compare at arranging a figurative work, bestowing power upon this work.
In Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride, something new is upon us. It seems almost dangerous. The feeling of color. The sleeve is not yellow, it’s a sparkling gold-like feeling. Gold is not a color, it’s a state of existence. It sparkles, it has action. In painting the character of “gold”, Rembrandt transcends the physical matter. It’s as if he breathed color onto the canvas. The dress is not simply a local red of light, middle, and dark, it’s a feeling of warmth and depth. It draws us in. It moves through the painting. The flesh tones are not “peach” or orange, they are luminous. These are beings of light and light flows from them.
In J.M.W. Turner’s Ulysses deriding Polyphemus, 1829, we have left the realm of the physical and exist only amongst the light. What colors are these? As artists, we might struggle in vain to give an answer. We know they are not colors. Turner has dug deep for the very primordial elements. They are manifestations of life. Their names matter not. They exude feelings and states of existence.
From W.H. Auden’s King Lear Lecture in Lectures on Shakespeare:
“Shakespeare’s interests are moving from individuals towards states . . . Look at Beatrice or Benedick (Much Ado About Nothing): you say, yes, here is a person I might meet and have dinner with and talk to. In the later plays, with people like Iago and Lear, you say, no, I don’t think this is a person I might meet, but this is a state, which in the life of man, everybody at one time or another experiences.”
Does your color exist as individual or as a state that all can experience?
 Auden, W.H. (2000). Lectures on Shakespeare. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Publishing. Lecture: King Lear.