The Color of Time
Updated: Feb 12
Summary: Perception of color and changes that occur is a function of vision and memory. We expect old things to look old and new things to look fresh. Old works of art can display tremendous shifts in color, but our brains interpret them as both as being old and our memory knows the color of clouds, water and the sky so we can ignore the color shifts. Monochrome paintings do not disturb us. We are not bewildered or confused by black and white photographs.
It becomes fairly evident when visiting a museum that does not have conservation treatment facilities readily at hand that some pictures appear in poor condition. Sometimes it is easy to discover pictures that appear dull and dirty. Other paintings have problems that are far more elusive.
We think of time now as a dual construct and refer to it as time/space. We know that time has a definable cost that permeates every aspect of the universe. We age and things around us deteriorate. Pigments and media respond to time by changing their appearance. Hence, we can say we can observe the “color of time.”
We even have a polite, academic word for the color of time. We call it “patina.” This is not to be confused with the purposeful application of a chemical to a metal surface like a sculpture to create a specific appearance. While nobody refers to this as “new” patina, it certainly does not equate with the patina that comes from the passage of time.
Paintings change over time. Colors don’t necessarily become lighter as fugitive pigments do, but with time they can shift in chroma or hue. Clear mediums like varnish become yellow. We are not able to sense changes over time in artwork because we were not present at its creation so have a point of comparison. Even if we were, human brains are not proficient at remembering the exact hue and bias of colors we observe. Reds still look red. Blues look blue. But, how far they have changed from how they looked the day they were painted is difficult to determine.
Conservators have an inkling as to a gross amount of color shift. If a painting is modern and uses pigments still produced currently, comparing the paint to a new swatch of the same color can indicate, to some extent, how far a color has changed. Of course, this comparison depends on finding a passage of pure color paint that is not a mixed color.
Not to fret. Our minds gravitate toward making sense out of what we see or we use logic and experience to attempt to make sense from visual stimulation. Shapes, textures, memory and other key indicators related to familiar items give us indicators about the original color of things. We know a ripe banana illuminated by a purple light remains yellow. We know that when we are walking in the dark on a lawn, despite looking down and seeing black, we still know the lawn is green.
We exercise some of the same processes when we look at discolored paintings. The yellow varnish in a Dutch marine painting appears to be somewhat normal to us. We ignore that the sky is a blue-green hue and the clouds are a warm beige. It looks fine. It is old and we expect it to look like “the color of time.”
In the latter part of the 20th century, the art world was shaken by some who claimed that cleaned paintings had been “ravaged,” to coin a term used by critics of the time. Removing extremely brown-yellow varnish to reveal a great deal of how the painting looked when it was first made, can be jarring to those who are unfamiliar with how bad old varnish and poorly executed retouching can appear.
Today we have many solid, stable pigments to select for paintings. We have synthetic resin varnishes that mimic the saturation of natural resin coatings but without the inherent vice of discoloration over time.
Despite these advances. Artists still can find ways to inject problems that will rear their ugly heads in the future. This is accomplished by finding old recipes and using materials that have no business being on anyone’s palette. We will explore this in the next essay. As a humorous bonus, I will take you on a virtual tour of a “shrine” of one of the most notorious purveyors of destructive painting mediums. Stay tuned…
The Syntax of Color