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Radiant Energy: Robert Swain and the Phenomenology of Color
“Before language there was experience and before experience
there was the sensation of color.”
— Robert Swain 1
“Color is the place where our brain and the universe meet.”
— Cézanne, as quoted by Merleau-Ponty 2
Becoming Acquainted with Color
Swain’s first exposure to the constant perceptual flow of color was as a young boy, living in Mercedes, Texas. At the end of the long summer day when the heat finally broke he would go for long walks with his mother and sister, observing the landscape and watching the fluctuations of light as afternoon turned to evening. He remembers the cacti, the irrigation ditches, the canal, the birds perched on the telephone wire.3 These early impressions of natural phenomena cultivated a nascent visual knowledge and predilection for color. It is this same study of nature, of the beating sun on a southern landscape and total impact of atmospheric change on environmental color, that was at the heart of arguably the most pivotal modern painter working with color—Paul Cézanne.
It wasn’t until he was a teenager, after his family’s move to Arlington, Virginia, that Swain was exposed to art and its rich history. The National Gallery of Art allowed him the opportunity to marvel at the masters, among whom Vermeer stood out and captivated Swain with his remarkable modulation of color and canvases imbued with light.4 Years later, after returning from his study abroad, Swain began working at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and it was here that he was exposed to the history of color in modern painting, to the depths and diversity of the ontology of color. Color, no longer used in service of signification or symbolism, but standing as an autonomous element of its own. As a gallery attendant, Swain was to arrive at the museum two hours before opening each day, thus, allowing him the serene and contemplative experience known by those who have stood in a room filled with masterpieces, accompanied by nothing other than the art and their experience of it. The Phillips collection had a particularly strong representation of color phenomena in modern painting: Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s famous, light dappled Luncheon of the Boating Party, of 1881; the paintings of Pierre Bonnard, Georges Seurat, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, and Wassily Kandinsky; a small room dedicated to the sensuous color relationships of Mark Rothko. Of particular influence and indelible study was Cézanne’s The Garden at Les Lauves [Figure 1], c. 1906, created only a year before his death.5
For Cézanne, it was his “very strong sensations” that were the foundation of his work and that which he sought to express until the end of his life. Sensations, he explained, were both innate and experienced, and should be organized to express harmony.6 Letters from the last two years of his life identify these sensations as precisely those of color. These are best seen in late works such as Les Lauves—where Cézanne was clear in his notion that color and outline are not distinct and that space could be built concretely through it—where individual patches stand clearly as independent shapes, yet work together as a unified landscape. Swain himself has described the process of viewing a Cézanne as “following his sensibility in the act of painting.”7 As your eye reads the canvas and observes each individual stroke of color your sensory experience becomes aligned with the moment Cézanne placed down that dab of paint. This multitude of colored patches form relationships through adjacency—one color heightening another, others fusing together, vibrating on the surface of the canvas—much like the squares of color for which Swain would become to be known.
Cézanne’s exploration of color led to Matisse’s work of the early 20th century and notion of the primacy of color, and stood as the basis of the cubist grid developed by Picasso and Braque in 1909. A decade later Mondrian would extend the grid to the entire pictorial surface and apply vibratory relations of color with structure and clarity.8 As art historian William Agee has observed, virtually every distinguished painter of color has started with Cézanne.”9 Save for Georges Seurat, a contemporary of Cézanne whose occupation with color was rooted in the scientific explanation for these perceptual effects, rather than the natural observation and organization of these sensations. Swain, like Cézanne and Matisse, did not enter the study of color in a scientific manner, but rather through an intuitive and experiential approach. Many years later Matisse recalled, “I finally came to consider colors as forces, to be assembled as inspiration dictates.” The similarity with Swain is striking, “color is involved with radiant energy...when you look at color, it’s actually transferring energy into your physical self.”10
Another artist well-represented in the Phillips Collection, and studied by Swain, was the American cubist painter Karl Knaths whose expressive works demonstrated an intimate relationship with color. Swain wrote to Knaths in Provincetown, Massachusetts and subsequently moved there to work as his assistant for the next year. It was there that Swain delved into a deeper practice and study of painting. Knaths introduced him to the complex Ostwald color system, from which he worked, and the two would read and analyze canonical texts by Kandinsky and Klee. In the evening Swain would go out to his small cottage and observe the complicated abstract paintings he himself was creating. He recalls pulling his chair close to the painting’s surface and instead of looking at the shapes finding himself focused only on the color. He began thinking about the character of each of these colors how they formed entirely unique circumstances when observed without interference from any other figures or figurations. It was through this close observation, which he now asks of his viewers, that he understood his interest was involved with the colors themselves.11
The Eye and The Mind; The Artist and The Viewer
“There are two things in the painter, the eye and the mind; each of them should aid the other.”
Standing in front of Swain’s immense Untitled – 8 x 32 [Figure 2], the multiplicity of color orchestrates a symphony of sensations. While the initial impact is striking, overwhelming the eye, with an attentiveness and patience this atmosphere of color reveals itself in subtle and spectacular ways. Moving along this thirty-two foot composition of colored squares the experience varies; scanning the work colors begin to merge, vibrate, and replicate. From a certain distance, you can seemingly view the totality of the spectrum, its farthest corners in your peripheral vision. Taking steps closer, it begins to envelop you, until your face is only inches away from the painted panels and only a quadrant of colored squares consumes your sight. There is a flickering, fluctuating glow of luminous light and color; the energy is palpable.
The perceptual effects experienced in Swain’s work are rooted in the optical laws of color relationships discovered by 19th century scientists such as, E.M. Chevreul, Ogden Rood, and Charles Blanc. Chevreul systematically outlined color phenomena and the way in which we perceive them in his 1839 publication, The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors. By establishing these ‘laws’ of color, he thereby laid the scientific groundwork for the development of color in 20th century abstract painting. An understanding of these optical principles aid in an intellectual comprehension of Swain’s work and how one experiences it.
There are three major classes of color interaction: simultaneous contrast; successive contrast; and reverse contrast. Simultaneous contrast refers to the perceptual change that occurs when two colors are placed side-by-side. Chevreul explains, “in the case where the eye sees at the same time two contiguous colors, they will appear as dissimilar as possible, both in their optical composition [hue] and in the height of their tone [mixture with white or black].”13 The most dissimilar color is the color diametrically opposed to it on the color wheel—or its complementary color. Thus, if a red is placed next to a yellow the red will appear to have a violet hue (the complement of yellow) and the yellow will appear to have a greenish hue (the complement of red). These changes, of course, are not occurring in the colors themselves but in our brain’s perception of them, or as Swain himself describes, “…color is always seen within a relationship, a relationship that changes its entire appearance.”14 Successive contrast (sometimes referred to as negative afterimages), also explained by Chevreul is similar in its effect, but rather accounts for seeing two colors close together in time rather than space. We will take the information of viewing one color along with us into our reading of another subsequent color. The third major class of color interaction is reverse contrast (also known as assimilation), whereby colors placed together appear visually similar. For example, a small white square on a large red background will appear reddish, whereas when placed on a large blue background the same white square will appear blueish, thus, colors will take on the hue of its surrounding color.
These modes of color relations are determined by another three factors: composition; viewing distance and duration; and light source. Swain himself only has control over the first of these factors, and it is through the compositional structure that he has explored and manipulated these ranging experiences of color. While the light source is often up to the place of display, it is the viewers who have control over the other determining factors; Swain’s work is activated by those who view it. Observing his paintings from various distances provides new understandings, and allows the viewer to participate in the fluctuations of color experience. Similarly, the longer a viewer spends with the work, the more time their cones and rods can adjust to spectral wavelengths, allowing color relationships to emerge, retreat, vibrate, and glow. This dependence on the viewer creates a reciprocal relationship between Swain’s paintings and those who stand in front of them, as well as allowing for entirely unique, subjective, and private experiences of his work.
Swain has rigorously investigated the compositional impact on color for over four decades. His preference for the grid arose from its passivity—its ability to function as a vessel by which color information could be carried and transmitted to the viewer, free from any symbolic or cultural association. His very first painting of this nature was composed of numerous individual square canvases, each painted a single color and attached together to create an entire composition.15 He experimented with the size of these square modules, aiming to find a size that would allow for perceptual effects while still retaining the initial color identity. Ultimately, he concluded that the ideal was a twelve-inch square, which he determined by simply looking.
To arrive at these nuanced and seemingly endless color combinations and interactions, Swain spent years devising his own color system. He began simply by painting color charts and experimental work, attempting to get a hold on the theory, effects, and affects of color. He recalls going to art stores in New York, particularly one called David Davis, where he would put samples of his oil paint on little pieces of paper—investigating the numerous colors and observing the difference between pigments produced in Germany from those produced in France. As he collected these paint samples, much like Josef Albers, he began “envisioning what [he] was doing as being like studying anatomy.” In the 1970s, Swain devised his own formal color system—dividing color into 30 hues, 33 values steps, and up to 9 degrees of saturation. This resulted in a catalogue of approximately 2,200 color components. He arrived at a color chart with 30 pure hues [Figure 3] by combining the Munsell system’s use of five primary colors with the Ostwald’s use of six. A hue, of course, is the pure color or observed spectral wavelength that we identify by a given name (red, blue, yellow, pink, green, etc.). Swain settled on the interval relationships for his system visually, not mathematically or created by logical progression—looking, observing, and experiencing the color is always at the root of his decision-making. The 33 steps of value refer to the hue’s lightness or darkness, whereas the 9 degrees of saturation refer to the range between pure color (100% saturated) and grey (0% saturated). This relationship can be best understood by looking at Swain’s system visually. Figure 4, for example, features hue 3 and its complement hue 17; for each hue, the vertical axis represents its value (from white to black) and the horizontal axis represents its degree of saturation. Each hand-mixed and hand-painted color sample is assigned its own series of numbers, according to these three properties, and filed in narrow drawers in Swain’s studio. Only he truly understands how 3/7/3 relates to a 17/21/4, and so on.
The actual works appear to have been magically or mystically created, their subtlety and implications unfathomable and their clean, sharp, flat planes of color never revealing the hand of its maker. When asked about the origin of an individual painting, Swain explains:
It begins with the idea that in looking at a lot of colors, I’m fascinated, for example by a certain green. Then I try to find how this particular green can be placed in relationship with some other colors to bring out its characteristics. Essentially what I am looking for is a window, an opportunity to use the special characteristics of a particular color and some of its other related relationships…for ways that you can orchestrate the experience of looking at a particular color.17
Once this initial burgeoning of fascination has taken place, he thinks of the composition in his mind and then lays it out numerically with his own color system, jotting down numbers and color relationships. When he thinks that it may work conceptually he will turn to his computer to create a study, which he will subsequently print out and view very carefully. Throughout the 60s, 70s, and for much of the 80s, Swain would paint these studies by hand, spending a month mixing paint for just one and many times having to go back and start again. Technology has expedited this process, and he can now make fifty or sixty studies for just one painting, changing them quickly. After he is certain on the structural organization he creates a painted version of the study and occasionally will make changes to account for the difference between the pigment and its digital analogue. “You can’t reproduce the aura of painting with inkjet mechanics” he explains, “it has to be done in reality with pigment.”18
In the 1980s and 1990s, Swain broke down his compositional structure into different sized modules, creating grids within grids, still set in relation to one another but altered in size and scale, order and configuration. By juxtaposing multiple color contrasts and combinations next to one another, a variety of color relationships can manifest within a single work. In these works, such as Untitled 6x7-5A RO#3 [Figure 5], Swain often places one or two static large colored square (in this case the complements red and green, which create a relationship of their own), next to a sub-grid of smaller squares of fluctuating colors. Swain explains this as “a perfect description of dynamic equilibrium, a balance between passive and interactive.”19
The gestalt psychologist David Katz has researched the spatiality of colors and outlined three ways of seeing color: surface color, film color, and volume color, all of which are experienced in Swain’s paintings. Surface color is simply the innate color tied to the surface of an object, the true painted color of a square on Swain’s canvas. Film color, is the experience of color dematerialized, detached from the object or spatial reference, floating off the canvas. Volume color is that which fills a three-dimensional area of space. These three types of color experiences are useful for understanding one’s own experience of a Swain painting. The positioning of different patterns and color combinations will result in these various color experiences for the viewer—some areas remaining firmly grounded on the surface of the canvas, often seen in the center of an individual square, while others seemingly lift off the canvas or project outwards, with some squares taking on a three-dimensional quality to them as if the eye can penetrate the color’s space.20
Another experience of color regards luminosity, or the perceptual quantity of light, often appearing as a glow. This radiance is a critical force in Swain’s painting. According to Katz explains that that changes in illumination relate directly to the saturation of color; the stronger the contrast, the stronger the saturation, the stronger the illumination.21 In Swain’s grids, this takes effect where different colors meet one another, at their distinct edge. The more saturated the colored squares, the more a phantom light or glow will appear at their meeting place. Katz explains the more field of view that is covered, the greater the effect of illumination.22 The larger Swain’s compositions, then, the more of it there is to see and the more luminous the experience becomes.
An understanding of these relationships and effects gives language to the experience of viewing Swain’s work. In Untitled – 8 x 32, for example this luminous glow can be seen on both the x and y axis. An interesting effect arises from the placement of the cascading diagonal of white squares slightly off center. To the right of this white diagonal, the glowing light can be seen horizontally at the top of each square and vertically on the right; while on the left of the diagonal the glow appears on the bottom and left of each square. There also appears to be a gradient in each colored module, seen most clearly in those that are less saturated. This gradient is also flipped on either side of the white diagonal—from top to bottom the squares on the right side are light to dark and on the left side are dark to light. The placement of the white values within the compositional structure, then, becomes an essential part of the perceptual experience. While each modular unit is only painted one hue, the optical effects create the appearance of four, six, ten, other colors within that square. This number then multiplies when the units are observed relationally—resulting in a total composition of innumerable color.
These spatial qualities of color phenomena relate to visual kinesthesia and necessarily implicate the body of the viewer in this kinesthetic space. The size of his compositions often creates a direct proportion and relationship between the painting on the wall and the body of the person viewing it. The energy from a particular color or from the unique convergence of colors enter the viewer’s retina, activating their rods and cones, then travels through the optic nerve to the brain—changing their physiology. These works of radiant energy, then, provide an intense visual, intellectual, and sensorial experience for the viewer. It is a durational experience of sensation, perception, emotion, thought, and feeling—both conscious and unconscious, both physiological and psychological. As Rachel Stokoe has so aptly explained, we may never truly know why we feel the way we do when we look at a certain color or color relation, but, importantly, we can understand how color works, and attempt to give language to our experience. Swain’s paintings elevate our perception and our awareness, yet they feel beyond our reach—or as Swain himself has remarked: “this is something you haven’t experienced before. I cannot tell you how.”24
— Rachel Beaudoin