My favorite scene in Mr. Turner, the 2014 biopic about the English artist, occurs during the run-up to a Royal Academy exhibition: Turner appears to have deliberately ruined one of his dark & dramatic seascapes by pressing a brush loaded with shiny red paint onto the canvas. Amid the incredulity of the onlookers, he strides away. Upon returning, he uses his index finger to slowly smear the wet paint into an even bigger shape & his thumbnail to scratch a design into it; whereupon with a rag, he carefully & strategically wipes off the bottom half of the patch of pigment. Voila! A red buoy is now bobbing on a wave. The spectators cheer & applaud.
Even though the context of this scene is the rivalry between J.M.W. Turner & his contemporary John Constable, for me the chief takeaway is the notion of putting a bit of red in a painting where grayed-down, low-intensity colors predominate. So when Tom & I were at the Milwaukee Art Museum recently to see some works from the Phillips Collection & I spotted a landscape by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot in which he overlapped the red scarf of a small figure onto an area of dull green foliage, that bravura moment in Mr. Turner immediately sprang to mind. Likewise, in a nearby beach scene by Eugène Boudin, Claude Monet’s mentor, a child is dressed in a red jacket & his mother’s hat sports a tiny red flower as they enjoy their day out on the cloudy & blustery Normandy coast.
The common factor in these paintings is that the artists have used red, judiciously & sparingly, to slow down & reward the viewer’s eye with a spot or two of ravishing color when it could just as easily have sped by some unremarkable grays, greens or browns. Arguably, no color serves this purpose better than red. Even so, not just any red will suffice. As always, using the correct value (how light or dark a color is), intensity (how bright or grayed-down a color is) & temperature (how warm or cool a color is) matters. And yes, there are cool reds just as there are warm blues. It is also no coincidence that often these touches of red are juxtaposed with areas of some sort of green. This has to do with the magic of complementary pairs (those colors opposite each other on the color wheel), an example of which is red & green.
Of course, there are also paintings where red has the starring role. Particularly memorable is one that Monet did of his first wife Camille, in which we see her from inside a room as she walks by outside, wearing a bright red cape over a dark blue dress. Her head & shoulders are framed in the glass panes of a French door as well as by the filmy curtains on our side of it. She turns her poignant face to us as she passes. The snow on the ground, the tilt of her head & the shadows of the interior all combine to create a feeling of quietude, maybe even melancholy, which the red of the cape does nothing to lessen. Perhaps it actually deepens it, for such is the inscrutable nature of red.