Saturday, August 05, 2006

Hue's there

The Irish Tourist Board describes this island as a "thousand shades of green." I'm not sure who counted the thousand shades, but the view from my window suggests the number is not far off the mark, especially on a day like this when puffy sun-struck clouds are roiling in off the Atlantic and the quality of light changes every minute.

When the artist Wassily Kandinsky bought his first box of paints at age thirteen he was astonished at the quality of the colors as they slipped from their tubes. Some colors where cheerful and jubilant, he said, others meditative and dreamy. Some pigments emerged from the tubes with a "bubbling rougishness" or "sigh of relief," others "with a deep sound of sorrow." Of course, his impressions were not entirely visual; the textures and smells of the paints were part of his experience.

Some people's color sensitivity seems especially acute. The 19th-century Russian German astronomer Wilhelm Struve used Latin labels to classify star colors: egregie albae, albaesubflavae, aureae, rubrae, caeruleae, virides, purpureae, and even olivaceasubrubicunda, which translates as something like pinkish-olive. I'm not sure I've ever seen a pinkish-olive star. Clearly, Struve's eyes (or his imagination) were more sensitive than mine.

If you look with a magnifier at the pixels on the flat screen of your computer, you will see that each pixel is made up of three sub-pixels: red, blue and green, the mix of which at varying intensities yields a rich array of colors. If each pixel is designated by a byte (8 bits) of data, then 256 colors are possible, as in the palette here. The program Anne uses for the works of art we have been enjoying on Sundays assigns a byte of data for each sub-pixel, which yields 16.7 million possible hues (256x256x256). I wonder if the human eye can distinguish that many colors?

Anyway, the 50 or so shades of green in the palette here will just about do me for the Irish landscape. The astronomer William Henry Smyth saw stars the colors of "damson," "sardonyx" and "smalt." God knows what he would do with the greens outside my window.