The Ruskin Museum, Coniston, Cumbria

The Ruskin Museum

Telling the Story of Coniston Since 1901

Tel: 01539 441164

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Ruskin on Colour

Ruskin said of himself: ‘It is true that I see colour better than most people, and know a thing or two about rocks and clouds. I am very glad I do.’

Ruskin had the most imaginative and subtle understanding of colour in nature & in painting: no other writer so clearly makes the point that much beautiful colour is not only difficult to analyse but is truly indescribable.

The German Dada-ist and Creator of ‘Merz’, Kurt Schwitters, thought Ruskin to be the best writer on colour – better than Goethe. Schwitters, a refugee from Nazi Germany living in Ambleside, and his companion, Edith Thomas, made pilgrimages to The Ruskin Museum to admire Ruskin’s mastery of colour.

‘No colour harmony is of high order unless it involves indescribable tints. It is the best possible sign of a colour when nobody who sees it knows what to call it, or how to give an idea of it to anyone else. Even among simple hues the most valuable are those which cannot be defined: the most precious purples will look brown beside pure purple and purple beside pure brown; and the most precious green will be called blue if seen beside pure green, and green if seen beside pure blue.’

‘The influence of lines on each other is restricted within narrow limits, while the sequences of colour are like those of sound, & susceptible of all the complexity & passion of the most accomplished music.’

‘Give some mud off a city crossing, some ochre out of a gravel pit, a whitening, and some coal-dust,
and I will paint you a luminous picture, if you give me time to gradate my mud, and subdue my dust: but though you had the red of the ruby, the blue of the gentian, snow for the light, and amber for the gold, you cannot paint a luminous picture, if you keep the masses of those colours unbroken in purity, and unvarying in depth.’
[The Elements of Drawing]

‘The first necessity of beauty in colour is gradation, as the first necessity of beauty in line is curvature . . . the second necessity in colour is mystery or subtlety, as the second necessity in line is softness. Colour ungradated is wholly valueless; colour unmysterious is wholly barbarous. Unless it loses itself & melts away  towards other lines, colour has no proper existence, in the noble sense of the word.’
[The Two Paths]

On purple and grey in nature, Ruskin writes:
‘. . . among mountains . . . large unbroken spaces of pure violet and purple are introduced in their distances; and even near, by films of cloud passing over the darkness of ravines or forests, blues are produced of the most subtle tenderness; these azures and purples passing into rose-colour of otherwise wholly unattainable delicacy among the upper summits, the blue of the sky being at the same time purer and deeper than in the plains.’
[Modern Painters]

‘Look much at the morning and evening sky, and much at simple flowers  –  dog-roses,wood-hyacinths, violets, poppies, thistles, heather, and such like  –  as Nature arranges them in the woods and fields. If ever any scientific person tells you that two colours are “discordant”, make a note of the two colours, and put them together whenever you can. I have actually heard people say that blue and green were discordant; the two colours which Nature seems to intend never to be separated, and never to be felt, either of them, in its full beauty without the other ! – a peacock’s neck, or a blue sky through green leaves, or a blue wave with green lights through it, being precisely the loveliest things, next to clouds at sunrise, in this coloured world of ours.’
[The Elements of Drawing]

‘. . . the white [is] precious . . . when white is well managed, it ought to be strangely delicious – tender as well as bright – like inlaid mother of pearl, or white roses washed in milk. The eye ought to see it for rest, brilliant though it may be; and to feel it as a space of strange, heavenly paleness
in the midst of the flushing of the colours.’
[The Elements of Drawing]

For Ruskin, mountains were ‘the beginning and the end of all natural scenery’. Amongst mountains, Ruskin noted ‘pre-eminence in mass of colour’, ‘azures and purples passing into rose-colour,’ as well as superb detail, ‘the finished inlaying and enamel-work of the colour jewellery on every stone.’

Ruskin’s minerals were intended to teach the ‘Truths of the Earth: how the land was formed, the structure of a pebble, the aspects of useful metals and building materials as they occur in nature.’

Ruskin also used stones for social teaching. In Ethics of the Dust crystals are shown to have a ‘stern code of morals’. In Modern Painters V, slime [in which the elements ‘are at helpless war with each other’] is the ‘absolute type of impurity,’ whereas the sapphire, diamond and opal, in which the atoms are in ‘the closest relations possible’, represent the exact opposite. Ruskin constructs from this an allegory of ‘political economy of competition’, [slime and the dragon], opposing ‘political economy of co-operation’, [diamond and St George]. Pure carbon becomes the exemplar : coal-dust and soot can be transmuted through ‘co-operation’ into pure diamond.

Ruskin was attracted simultaneously to both form and pattern in stones and rocks, finding his ‘mind . . .  divided between its roundness and its veins . . .’ He noted Leonardo’s liking for ‘variegated agate’, and admired Mantegna’s ‘small stones’, pearl-like and scattered in ‘polished profusion’, but could look into a real piece of moss agate and see ‘a mountain in miniature . . . taking moss for forests, and grains of crystal for crags, the surface of a stone . . . is more interesting than the surface of an ordinary hill’.

Ruskin recommended use of ‘the innocent eye’, denouncing preconceptions and lamenting the fact that ‘we are constantly supposing that we see what experience only has shown us, or can show us, to have existence, constantly missing the sight of what we do not know beforehand to be visible’.
[Modern Painters I].

As Ruskin remarks in The Elements of Drawing, ‘On First Practice’, after unconsciously experimenting with and reaching conclusions, in childhood, with ‘the signification of certain colours, we also suppose that we see only what we know . . . Very few people have any idea that sunlighted grass is yellow.’

‘True taste is forever growing, learning, reading, worshipping, laying its hand upon its mouth because it is astonished . . .’
[Modern Painters, 1846]

Ruskin wished to educate the whole population in the difficult business of looking: he wanted
everyone to see the beauty of nature and art. His ideal museums contained collections of art and natural history: visitors were  –  and are  –  encouraged to study copies of the great master-pieces
and examples of natural phenomena, the crystals, leaves, flowers, feathers and shells, from which the best design originates. Ruskin’s own drawings and watercolours capture moments of perfection, in freeze-frame, to help ‘true taste’ in its ‘growing, learning, reading, worshipping . . .’

Ruskin’s botany is concerned with how plants grow, and the implicit moral & social implications & lessons. In Modern Painters V, Ruskin states the law of deflection : ‘each leaf falls back gradually from the uppermost’; the law of succession: leaves follow spiralling, geometric patterns in which size expresses order of growth; and the law of resilience : each leaf ‘twists round on its stalk’ in order to maintain the proper direction of growth.

Moreover, ‘any group of four or five leaves . . . consists of a series of forms . . . not only varied in themselves, but every one of them seen under a different condition of foreshortening.’

Ruskin notes how every branch, each leaf, strives to keep out of the way of the others so none is deprived of air, sun and rain. In the plant, individual sacrifice means common life: the tree is monument to the leaf. Such fellowship is no longer to be found in England, where competition rules and ‘you find every one scrambling for his neighbour’s place’.