Pure. Ice. Fresh. Virginal.
Scientists tell us that when all the colours of the spectrum are blended together they make white. True light is white, not coloured. What we perceive and what is in fact the reality, are two opposing concepts. We look at white and may think of purity, but may also think of emptiness; a literal blank canvass onto which we project ideas and images from our consciousness. But even then a canvass has landscape created from a dimpling of the surface, or a crease or fold in the corner. White walls are walls undecorated, unadorned. Naked. Bare and exposed, they are easily dirtied or pockmarked by poking fingers and hand smudges. White walls seem unnatural, like the colour of life has been drained from them, like a body with no blood – ‘sterile … white, white and clean, clean, clean.’
As Leonardo da Vinci said: ‘The first of all simple colours is white, although some would not admit black or white are colours, the first being a source or receiver or colours, and the latter totally deprived of them. But we can’t leave them out, since painting is but an effect of light and shade … so white is the first, then yellow, green, blue and finally black. White may be said to represent light without which no colour can be seen.’ (Advice to Artists)
Edwardian girls in long white dresses, lampshade hats and frilly parasols blown like thistledown out of the nineteenth century.
White is the colour of mourning, except in the Christian West where it is black – but the object of mourning is white. Whoever heard of a corpse in a black shroud?
Whistler’s beautiful mistress, The White Girl (1862), stares before her, longingly; tainted by melancholy.
White is the dead mid-winter, pure and chaste.
In the beginning there was white … and this was secret until Sir Isaac Newton sat in a darkened room late in the seventeenth century: ‘Whiteness and all grey Colours between white and black, maybe compounded of all Colours, and the whiteness of the Sun’s Light is compounded of all the primary colours mix’d in due proportion. The sun shining in a dark Chamber thorough a little round hole in the Window-shut and his Light being there refracted by a Prism to cast his coloured Image upon that opposite Wall: I held a white Paper to that image in such a manner that it might be illuminated by the colour’d Light reflected from thence …’ [Sir Isaac Newton, Opticks]
If you spin a colour wheel fate enough it turns white, but if you mix the pigments, however much you try, you will only get dirty grey.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, White Lines, White Lie, a White Riot, a White Wedding.
Desire flaunts itself in the face of pure white, but is buried by the wedding dress … the whitewashed family does not question the bride’s blushes beneath the veil. [Jarman]
‘Isn’t white that which does away with darkness?’ (Wittgenstein)
All the whites with the exception of the chalk-based grounds like gesso are metal oxides. White is metallic.
Those who use the devil’s poisonous white lead fall into madness and death. Zinc oxide is a pure cold white, and is not poisonous. ‘The Whitest of whites is titanium which has the greatest hiding power of any of the whites. It is very stable, unaffected by heat, light or air and is the youngest of the whites having been introduced after the First World War.’[Jarman]
Born in Dover, the White Cliffs are my early childhood landscape; chalky cliffs, chalky water. I loved milk; I loved white lace. A Church of England School which was predominantly white; we would sing hymns of white grace and glory every assembly morning. Crisp once-white-but -now-yellowing pages bound in a red leather dust jacket were handed out to every student. Our classroom was pale blue, an icy, frozen, snowy blue. The curtains of the assembly hall stage were heavy velvet, a rich forest green. Flashes of white ankle and knee socks lined up in rows; crisp ironed white shirts encased in cardigans of grey and navy (your buttons are not done up correctly! Straighten your tie!). My socks never stayed up. Itchy and slack, it was comfier to push them to the ankle, pulling them up again in time to meet parents at the school gates.
White Lilies mourn the dead; white snow drops are the first signs of spring, renewal. White is both life and death.
We are suspicious of white, as much as we are fearful of the darkness in black: Le Corbusier’s white modernist structures with their simplified angles; the Nazi dream of a neo-classical revival (white white white); a dangerous and violent Ku Klux Klan white; Thatcher’s 80’s society a struggle of white on white, white on black, black on white, black on black.
We must wash everything white, according to the ads.
Once upon a time as a queen sits sewing at her window, she pricks her finger on her needle and three drops of blood fall on the snow that had fallen on her ebony window frame. As she looks at the blood on the snow, she says to herself, ‘Oh, how I wish that I had a daughter that had skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as ebony’. The desire for milky skin has gone. No longer in fashion. Young girls and women coat themselves in varying shades of brown, sun-kissed gold, burnt umber, and startling orange. Not content with ‘skin as white as snow’, they all want to look like they are coated in treacle.
White can be blinding.
Joseph Wright of Derby painted brilliant white light. Glaring and glinting from dark corners, white reaches out attempting to touch, to burn the viewer. The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone (1771) shows the alchemist, the magician, the chemist, attempting to find that which turns ordinary metal into gold, the elixir of life, but he instead discovers Phosphorus – white, glowing Phosphorus, ‘Light Bearer’ or ‘Morning Star’.
A phosphorescent apparition
Translucent in my ghostly eye
Shimmers in the starlit sky
The star shines through him
Bright as a child’s sparkler
White phosphorus causes horrendous injuries in war: burning, hot bubbling flesh; peeling skin; blindness.
The artist is not unlike the alchemist searching for his precious metals; the artist plays with pigments, clay, and film; he heads off on a journey in search of his own elixir, constantly asking questions, probing, hoping to discover new truths about the self, about others.
‘Painters walked hand-in-hand with scientists….’