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THERE is no better place to study the colors of Nature than on the highway. Here we may obtain the best effect of light on mountain and intervale, and the greatest color depth in the shadows of bordering trees; here the sunshine on the birches looks greener than it does elsewhere, except in the woods, and the emerald of the mountain pool ceases to be fancy, but fact. The neutral gray-buff of the road furnishes an admirable canvas, so to speak, on which the colors, as in a picture, reveal their true strength and beauty.

I have elsewhere spoken of tone deafness; it is a fact that some ears lack either the ability or the training to hear properly. In the same sense there are many of us who do not properly see color in Nature. Years ago, when the impressionists first exhibited their work in Paris, they were ridiculed by artist and critic; now the ridicule of impressionism is confined to an unappreciative public. This means that some of us have learned that we were partially color-blind, and did not see all the color in Nature which the impressionists did, and to obtain which they let everything — perspective, drawing, modeling, and composition — go to the winds. I am strongly of the opinion, therefore, that to see color properly we should learn to see it as they did — in an exclusive manner.

But it is my purpose here to suggest how we can train our eyes to see as much of Nature’s color as may be possible. There are countless numbers of greens in the leafage about us; let us see how wide the differences are. A leaf of the long-beaked willow (Salix rostrata) is an excellent example of contrast. This willow is sure to be on the roadside, and we may know it by its thick, broad, rough, and irregularly scalloped leaf which is deep olive-green above and pale-blue white-green beneath. A slight gust of wind sets it in motion, and we catch glimpses of olive and white which are quite impressive. This whiteness is a marked feature of some willows, and after a little study it should soon be possible for us to know them a mile away by their blue-white-green color. The attenuated form of the foliage is largely accountable for this light and soft color effect; the sunlight does not readily get at the narrow leaves, and they reflect very little light. Quite the opposite is true of a young leaf of the gray birch (Betula populifolia). This is bright, shiny yellow-green, very responsive to sunlight, and in strong contrast with the dull dark hue of the long-beaked willow leaf. But of all the yellow-green leaves which we can find in the woodland not one is comparable to that of either the young red mulberry (Mores rubra) or the young Indian poke ( Veratrum viride); these are inexpressibly tender and pure in color.

It is only by comparison that we can gauge the strength of color. Red reveals its full power only by its environment; this can be proved in an instant by a very simple experiment. Suppose we take a bit of purple paper, and, cutting a round hole in the center, place a bit of scarlet paper behind it; next, we will treat a bit of yellow paper in the same way, placing another piece of the same scarlet paper behind that. What is the result? The two scarlets no longer appear equally strong; that behind the yellow paper seems to be much darker!

The distant mountain appears quite blue; but if there is a lingering uncertainty about that, it all vanishes if we will suffer for an instant the discomfort of turning our heads upside down and viewing the landscape that way. The mountain is now intensely blue, and the stretch of meadow down in the valley is intensely green; we had not noticed that before. This may be accounted for by a very simple fact: in disturbing the normal position of objects on the retina, we disturb also our acute perception of detail. As there is little or no detail to color, we see that en masse without visual distraction: and when our attention is exclusively devoted to one thing we are apt to understand it better — that is all. As a matter of fact, the eye becomes dull and heedless from seeing things in the ordinary way, and a little shaking up acts as a positive stimulant.

The omnipresence of color in Nature is not fully appreciated; occasionally, by accident, we discover more color than we think we have any right to see! It is precisely in this conservative spirit that we criticise an impressionist’s uncommonly colored picture; we think that he can not truly see so much, and has wilfully made his picture a chromatic falsity. But we ourselves have not learned the whole truth about color until we have turned our heads upside down!

Nature uses no black in any part of her work — I will not even except the blackberry1 and the so-called black pansy. On a bright, clear day, the shadows on the snow are pale ultramarine blue; under a blue sky in midsummer, the color of the placid lake is cobalt blue and the shadows on the grass are lilac; on a weathered, gray board walk they are nearly as blue as the sky itself. The palpitating atmosphere of a warm July day lifts the coloring of the landscape to a higher but softer key instead of reducing it with gray; and in autumn, when the sugar maple’s leaves are turned to gold, the shadows on the trunk, and every gray rock in the vicinity, are tinged with strong lilac. In fine, when the sun shines, everything, even the shadow which we are prone to believe is gray, is replete with color.

Not even the neutral buff-gray of the road is exempt from blue-tinted shadows; look at them through a small hole in a bit of white paper and the blue will become more apparent; where does it come from? I can answer the question best by suggesting two experiments which demonstrate the peculiar effect of colored light; they are both simple and conclusive. If we light two small lamps in a dark room, one with a red and the other with a blue-green glass shade, place them about two feet apart, and eight feet away from some small object within nine inches of the wall, we will see on the latter two shadows, one of which is green and the other red.

Now, if we turn down the red light the green shadow disappears, or if we turn down the green light the red shadow disappears. So we discover the fact that while the two lights are turned up each throws its color in the shadow produced by the other. Again, if we light a white-shaded lamp in the daytime (it should be a cloudless day), and place it on a table covered with a white cloth in a room where the light is admitted through but one window, the shadow of a napkin ring on the cloth cast by the lamplight will appear quite blue. In this instance we have discovered that the daylight, more or less influenced by the reflected blue of the sky, casts a blue light in the shadow thrown by the lamplight.


Now our blue shadows out of doors are thoroughly accounted for; the intense blue sky throws a blue light in every shadow cast by the sun. It is also the fact that the purple of distant mountains is partially due to the blue of the sky above. The poet Whittier more than once has alluded to “the purple of mountain sunsets.” The word purple, however, but vaguely describes the roseate hues cast upon tie blue mountain by the setting sun. If we will turn our head upside down again and study the sunset glow on the far-away hills, we will see there nearly every color related to purple, but hardly purple itself; the summits of the rocky hills are bathed in a rosy glow, this is reduced to crushed-raspberry color as it fades away on the wooded slopes beneath, and down in the deep ravines is a whitish, violet-ultramarine shadow too soft to suggest in the remotest way the crudeness of true purple.

Crows on the Frozen Meadow.

In broad daylight the flower-decked meadows covered with tall, ripe grass are seldom green; instead, we have buff, yellow, yellow-green, salmon-pink, whitish pink, and shadowy lilac again. In early June the golden-green patches of buttercups resemble the colors on the humming bird’s back. In later June masses of ox-eye daisies throw a dainty pinkish white tint over the grass, and in July the wild Canada lily embroiders it with a powdered pattern in tawny yellow. But I never see any brown or gray on the meadow; it is always brimful of color, from the glare of light on the white daisies to the lilac shadows of the tall, graceful elms. Even in winter, when it is covered with a mantle of snow, it is still rich in color, for its borders are set with the almost vivid red stems of the red osier (Cornets stolonifera), its pure white is accented by the iridescent blue-black of half a dozen stray crows; and best of all, just before the sun sets (however freezingly cold the effect may be), the white is tinged with yellow, and the broad shadow of the opposite hill which is creeping over it is intensely purple — exactly the color that Whittier thought he saw in the mountain sunset. But chilly yellow and purple are sunlight and shadow colors which belong to winter, never to summer; we always find them in frosty skies and on frozen meadows. Undoubtedly there are gray days and leaden skies in plenty, even in midsummer, but these only serve to accent the rainbow tints of sunshiny days, and to rivet our attention particularly on those wonderful transient effects of color which occasionally favoring us at the sunset hour, prompt us to exclaim with some vehemence: “There! if an artist should put that color effect on canvas, every one would say he did not tell the truth!”

A gray day.   Road to Blue Island, Ill.

1 See the chapter containing a description of the blackberry.

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