CHROMA: A NOMENCLATURE OF SEA COLOURS
“The horizon is only an invention of our eyes and brains as we seek to make sense of that immensity and locate ourselves within it. The sea solicits such illusions. It takes its colour from the clouds, becomes a sky fallen to earth: it only suggests what it might or might not contain. Little wonder that people once thought the sun sank into the sea, just as the moon rose out of it.”
— The Sea Inside, Phillip Hoare, 2013. Fourth Estate.
The Decisive Moment
Early one morning, the artist Andrea Hamilton walked along a familiar shoreline, and stopped by the water’s edge just before sunrise. There was a peculiar stillness in the air; the wind silent, the ocean’s surface as smooth as glass. Looking out to sea, she watched the sun bloom on the horizon in a halo of aubergine, then cherry and magenta, radiating across the water in fields of colour. The ocean became a mirror to the sky, above as below. It amplified the light, and for one expanded moment, the whole picture plane was flooded in a single hue: a rose madder lake. Hamilton pointed her Hasselblad camera, using the horizon line as axis, and with one shot captured the unique imprint of light – a fragment of the immensity of light and water and their interaction.
It was an image of sublime intensity, composed of barest elements; one colour with a shimmer of a horizontal line. This fragment encapsulated the profundity of her experience on that day: a tone, and moment, forever amplified. It sparked so many questions about the nature of perception, the fabric of memory and our experience of time. How often did the ocean reach up to the sky like that, Hamilton wondered. Having thought she knew this place so well, she looked at it again. Would these waves reflect an infinite variety of chroma, or did it have a repeating sequence of hues? It was like seeing for the first time. The further she looked, the more intricate her thoughts became. Would Hamilton’s memory of the moment become fused with her photograph of it? Do we experience time through colours, as a pink dawn that breaks the ink of night? Why is pure colour so sensual, and – perhaps most importantly – what does it tell us? For Hamilton, this photograph represented a decisive moment, one that would ignite two decades of documentation and research. It would result in the world’s most comprehensive library of natural maritime colours, over 16,000 images, and a new colour system: Chroma. Its strength rests in the length, depth and commitment of Hamilton’s investigation, one that introduces a new sensibility to colour in photographic art.
‘Seachroma’ are comprised of Monochromes, Duochromes and Trichomes, and pose fundamental philosophical questions about perception and truth. Why do we perceive the world as linear when everything: the sun, earth, our eyes and the lenses we use to record, is round? How can we claim that the horizon is a static reality when we each see a slightly different, personally unique horizon wherever we stand? They start a conversation about the human condition: how it is both universal and completely unique to each soul – just like our perception and emotions associated with colour. Each image, minimal and pure in composition, charged with tonal depth that only comes from close, continued observation, asks us to look closer, not only at the world around us but at ourselves, our observations and interactions with culture, philosophy, senses, music, meaning and so much more. They not only capture a moment in time but set up a resonance, one the mystic and writer Romain Rolland called ‘The Oceanic Feeling’: that incredible “Sensation of eternity… of being one with the external world as a whole” when we all feel something bigger than our selves. The Seachroma you see before you are the culmination of an incredible journey across time, reality, being and seeing.
Seeking to capture the maximum chromatic variation in one place, Hamilton established a practice of rigorous documentation. She set constant parameters of location and distance of tripod from the water’s edge, and centred the frame on the horizon line. Her sea choice was carefully considered, the neutral-looking grey-blue sea of a temperate climate (in this case the Atlantic), but with sufficient variations of light. It coincided with a place she has a deep emotional connection with and has returned to regularly since childhood.
“I began this as study of light reflections and refractions on the sea. My aim was simple: to record as many instances as possible where the sea and sky appeared as one colour. I looked for opportunities where the sea appeared flat and with little movement, because weather conditions and the angle of light can dramatically alter the sea colour.”
— Andrea Hamilton, 2019
Using a mix of digital cameras, Hasselblad, Nikon and Leica, Hamilton examined the seascape through the raw capture of light. She collected images in files with a maximum variation of 1-3 stops light and dark with no colour adjustment of any kind, only a cleaning of dust particles. Between 2000 and 2008, Hamilton hunted for chroma, at first speculatively, like a geologist looking for precious stones in the earth’s crust. That year, the project became more urgent. She states: “In 2008 I began to really focus. It was the year my mother passed away after a difficult five years with cancer, and the rhythmic and tranquil nature of this project gave me an objective and a sense of peace. By next year, I will have worked on chroma for 20 years.”
Because Hamilton’s chosen subject contained two vast entities – the sea and the sky – her investigation was potentially limitless (and is still ongoing). On the one hand she wanted to faithfully and rigorously record the maximum variation of sea tones in one place, but also capture moments of transcendence: hues that resonated with the human soul. Her practice began to resemble a meditation on colour itself. Certain shades would not reveal themselves for decades, but she kept looking. Over time the individual images began to constellate and resonate with each other, and constitute a meaningful body of work. The decisive moment began to expand.
As the collection grew, it became clear that this vast catalogue required a comprehensive storage system, one that would come to represent a library: there are currently 16,000 chroma and counting. First, Hamilton choose the images to grade and save. Then a 5×4 transparency was made to help fix and stabilise the colour choice and allow for chemical printing processes. Whilst reviewing these selected images, Hamilton began to divide them into sub categories: Monochrome, where the sea and sky appear virtually as one, a rare phenomenon that follows a foggy day or mistral; Duochrome, where the sea and sky are separated by two shades of colour, and where the main horizon choice was 50/50 of the frame; and Trichrome, where there is a strong pale or dark line demarcating the space between sky and sea.
All of the selected images were saved as a pdf and labelled according to time, date and the Kelvin Scale (colour changes according to temperature). Next Hamilton recorded an HTML number, the codes for colour systems including RGB, CMYK, LAB, Natural Colour System and Pantone Colours. From this she developed a colour swatch to represent each colour as closely as possible. It was at this point that Hamilton began to look at the history of colour charts and systems, particularly instances when observations were made from nature, most importantly Patrick Syme’s Werner’s Nomenclature of Colour, written in 1814 and not only the precursor to Pantone and other important systems of the 20th century, but also the system that Charles Darwin used to record his world-changing theory of evolution. Hamilton brought all aspects together: rigorous colour checking, but also the beauty of the natural world: “After documenting everything I could about each sea colour swatch, I investigated the closest name I could find for the pigment of this hue, looking first to historical pigments before chemical pigments were developed. Each Seachrome of the Seachroma was given the equivalent name and labelled next to its historical pigment or natural powder, plus the animal/bird, vegetable/flower, mineral and painters known in history known for choosing to works in this particular colour.”
Chroma: a new colour system
Collecting these natural seachroma, as powerful as a Rothko and as sensational as a Turner, led to multiple questions about the nature of perception and the underlying physics of light. The horizon line, where the sun’s rays hit the earth’s surface and appear flat, represents the furthest distance we can see as individuals at any point. Therefore everyone’s horizon is perceptually different: what we see depends entirely on where we are standing. The horizon is one person’s axis point with the sea and the sky, it locates us in the world. Colour is perceptual too: weighted with individual and cultural meaning and resonance. Now Hamilton’s investigation became multidimensional: alive to the poetry of the moment, but also curious as to how other artists, philosophers and scientists have considered nature’s rainbow. What conditions are present when the light reflects and refracts from the oceans’ surface to create intense Monochromes or Duochromes? What do these colours tell us about time and the seasons? Why are we attuned to particular tones, and does our emotional response to colour change over time?
Collecting information, statistics and quotes with the same rigour with which she built her Seachroma, Hamilton also looked through the history of colour. Slicing through time with each colour, she noted its prevalence in science, literature, poetry, philosophy, psychology, religion, spirituality and the soul: “I looked to the earliest observers of colour in nature from Aristotle and Pliny and then to Newton, who first split white light into a rainbow, followed by Goethe who looked at colour from a humanist, poetical standpoint.”
As the study evolved Hamilton began to arrange the material. “I started to think laterally about other systems, not only the colour systems of Goethe, Albers, Martin and Riley, but how we like to understand and make sense of the world through systems in general: periodic tables, botany, cartography… For example in geology we often categorise what has been hidden in the earth’s crust for millennia by colour; of particular relevance to Seachromes are the colours of precious and semiprecious stones.”
Creating a system is often about making order and harmony. The Bauhaus artist and teacher Joseph Albers led his own investigation in the seminal work Interaction of Colour (1963), stating: “Colour systems usually lead to the conclusion that certain constellations within a system provide harmony.” But Hamilton’s library is unilaterally harmonious, as it draws all its chroma from nature. She says, “Think of red and how compelling but garish and even maddening it is. It is extreme, and yet a dot well placed in a garden of greens is utterly beautiful. It is exciting how colour can make harmony. The Duochromes I find in nature are always so harmonious: think of the earthy brown and warm orange of the brand Hermes. This is a colour combination I have seen frequently on the horizon.”
This idea of harmony also led Hamilton to music and the paralleled effect between tone and colour combinations, a metaphor Wassily Kandinsky used frequently in his many writings. “I became interested in all forms of colour perception whether from sight, sound, smell or touch. Light waves and sound waves are both described as having tone, depth and even saturation – and it is well documented that Kandinsky had synaesthesia. I researched the many composers of chromatic music, from Scribian to Glass via Bach.”
However, the main difference between music compositions and the visual arts is how they occupy time: a tune is always played in sequence over a set period while a photograph is a slice out of time – it is timeless. Albers wrote: “Colours appear connected predominantly in space. Therefore, as constellations they can be seen in any direction at any speed… we can return to them repeatedly and in many ways.” This brings us back to one of the central questions of Chroma: that of time and infinity.
What began as a process of documentation, returning to the shoreline repeatedly to observe colours on the horizon, became a project about the passage of time, and the physical impossibility of prolonging the moment. Each moment captured already belonged to the past, and each image was its facsimile. Hamilton says, “It heightened my sense of time, of it running out, but conversely this increased my awareness of the present. I began to look at issues like climate change differently, more pragmatically, because I was outside in nature more. I started to make chromatic connections: if numerous species above and beneath the waves were the brink of extinction, then so too would the number of colours that I see now… Not only did it make me wonder what colours I might see on the horizon tonight, or tomorrow, but also what will the dominant colours of the sea and sky be in the future? What will happen to these colours?”
So Chroma and The Colour Project uses each individual seachrome as a lens to examine how we understand colour, not just this fragment of time(lessness) but also the weight of its natural and cultural history: where it appears in nature, how it evolves, the history of pigments and its meaning to humans, the way certain colours resonate or are used to demarcate difference. Colour also gives us a glimpse into ancient cultures: consider the ancient Greeks, a seafaring nation which somehow had no real word for blue, their colour palette consisting of red, yellow, white and black. They poetically referred to their aquatic life source as ‘the wine-dark sea’. Colour is in the blood. As Hamilton explains, “As we learn about the world, we also begin to understand who we are, and what we carry in our DNA. Colours can tell us about our past, in the way we are attracted to things that might relate to the land of our ancestors. A warm-blooded Mediterranean might be drawn to rich ochres and deep reds but someone with Northern, perhaps Scandinavian ancestry goes towards the cool, pale tones of their birthplace.”
A photograph is a facsimile of the coloured light we perceive in the moment it is taken. They are like time capsules, compacted and frozen in time. The photographic object raises important questions about time and memory. As John Updike said, “What is the past, after all, but a vast sheet of darkness in which a few moments, pricked apparently at random, shine?”
The precious object
The human brain is not dissimilar to the way a camera works in that we perceive colour through light waves but read it through a series of chemical reactions. As the writer David Scott Kastan says in On Colour (2018), “Colour is collaboration”, between light and mind. In seeing colour we also resonate with it.
Photography as a practice is highly technical, and image creation is a constant toggle between the raw capture, now stored digitally, and the printing of an image. The process of choosing digitally-stored images to be printed goes straight to the heart of colour perception. If seeing colour is a collaboration, then showing colour is the process of manipulating light waves. Digital colour uses the additive system of RGB (red, green blue) whilst printed colour is made using subtractive system of CMYK (cyan, magenta and yellow). Between the two systems, all the colours of the rainbow are created. Like the sea and the sky, this project would encompass both aspects of colour: seeing and showing.
Thus began the next strand of Hamilton’s exploration. She asked, “How do we perceive colour and what do we see? I looked to theories of colour and the combination of colours from the colour wheel and the various combinations to optical illusions.” Beginning with Monochromes (Scarlet, Chrome Yellow, Aquamarine), soon Hamilton was investigating complimentary colours through her Duochromes and Trichromes. Newton’s prism and Goethe’s colour wheels led to pyramids, dyads and triads (to name a few other colour theories). She researched the interaction of colours through the work of Joseph Albers, Rothko and optical illusions in works by Bridget Riley.
But much of these writings were by painters, having long experimented with pigments, not photographers. Hamilton’s process echoes the changing field of photography in general; taking the image – capturing the light – is just the beginning. And what begins as light capture results in a object that is very sensitive to light and fades over time. There is a beautiful melancholy in that even a captured moment cannot last forever.
Over time Hamilton has become more attuned to colour – not just the tone, but the luminosity, hue and vibrancy of colours. Her natural seachroma have come to define her palette, a spectrum of tones from which she now creates. More like a painter than a fine art photographer, what began as a process of documentation – truthfully capturing the colours as they really are – turned into the creation of a colour system which now underscores her creative output. If we look at her series of works from AH20 for example, these reveal the basis of Hamilton’s palette: pale complimentary colours of sea and sky, mostly in soft blue and light pink tones. “To begin with my work tended towards the tonal and pastel, I was attracted to line more than colour, to the power of black and white contrast. With this project I have fallen in love with colour, and in a way have become closer to my mother, also an artist, who loved colour. Over time, I have come to enjoy more, because I have come to understand the nuances and how it threads through the natural world from mineral to animal and vegetable.”
As stated previously, our choice of palette defines us. We do not respond to colour in a vacuum, it carries the weight of personal and cultural meanings, setting up echoes of memories, thoughts, emotions, a spider’s web of allusion and imagination which is our perception of the world. The better we know ourselves, the better we can know our needs. What we name we can frame: granularity of emotion helps us recover from emotional blows. Colour tells us not only about nature around us but our own natures: the more we see the deeper we go, the more we think and imagine, the greater our sense of the universe and our place in it.
Here we return to the axis – like the shape of a cross – of the figure of the artist standing vertically, looking out at the horizon, that non-linear, curved boundary. If everything really is curved and on a continuum, where does it begin and end? As the viewer stands in front of an image, they become the artist, the vertical axis. The colour in the image becomes their colour: we collaborate with the image. Motionless, we respond, we bring our own process of learning about colour, and learn about ourselves in the process. We are now looking out to sea with her, marvelling at magnificence of the natural world and locating ourselves within it joining her in the Oceanic Feeling. We are tiny yet vast in our minds, unique yet connected. Colour encompasses our worlds.
Artworks born out of this project
The individual seascape (or Seachrome) representing colours. They can be Monochrome (where sea and sky almost melt together), Duochrome (the sky and sea in distinct shades) or Trichrome (a strong dark or light line demarcating the space between sky and sea).
Book coming: Chroma: A Nomenclature of Sea Colour.
Rectangles of abstract patterns, no two colours are next to each other. Inspired by the colour field artists, Agnes Martin and Gerhard Richter, Hamilton has placed Chroma into different grid structures to see how the play of light is perceived by the eye.
The concept of this series began with the halo which represented rays of light but also a representation of spirituality through light. While researching blue pigments and their importance in religious paintings, Hamilton was struck by the graphic representations of these halos in ancient paintings. In her studies of colour perception, she came across optical illusions that were similar. Energy created by diagonal lines gives a sense of depth (for example Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane), where are we as the observer. When we observe the horizon we are taken to another plane, where we feel the sense of belonging to a planet, one that exists in a greater universe.
The horizon line has been central to many of the images created in this project. Described by Herman Melville as “the ocean’s skin”, to writers like Phillip Hoare it represents, “A supreme deception… a fantastically fragile yet vast division.” Scientifically qualified as a permeable membrane, one-sixteenth of a millimetre thick, it is formed of particles, micro-organisms and contaminants. The etymology of horizon comes from the word halo, to be encircled. What we are actually seeing is the earth’s halo. Our round eyes register it as a straight line, despite the fact that the horizon is actually the rise of one orb (the sun) over another (the earth). These works are comprised of strips taken from real horizons and stacked. They ask questions not only about how we perceive a continuum as linear but also how about how we see time, again in a linear format, when physics tells us it is elastic. This echoes what the artist Olafur Eliasson says, “the horizon is not a line but a dimension.”