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Inventing A New Color — A Chapter from Tales from an American Childhood

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After my dad returned from World War II, he married my mom and nine months later, I was born. We lived in a number of places, but when I was about three and a half, we moved to Portugal. My dad headed up a tire factory there. I don’t remember much about Portugal, but I do recall going with him to some of his fancy dinners. For reasons I did not understand at the time, when I was five, my mother and I took the long ocean liner ride back to America without my dad. Mom and I lived with grandpa and grandma at their house. I attended a kindergarten in Firestone Park and had a very nice teacher. I loved kindergarten.

I missed my dad but liked grandpa and grandma. She told me “Old Pete” stories and we listened to radio shows such as Roy Rogers, Hop-along Cassidy, and Tom Corbett and the Space Cadets. “Little Grandma” lived there too. She was my grandpa’s mom and stooped over very tiny, very old, and looked like a Native American. Much later, I learned that that was because she was Native American or perhaps half Native American. I loved “Little Grandma.”

Grandpa worked as an engineer and designed airplane wings, among other things. Grandpa was also a painter and his beautiful and detailed oils hung in large wooden frames throughout his house. Mostly, these were landscapes but there were also portraits and my personal favorite depicted two warships firing cannons at each other while being tossed on giant waves. Grandpa taught me many things. Naturally, I wanted to return the favor. When I was about five, I overheard him saying that it was impossible to invent a new color. Well, I could definitely teach him something about that! I loved the idea of being an inventor.

In the middle of kindergarten, my dad returned from Portugal and re-united with my mom. He bought a house and we moved away to a different neighborhood from grandpa & grandma. I had to start school in a new kindergarten with all strange kids. The very first day, my new teacher decided that I would lead the parade and draped the rope of a large drum around my neck. I didn’t want to play the drum and I made that about as clear as I could to her, but nonetheless, I ended up marching around the room with the heavy drum around my neck. I hated kindergarten.

My dad worked as an engineer and my mom was a teacher so both of them were gone all day. They hired a housekeeper to take care of me. And, somehow, after the first day, I convinced my housekeeper that I did not need to go to kindergarten any more. This was fine with me because she was nice enough to give me my favorite lunch every day — a jar of maraschino cherries!  They were so sweet and such a pretty red. And, not only were the cherries themselves delicious. The jars proved to be perfect for my experiments! So, in the second half of kindergarten, I stayed home and instead spent my time inventing a new color to show grandpa. I had a paint set and I water and I had lots of empty cherry jars. It was all a matter of time and careful work. At last, I would be able to teach grandpa something. I love teaching.

After many weeks of careful work, I finally created a new color! When grandpa and grandma came to visit, I was ready. Under my bed were about 40 little jars of diluted paint. Thirty-nine of them were failed attempts. But one of them contained the prize. I carefully crawled under the bed and located my invention, pulled it out, and scampered into the living room where the adults practiced their buzz-talk.

Buzz-talk sounded serious and low but didn’t actually mean anything so far as I could tell. Surely, no-one could mind if I interrupted buzz-talk by announcing my invention. I proudly held out my prize to grandpa. Grandpa was very smart, so the fact that he did not immediately catch the significance of this jar surprised me. He merely glanced at the watery liquid in the maraschino cherry jar without comment.

I decided that I’d better clue him in. “Grandpa! It’s a new color!” He glanced at it again and said, “I’ve seen it before.” And just like that, he went back to buzz-talk!  Crest-fallen, I wandered back to my bedroom and placed the prize beneath my bed with all the failed experiments. Apparently, this was just another one. Despite this terrible turn of events, I hardly gave up. I just redoubled my efforts. I knew there was a new color out there somewhere and I would find the perfect mix and next time be successful! I loved the challenge.

Grandpa had already taught me that red and yellow paint made orange; that yellow and blue paint made green; and that red and blue paint made purple. So, obviously, most of my experiments involved various proportions of red and green, purple and yellow or orange and blue. Most of them ended up as fairly similar shades of gray-brown. But if I mixed very carefully, I produced not dull gray-brown but something with a slight tinge of something…new! I somehow found other jars because I needed more than just the supply offered by one a day lunch-time maraschino cherry jars. I didn’t think bigger jars would have anything to do with inventing a new color, but it was possible. After a few weeks, grandpa and grandma came over to visit again. And again, I interrupted their dull living room buzz talk by showing off my latest creation. This time, I was more apprehensive. The first time, after all, I had known for sure I had a new color. This time, I was uncertain. I waited for the right opportunity — that slight pause in the buzz-talk — to display my new creation.

“I’ve seen that,” Grandpa said and turned back to buzz-talk. I wasn’t yet old enough to argue. And, even now, years later, if someone claims they have seen a color and you think they have not seen the color, I am still not sure how to argue. Convincing other people is seldom an easy task and convincing them that their own perception is limited — that is extremely difficult. Many times, I have heard the old saw, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” I actually doubt that. I suspect in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is more likely to be declared in league with Satan and end up being stoned to death.

Let’s think about this. Suppose you are the one-eyed person in the land of the blind. Say everyone is hungry and you see a berry bush a couple hundred yards away. Now what? Well, you could say, “Hey, everyone! I see a berry bush over there (uselessly pointing). Let’s go pick some berries.” Everyone else says, “What berry bush? I don’t feel one. I don’t hear one. I don’t smell one. There’s no berry bush. Be quiet and stop talking non-sense.” Alternatively, you could just quietly walk over to the berry bush and bring back a small quantity for everyone to share. Of course, if everyone went, you could bring back a lot more, but no-one wants to follow you. You bring back some berries but people would be suspicious. They might well think you had been hiding these and had many more you failed to share.

Similarly, if you saw a pack of hyenas headed your way and warned people, the blind might well think you were in league with the hyenas. After all, you were the first one to know about them. You must have told the hyenas where everyone was. At long last, if you were the one-eyed person, you might be pretty tempted to put out that other eye. Life would run a lot smoother for you. Alternatively, you could leave the tribe and live on your own. And, many people do make this choice, essentially. But it’s a pretty lonely life. You could try to patiently explain that just as sometimes they could smell things they could not feel and feel things they could not smell, and hear things they could not yet feel or smell, that you could “see”…ah, that’s the sticky bit.  How do you explain sight to the unsighted?

Of course, my grandfather was not blind. Far from it. He was not only an adult, with more power and experience and knowledge than a five year old kid. He was, in fact, an artist. He was an expert on color. I could see evidence of his expertise everywhere. His paintings adorned our house and his own. So, he probably was right about the particular colors I had shown him so far.  But that didn’t mean that I couldn’t invent one next time that was truly new. So, back to the lab, I went. I failed a few more times and eventually gave up. Inventing a new color really was impossible.

Or was it?

Many years later, I attended an art exhibit in Pittsburg. It featured many kinds of “modern art” including a very cool kinesthetic art exhibit. In one exhibit, I simply stood on a platform in front of a large rotating disk. I watched the disk rotate until quite unexpectedly, the disk was quite still and I was rotating the other direction!

Of particular interest were some extremely large extremely brightly colored canvasses which featured huge swaths of complementary colors. If I stared for a good long time at the super bright red and then moved my eyes over to the super bright green, the combination of temporal and spatial contrast produced an unearthly bright green, a “supersaturated” color impossible to produce by merely using one pigment. While I had not invented this, at least I now had experienced a color it was likely my grandpa never had. I could not really check this out though because he was long dead. Of course, I have met him in dreams many times and in the dreams he’s not really dead. It was all a big mistake. And, in my dreams, there are often landscapes painted in supersaturated colors that even he has to admit are new inventions. I love it when even the wisdom of elders may be mistaken and changes over time.

My grandpa knew that we humans are all mortal but he also knew that we still had some fragmentary art that was thousands of years old. Perhaps art provides a kind of immortality. When I was about ten, grandpa visited Europe and saw many of the oil paintings of the “Old Masters” that he had admired so much. He saw with his own eyes that, over time, the oil that they used turned yellow and the colors that they had used were transformed. Father Time himself invented new colors for these artists. When, he returned from Europe, he switched from oil painting to water colors. Beyond that, he limited himself to using only three pigments all of which were oxides of metals. He was also very careful in his choice of canvas for the same reason. He stuck to these constraints so that his paintings, unlike those of the “Old Masters”, would not yellow or fade with time.

Grandpa’s paintings were designed by an artist/engineer to be stable and unchanging over time. When Grandpa died, I inherited quite a few of my favorite water colors and I can testify that the colors were extremely stable over time. They remained stable, that is, up until the time we moved to California and almost everything we owned was burned up in a moving van fire. What was burned up included all our furniture, electronics, papers, and almost all clothing and paintings. All the carefully laid pigments of metals were altered forever. All of the work and effort were now white ash floating somewhere in the sky near Continental Divide Arizona. A little carelessness on the part of a trucker in too much of a hurry, perhaps, to check the lubrication and the whole truck went up in flames. Robert Burns comes to mind.

It seems to me that our country once comprised a long-standing collaborative work of art involving many artists and many colors. This was a painting of scale and magnificence, though not yet completed. Every shade of the rainbow and more besides swept from sea to shining sea. The painting combined portraiture and landscape, scenes of war and peace, city, country, rivers, lakes, deep woods, and shining plains. Yet, somehow, people became impatient with the progress of the painting. Maybe, they thought, the work would go faster if we just painted the whole canvas white. They no longer cared what the end result looked like. They just wanted to get done so we could move on to the next project. We really couldn’t take the time to make sure the bearings were lubricated. And, now, the transport burned up along with the painting. What’s left are scattered white flakes snowing down on the countryside. I love irony, but I loved the paintings more.

At some point, grandpa said something else to me about color. He said that most people look at color in the light but that there is also color in the shadow. And, so, despite the deepening, darkening shadows, I am trying to see the color hidden there in those shadows. It is too soon to know whether I am inventing a new color, inventing a new way to look at color, or just seeing what is actually an after-image — beautiful for now, but sure to soon fade to the dull white gray of old and sooted snow. Maybe one of us can invent a new color or a new way of painting or a new way of looking or a new way of helping people be less impatient with the slow careful progress required for a timeless, collaborative work of art. Inventing new colors is not easy work; that I can say for sure, as is restoring true color that has faded to a uniform and pasty gray.

Perhaps I’ll buy a jar of maraschino cherries.

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