This section is from the book "Chromatography; Or, A Treatise On Colours And Pigments, And Of Their Powers In Painting", by George Field. Also available from Amazon: Chromatography, or A Treatise on Colours and Pigments, and of Their Powers in Painting.
" I take thy band; - this hand As soft as dove's down, and as white as it; Or Ethiopian's tooth, or the funn'd snow that's bolted By the northern blast twice o'er." - Shakspere.
White, in a perfect state, should be neutral in hue, with regard to colour, and absolutely opaque; that being the best which reflects light most brilliantly. This is the property in white called body; which term in other pigments, more especially in those which are transparent, means tingeing power. White, besides its uses as a colour, is the instrument of light in painting, and compounds with all colours, when pure, without changing their class: yet it dilutes and cools all colours except blue, which is specifically cold; and, though it does not change nor defile any colour, it is defiled and changed by all colours. This pureness of white, if it be not in some degree broken or tinged, will cast down or degrade every other colour in a picture, while itself becomes harsh and crude. Hence the lowness of tone which has been thought necessary in painting, but is so only because our other colours do not approach to the purity of white. Had we all necessary colours thus relatively pure as white, colouring in painting might be carried up to the full brilliancy of nature; and more progress has indeed been already made in both respects than the prejudice for dulness is disposed to tolerate.
The term colour is equivocal when attributed to the neutrals, yet the artist is bound to consider them as colours; and, in philosophic strictness, they are such in extreme composition and latently, for a thing cannot but be that of which it is coin-posed, and neutrals are composed of, or comprehend, all colours.
Locally, white is the most advancing of all colours in a picture, and produces the effect of throwing other colours back in different degrees, according to their specific retiring or advancing powers; which powers are not, however, absolute properties of colours, but dependant upon the relations of light and shade, which are variously appropriate in all colours: hence it is that a white object, properly adapted, appears to detach, distribute, put in keeping, and give relief, decision, distinctness, and distance to every thing around it; and hence the use and necessity of a white or light object in every distinct group of a composition. White itself is advanced or brought forward, unless indeed white surround a dark object, in which case they retire together. In mixture white communicates these properties to its tints, and harmonizes in conjunction or opposition with all colours, but lies nearest in scries to yellow, and remotest from blue, of which, next to black, it is the most perfect contrast. It is correlative with black, which is the opposite extreme of, neutrality. We have said that black and white are the same colour; and the truth of this appears practically in painting a white object upon a light ground, which is done with black pigment; and also in painting a black object upon a dark ground, which is done with white pigment: in the latter case, by supplying the lights of the object; and in the former, by supplying the shadows. The same is evinced to the eye in the black and white of the definitive scale (page 39). Perfect white is opaque, and perfect black transparent; hence, when added to black in minute proportion white gives it solidity; and from a like small proportion of black combined with white the latter acquires locality as a colour, and better preserves its hue in painting. Both white and black communicate these properties to other colours in proportion to their lightness or depth, while they cool each other in mixture, and equally contrast each other when opposed. These extremes of the chromatic scale are each in its way most easily defiled, as green, the mean of the scale, is the greatest defiler of colours. Rubens regarded white as the nourishment of light and the poison of shadow.
Physically, white is expressive of infirmity, - a fair or pale complexion is feminine, and indicates ill health and want of stamina. The white colour of flowers is attributed by the botanist to disease, as is also the white and pale spots of the foliage on variegated plants; and plants are blanched and deprived of vegetative power by exclusion from light. Of animal nature the white and piebald are considered weakest. Horses of these colours want bottom; the Albino is diseased and a monster; the white rabbit is of tender constitution, so is the white dove; and in the winter of cold climates, when animals have less vigour, the colour of their furs becomes white.