By Peter Niedmann
My wife just painted our kitchen a vibrant light green [Valspar ‘Leaf Bud’]. We love it! The walls had been a sort of muddy tan color for years—a neutral background that didn’t call attention to itself, but didn’t energize the room either. The simple injection of color has totally transformed the way the kitchen looks and feels.
Likewise, when virtuoso organist Joshua Stafford performed at our church last month, my first reaction was to his amazing use of colors. The same organ I play every week sounded very different when Josh played. Several colleagues who have played this organ and were at his recital had the identical response: it sounds like a different instrument in his hands. We all chatted about it after the concert, and think we figured out the mystery. Josh used the stops like a painter uses paints—having the desired color in his mind, and mixing the available paints (pipe ranks) to create that color. At one point, he was playing a melody on the French Horn stop. Except, this organ doesn’t have a French Horn stop! Through artful mixing of tone colors, Maestro Stafford ‘painted’ a French Horn. Principal choruses sounded broader, juicier, warmer. He creatively combines sounds from all divisions to effectively construct a new instrument. Mixtures were used, but sparingly, so their appearance had more power.
In Walter Isaacson’s fascinating biography of Leonardo da Vinci, considerable space is devoted to Leonardo’s self-taught, scientific approach to virtually everything. One important area of his studies was the way light affects color. He spent his whole life observing, and attempting to accurately represent what he saw. What made his art supreme was his ability to paint colors with the added understanding of light’s interaction with the color. Often, much of his canvas was dark, so the colors shown in the light had extra intensity and realism. Leonardo applied paint in many layers when painting human flesh, to simulate the way light hits the skin.
An afternoon at the Philadelphia Museum of Art revealed to me how the appearance of a single color (in, for instance, Monet’s depiction of bodies of water) was, in fact, brush strokes of many colors – all received by the eye at a distance as one. I got as close to the paintings as the guard would allow (2 feet, in fact) and microscopically scanned the canvasses to confirm this technique over and over again.
I know what you’re thinking: go into the organ’s memory to find out what Joshua Stafford actually did to create all those beautiful colors in his performance! I already have. And, it’s not as illuminating as one would think. It all makes sense when you dissect it. Perhaps, much of the magic of his recital was having the colors offered up so artistically, while the listener received them with open hearts. The analytical portion of our brains was disabled by beauty. The power of great art rendered by a great artist.
“The poet ranks far below the painter in the representation of visible things,
and far below the musician in that of invisible things.”
– Leonardo da Vinci