David Marquis is Chief Conservator and Senior Paintings Conservator at the Midwest Art Conservation Center.
The Arabs Skirmishing is a wonderful example of loose use of a narrative battle scene but really the story is about the painting and how the paint is applied and the expressive use of the color. This is one of Delacroix’s late if not last painting I think, and it really is a perfect illustration of how he used color differently. Prior to Delacroix the Neoclassicists were using color mostly in a descriptive way. The contour of the design was kind of primary. And when Delacroix came along he begins to use color in a very different way; in a much more expressive way. And instead of working one small area of the design at a time (which the Neoclassicist did, they would finish an area and then they would finish the next area) he started to work the whole surface at one time and create form with dabs of color rather than color and value blended smoothly one into another.
One of his really major contributions is to use simultaneous contrast which essentially means his belief that a color only exists in relation to its neighbor, that’s the simplest way to say it. For instance, if you wanted to make a dark color look lighter he would put a darker color next to it. And if you look at his paintings particularly and you will see that illustrated in many different places in the design.
Another contribution and a different way of looking at a color is using color to create form and space rather than values. Now by values I mean the Neoclassicist knew that light colors advance, dark color recede so if you look at a Neoclassical painting you will notice that to create volume and form they either add a tint (white) or they add black. Delacroix comes along and he starts using color to do this, the same thing, only he is using bright and dull and that brings a whole other dimension to painting. He does the same thing in terms of warm and cool. This is hard, hard to express, so generally speaking cool colors recede, warm colors advance, but also there is another dimension in that bright colors advance, dull colors recede. So the closer a color is to a hue, true the primary color in the color wheel the more that color will advance. So in other words you can make if you make the blue bright enough it will advance rather than recede being a cooler color considered a cooler color.
You have all these things working at the same time. What’s really wonderful is you can take a color on your palette and put it on the painting and it looks completely different. You can look at the two colors and go well they don’t even look remotely the same and it’s because the law of simultaneous contrast because a color is completely dependent on the color surrounding it and that’s how we perceive it.
The Green button will take you on a tour of Delacroix’s techniques in this painting.