“I am extremely touched by humanity, I am not so fond of humans.”
Sean Penn

Christopher Alexander on Color Properties of Inner Light


This post is an except from an extensive chapter about color. As I was reading through the chapter and excerpting from it the subject of relationships was on my mind and in my heart. When I speak of relationships between people, especially between myself and people close to me, things tend to get personal(!). However when I speak about colors things are inherently less personal … it doesn’t even cross my mind that red likes or dislikes yellow or that green is angry at purple while pink loves it. This is a spirit with which this chapter met me. It has subtle insights into relationships (between colors) and how these relationships conjur up an experience of inner illumination. I kept projecting these realizations about colors into reflections about people, about how I relate and how others relate to me.

Again, where possible I have included images that are included in the original text. One image has been selected in the spirit of the text because I couldn’t find an image from the text to include. Sections where a sample is missing are due to the subtly of colors which are carefully replicated in the printed book, but not clearly visible in online images. In these cases, poor digital replicas would do injustice to the ideas being discussed.

“subdued brilliance and inner light only occur when certain definite things are happening in the color field. These ‘things’ … are very similar to the fifteen geometric properties described in Book 1 … whatever we do intuitively to make light happen, we find these eleven color properties coming, of necessity, into our work where we are trying to induce the inner light.

1. HIERARCHY OF COLORS (levels of scale)

… to make inner light occur, we are led to use unequal amounts of different colors … inner light is caused first and most strongly by a rule of proportion among colors which creates a clear hierarchy of relative size among the areas of different colors in a picture.

… a succesful composition in which there are equal areas of several different colors is extremely rare.


Henri Matisse: Arab Coffeehouse

Henri Matisse: Arab Coffeehouse

2. COLORS CREATE LIGHT TOGETHER (positive space / alternating repetition)

… Suppose we have a swatch of color. I look at it and ask myself what second color will produce light if I bring it towards the first … This is the fundamental experiment of all color work, and of all painting …

There are four main variables involved: What is the hue of the second color? How much of it is there?How light or dark is it? How grayed is it?

… In many cases the light comes from colors which are roughly complementary … But … there are also much more sophisticated cases where one color is made to shine by something quite near it …

All we know is that sometimes colors together create a glow of life … one color is made more intense as a center by the other color. The field of centers becomes intense; the feeling and unity increase. there is no reliable mechanical rule which can predict just what color is needed … The possible colors that are needed are objectively and experimentally defined.

Henri Matise: Madame Matisse

Henri Matise: Madame Matisse


… One of the basic things we have to do while we are making something colored is to squint at it, half close our eyes so that we see only grays, and see if the inner light is still there … if it isn’t visible in the dark-and-light pattern of what is in front of me alone – then it will never be there when I open my eyes fully again and the colors come back in. We have to work out the overall pattern of light and dark as if the colors weren’t even there in order to get them right.

… If we take a black and white picture of that colored pattern, the pattern of the dark and light alone (without the color) will still be beautiful.

In the world of black and white, where things are monochrome, the vital importance of contrast is obvious … But because color is so fascinating, it is easy to become mesmerized by hue and to forget about dark and light

In making a painting (or in placing colors in a building, which is ultimately my main concern). I find it useful to make a thumbnail sketch in black and white – just to see if the basic composition of light and dark  has life in it … The black and white come to life when they dom something similar to the way the yin-yang symbol works. The two establish a polarity in which each is something solid and established in its own right, and where the two together create a sort of electric tension.

In shape, the two things, black and white, must each form a positive space … the quantities and ratios of dark and light must be enough to electrify each other.

Fra Angelico - Shipment of Grain

Fra Angelico – Shipment of Grain

4. MUTUAL EMBEDDING (deep interlock and ambiguity)

Imagine, if you like, that you have a color composition half worked out. You struggle towards making more light in the picture. You seek harmonies which tie things together. At this stage, you will often find, that the thing you have to do to make more light in the picture is, in effect, a process in which you put one color inside another … Immediately a connection is formed, and the field becomes more unified …

We may say that each major entity in a living structure must contain references (shapes, structures, colors, motifs, reflections) of the other major elements, so that each element is somehow also within the other elements.

Pierre Bonnard, Dining Room on the Garden

Pierre Bonnard, Dining Room on the Garden

5. SEQUENCE OF LINKED COLOR PAIRS (gradients, the void)

.. colors essentially work in pairs … When inner light is present, the colors in the hierarchy have a definite spatial sequence, so that the eye moves through the thing from color to color, up and down the hierarchy. In each case, the spatial sequence is built out of linked pairs … The pairs themselves are linked, and the network of linked pairs or arrows forms the sequence … the actual path of the sequence … is also important. When the path has a beautiful feeling, it jumps in an interesting way – in a cascade, or in a circling motion moving inward …


… You will often find that you can intensify colors by making boundaries between them … As one tries to reach inner light, one is in effect trying to create a deep kind of unity … Where two colors meet, there is an imperfect unity just because the two colors, by being different create a divide. To bridge this divide, it is helpful in the vast majority of cases to have a third color, much smaller in extent and carefully chosen in color, which forms a link across the boundary. That is why hairlines and boundaries originate.

… In general the boundary color must be to do the same as any good geometrical boundary does: that is, to both unite and separate the two colors on either side of it.


Henri Matisse : Odalisque in Red Trousers


… to achieve inner light … develop a family quality among the different colors we are using. This unifies the space.

The simplest way in which colors become members of one family is similar to the process of mutual embedding. If we want to place a read near a green so as to produce inner light, it is necessary that very small amounts of the read are mixed into the green, and that very small amounts of the green are mixed into the red. This softens the contrast and allows the piece to glow …

Sometimes this family exists simply as a feeling, which is complex and not easy to explain at all. I work on the palette, and I can tell when I am making colors of the same family: but they are not necessarily related in obvious ways at all.



Giotto: Flight into Egypt



Page from the Book of Durrow

8. COLOR VARIATION (roughness)

Inner light also requires a certain roughness of individual color, a lively variation within the field of a single color … In colors which have light, there are rarely areas of perfectly flat color, the inside of these areas vary immensely from point to point so that the overall color is created from blending or interaction of many slightly different hues.

Both in paintings and in buildings, I have found that this color variation comes about most easily from a process in which you mix the colors on the thing itself, not on the palette.

… Sometimes I do the same thing more geometrically. If we have a particular color, say light red, and we mix black with it, we get brownish dark red … These colors may easily become muddy. But suppose that instead of mixing … we put a fine black tracery of points, dots, lines and curves over the lighter red. This has the same overall effect on the red … but it leaves it far more brilliant, with sparkle …

This is really how, and why, the variation of roughness works: by creating a mixture out of purer colors, so that we keep the purity of the component colors and their interaction.

9. INTENSITY AND CLARITY OF INDIVIDUAL COLORS (strong centers / good shape)

Here is an almost paradoxical ambiguity. Clarity of color is something inherent in the individual color. Yet, its effect is also created by the color interactions and by the impact of other colors on the individual color. Both are true.

… When you are in the middle of painting, you can often concentrate only on the color you are mixing, and with great care and concentration, make that color by itself carry meaning, and be as beautiful as possible … Is the color you find … itself really a quality of the individual color by itself? Or is it a quality of this color in the interaction with its surroundings?

… it turns out the two ideas are interwoven. As I begin to master the idea of trying to make colors fuse together and glow with inner light, I find out one thing which is rather surprising: to do it, I am really trying to make each color shine out as strongly as possible, itself.

… In centers, a strong center is one which stands strong by itself, and yet makes other nearby centers strong … Just so, a color which shines strongly is a color which makes other colors nearby shine strongly, too.

10. SUBDUED BRILLIANCE ( simplicity and inner calm / non-separateness )

… Let us imagine that at a certain stage in the development of a colored thing … we have gained a wonderful bright feeling where the colors work together, they are brilliant. But they are perhaps too bright, too vulgar, not profound … We have to subdue the influence of the whole thing. We quieten it, gently. We quieten it a little more. Then. when we are just to the edge of feeling that we have taken away its brilliance, we put something back – and all of a sudden the color really shines, and the deep meaning shows itself.

This is subdued brilliance.

It can take two different forms. The first form is quiet. Sometimes, to do it, I reduce the intensity of colors by making them more white or gray. Then the actual pigments are subdued, but I keep the overall brilliance of the field of color – only now somehow it is more profound. That is the first form.


Pierro della Francesca: King Solomon receiving the Queen of Sheba

The second form is almost opposite. I have pigments which are intense, very bright. But in their interaction they become muted, because they are so carefully chosen, that they melt together and seem quiet even though, individually, as colors they are bright …


Pierre Bonnard: Marthe in a Red Blouse

Subdued brilliance, when it goes to the extreme, is both gloomy and brilliant, like a smoldering fire,embers glowing, other parts dark or dead, fire waiting to burst forth.

11. COLOR DEPENDS ON GEOMETRY (local symmetries)”

… behind all these color phenomena, it is the field of centers itself which is working to produce the life. The geometric structure of the field is necessary to produce the light within the framework of geometry.

… We can never achieve inner light when the field of centers is not present geometrically. And the reverse is true: We cannot achieve the unity of the field of centers geometrically, unless it is supported by wholeness of color and inner light.

… Thus the geometric wholeness is not merely beautiful in itself as an accompaniment to the beautiful color. It is essential, necessary, for the release of light. Color, far from being an incidental attribute of things, is fundamental to the living structure of wholeness. Inner light is not merely a phenomenon, but the character of wholeness when it ‘melts.’

… It is not so surprising that space has teh power to affect color. But that color affects space – that the two are somehow deeply interlocked – that is truly surprising, and poses many unanswered questions … It is as though the space and the color together create a world of structure, a type of structure, that we cannot define at all – as though the very oneness of space which we seek to define lies in the very inaccessible realm. It is this fact which makes me suspect that the color phenomenon itself is actually happening in the I.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 4: The Luminous Ground

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