Why art?

I feel a need to say more about A Study in Scarlet (Rectangles). What place does a painting have in a math club?

I think it’s worth pointing out that the kinds of thinking people use when they think about art are similar to mathematical thinking. In fact, from my perspective, it’s all just thinking.


Before jumping in to some obvious observations about colors and numbers let’s look at two paintings. I think color is important in both of them:

25_89 by Keith Haring

25_89 by Keith Haring

One of Wayne Thiebaud's landscapes

One of Wayne Thiebaud’s landscapes

When I look at paintings, I ask myself, what is this painting about?
If I think it’s about color, I ask myself, in what way is it about color?
This is similar to what happens when I look at math problems. A math problem can seem impossible, or like I’m stumped, until I start to ask myself, what is this about? Is it about numbers or geometry? etc.

Back to the paintings, Keith Haring’s painting uses four distinct colors. Two colors are allowed to drip over the other colors. I think the bold colors express strong or bold feeling, and the dripping shows us different relationships between colors; red next to yellow is different from red next to green.

Wayne Thiebaud’s painting shows he put a lot of thought and care in mixing colors. Shadows and outlines are highlighted in slightly nonrealistic colors, lots of purples and greens, like reflections in abalone shell. When I see this use of color it is both familiar and surprising to me; yes, there are purples and turquoises in the shadows, but no, I don’t always see them.

Mixing colors is well known to be challenging. Just rendering something like a green sweater is not a simple matter of green paint and maybe gray for the shadows. Maybe the lighter parts are more yellow, maybe the dark parts more brown. Like numbers, colors can be “added together”. But unlike numbers, which have one dimension, a size, colors are said to have three dimensions: hue, saturation and value.

It’s easy to visualize the set of all numbers as a line. What would the set of all colors look like? Would it be fully three dimensional like a cube? Would it extend in three directions, or have boundaries? Would parts of the color space fold in on itself? (There are many ways to make gray, for example.)

If you look at a mostly monochromatic painting like the one in A Study in Scarlet (Rectangles) you can see how the interplay of value and saturation can play a big role if the hue is mostly left alone.

Here is more about Keith Haring.