In his chapter in Modern Painters entitled "On the Truth of Colour," Ruskin argues that the vividness of nature's colors cannot be translated onto a canvas. The intensity of sunlight "trebles their brilliancy" and the painter, being deprived of this sunlight, is left to work with shadows in comparison to nature's colors. The light of nature cannot be approached or conveyed on the canvas and its true mimesis is impossible for the painter.

For Ruskin the truth of color and the truth of light in nature are directly related. Sunlight constantly variegates hues. In painting though, only one truth can be conveyed, that of color, without the accompanying truth of light so that

the more true we are in colour, the greater, ordinarily, will be the discrepancy felt between the intensity of hue and the feebleness of light. . . . Nevertheless the aim and struggle of the artist must always be to do away with this discrepancy as far as the powers of art admit, not by lowering his colour, but by increasing his light. And it is indeed by this that the works of Turner are peculiarly distinguished from those of all other colourists, by the dazzling intensity, namely, of the light which he sheds through every hue, and which, far more than their brilliant colour, is the real source of their overpowering effect upon the eye. [161-162]

Ruskin then goes on to state "the inferiority and unimportance in nature of colour as a truth, compared with light and shade" and points to Turner's entire subordination to light and shade in his system of color (168).


1. Why is the truth of color inferior to that of light and shade? Are they not one and the same in nature?

2. If "truth is only to be measured by close comparison to actual facts," how can painting, in order to be truthful to nature, reconcile the truths of color and light? (156)

3. Does Turner sacrifice color for light in his work, specifically in The Fighting Temeraire?

4. Or does he, as Ruskin argues, increase his light while not lowering his color? If so, exactly how does he "increase" his light?

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Last modified 10 September 2006

6 May 2019