Thesis Research about Color Theory of James Turrell

Leonardo da Vinci wrote volumes about the importance of light in rendering nature;
Romantic artists described the sublime through light;
as well as how the experience of light reflects the wondrous and complex nature of human perception.
As the artist himself explains of his work, “Light is not so much something that reveals as it is itself the revelation.
Turrell applied this approach to nothing—no object, only light and perception.
Turrell has created opportunities for us to experience it as a primary physical presence rather than as a tool through which to see or render other phenomena. Viewing his work, we are called upon not to consider what is being lit but instead to contemplate the nature of the light itself—its transparency or opacity, its volume, and its color, which is often perceived as changing, thus adding a temporal aspect to the experience.
removing the distance between the perceiver and the object perceived in order to see “truth” is an ongoing concern.
Renaissance artists utilized color for its symbolism and to enhance the naturalism of their compositions…
…….in the seventeenth century, Sir Isaac Newton defined the optical spectrum of color in terms of absolute and universal wavelengths of visible light.
In the early to mid-twentieth century, Josef Albers demonstrated in both his teaching and painting that our perception of color is entirely dependent on the context within which we see it.
Turrell’s art does not illustrate these leaps in understanding but embodies them.
The actual experience of light in Turrell’s constructions often defies our expectations—whether it is seeing a circle reveal itself as an ellipse or wondering how the world outside a Skyspace can seem from inside as if it has been painted a deep shade of blue or red or green.
The greatest revelations borne by Turrell’s art are a deeper understanding of what it is to be a perceiving being and an awareness of how much of our observation and experience is illuminated by the “inner light” of our own perception.
Turrell often refers to the brilliance of color experienced in a lucid dream when the eyes are closed—or to the Quaker practices of his religious upbringing, which describe meditation as “going inside to greet the light.” The Quaker concept of “inner light,” which is shared in a collective silent-prayer meeting, is echoed in the experience of Turrell’s Skyspaces—in the collective silence, duration, and receptivity they induce.

I’m interested in the revelation of light itself and that it has thingness.

It alludes to what it is, which is not exactly illusion.

Amba, 1982.
Coutesy of the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh

EAK: Your work also focuses on an architectural relationship between perception and space.

JT: I’m interested in delving into and exploring the architecture of space created by light. Mostly we have dealt with space by displacement or massing of form. While there is an architectural vocabulary referring to the space between, this has rarely been enlivened—it’s more rhetorical than actual. The art that I make covers this ground between form and actually forming space using light. For example, when the sun is shining, we see atmosphere—we can’t see through the atmosphere to see the stars that are there. The same applies if you are on a stage with footlights and stage lighting—you can’t see the audience. However, if you step in front of the footlights, the audience is revealed. The space is architecturally the same, but the location of the light actually changes the penetration of vision such that some people see each other and others cannot. It is a structured space without a massing of form. This quality of working the space in between so that it limits or expands the penetration of vision is something that intensely fascinates me.

It means that the containing form has to be made somewhat neutral. What you’re looking at is that in-between zone, not formed or made by the massing of material. This has a lot of ties to architecture, but not the sort of architecture that we use to build everyday structures. It certainly isn’t how we light our buildings. Architects make a form and then they stick the lights in.

EAK: What criteria determine the structural configuration in relation to the selected hue or tone?

JT: That actually has changed over the years. I make this work for an idealized viewer. You might say that’s me. The idealized viewer has changed and matured. He has become more circumspect. Color has to do with the kind of work I’m doing—whether I want opacity or translucency or transparency. How I want it to penetrate or to be stopped. The milky colors of a Japanese kimono are very subtle; in contrast, Korean culture evinces a brilliance of color with very deep saturation. I work between those two approaches—each has enlightened me. It’s very different in light than with physical material; the first and most important thing one needs to do is to throw away the color wheel, because it provides misinformation. If you’re going to work with light, you need to learn the spectrum. We’re making an immense mistake by moving the color wheel into the computer. If you mix blue and yellow with the earth, which makes pigment and reflects color, you’re going to get something near green. But if you mix blue and yellow with light you’ll get white, which surprises most people. We really need to look at the spectrum and have a different way of thinking about light. In general, we’re a surface culture and tend to look at and speak about reflected light because of our tradition of painting.

EAK: How did you begin to use light as a medium?

JT: The history of art is a history of looking at light. Perhaps being American, I was interested in a less vicarious form that actually used light itself. I started out by dealing with a picture plane and the traditional presentation of light in painting. I can remember Malevich talking about how the paint was on the surface like the thinnest of membranes. If you put light on the surface, it’s even thinner. But plastically, it’s very effective in terms of the space it creates in front of it or beyond it. That was really a way to look at a more direct perception: rather than being something that’s about light, it is light. The light is actually turned and directed right to your eyes. The light inside that space is invasive and penetrating. This direct experience of light is the difference between watching football and playing it. I think that we’re an active culture in that respect, and
so it was an easy step for me.

EAK: You make something from nothing—an illusion?

JT: Yes; however, I don’t think it’s all that illusory. Although light exhibits wave phenomena, nevertheless it is a thing—it is optical material. But we don’t treat it as such. Instead we use it very casually to illuminate other things. I’m interested in the revelation of light itself and that it has thingness. It alludes to what it is, which is not exactly illusion.

I’ll give you an example. We tend to think the sun rises. In fact, the earth is actually sinking or spinning down the other way. You probably have been in a train when the train next to you moves, and you feel like you’re moving, but you’re not. It just appears that way. At Roden Crater, I have one space where I remove all reference to level, so your only frame of reference is the stars in a circular opening. Actually it’s elliptical but you see it as circular. That’s your frame of reference, so the strange thing is that you feel yourself tilting in reference to the stars. You can say this is an illusion, but that’s actually what’s happening. To get that sensation you have to have a different quality of light in there. In that way, they’re not illusions, because that’s actually reality.

EAK: Several site artists from the time you began working, including Robert Irwin, Michael Heizer, and Robert Smithson, felt that science and technology propelled them to look beyond the earth.

JT: In the late ’60s, I became interested in James J. Gibson’s idea of ecological psychology. Learning to work with this material, light, to affect the medium of perception was something that I had to get used to. My technology is extremely simple. My work might inform a scientist about art, but it doesn’t in any way raise notions of science or technology.

Light is something that I had to learn how to mold and form, because it isn’t formed with the hand like clay or hot wax. It’s more like sound. You make instruments to create what you want. I learned to do that by trial and error. I used a big projector and at first, it was really hard to form and control light. Gradually, I began to understand light as a substance that I could shape. I could see the evolution in the work. However, neither science nor technology actually influenced how I learned to work this material. The late ’60s and early ’70s were a contradictory time. On one hand, we were going to the moon, and anything was possible. On the other hand, despite technological advancements and euphoric attitudes, we were conducting a war in Vietnam and my generation was up in protest.

Also, artists were zealously idealistic in thinking that people were going to buy and collect ephemeral work. There were a lot of losses along the way for artists who had amazing and wonderful talent but nowhere to actualize their ideas.

Aten Reign (2013)

Critics attempting to describe Turrell’s installations often rely on terms like “magical” and “transcendent.”

James Turrell’s latest site-specific work,

What’s site-specific work?

Light is, by its very physical properties, impossible to capture and define: it is possible to confine the reaction of light with chemicals, but the experience of existing within and fully understanding the colour spectrum is inexplicable. – See more at:

Colours have become symbolic of emotions and thoughts, taking on animate qualities and connotations that surpass their scientific properties just as light itself has come to symbolise “inner light”, elucidation, and when featured in religious iconography, the light of God. – See more at:

Rudolf Steiner (b. 1861) and Hilma af Klint (b. 1862). Each of these artists explores in some way the relationship between the physical environment, light, and colour, and how the essential physical properties of each can be altered through their interaction. – See more at:

Just mark:


  • Doug Wheeler:
Related field/knowledge:





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