A hidden menace

Reading time: 3:10min | Why the distinction of signal colours and consumption colours helps to understand the content of pictures.

Based on the following picture Ground Swell, I’d like to explain briefly how the Cognitive Colour Theory works. That way, we will understand better how painters do their work, particularly if one is called Edward Hopper.

The story takes place in the summer of 1939, two and a half years before the USA entered World War 2. Edward Hopper has always been reluctant to interpret his pictures. Thus, it is up to us to decide for ourselves what to do with the painting. But the invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 was just around the corner.

We make a flag out of Hopper’s maritime masterpiece.

We see a red dot on a light beige background, bordered by blue. The red dot symbolises the young woman’s headscarf and bikini top. The beige part stands for the boys, and the blue represents the sea and the sky.

In terms of the colour concept, the skin tone of the three boys’ bare-chested upper bodies is the signal colour that leads the eyes. It doesn’t take a second to count the numbers of the boys.

But only at a second glance, we realise there is one more individual, the young woman. Her red headscarf and the bikini lead us to her, and then trigger our interest — what is a young woman in a bikini doing on a sailboat with three boys? Her dark blue trousers are only recognised at a third glance because they are hidden in the supposed irrelevance of the consumption colour blue.

Even if she is not the centre of the picture (or is she?), which is arguably the light beige rectangle, she plays an important role. The possibilities of interpretation are many. I’ll leave it at the bikini as a symbol for progressive society and sexual freedom in those days. The fact that there are three boys and one woman on the boat also breaks with the values of the time and can be seen as distinctively progressive.

But the main content of the story, the groundswell and the slightly darkening horizon as harbingers of a storm that could endanger the lives of the young people, take place in the consumption colour blue. That is, therefore, easily overlooked by the viewer in their significance. Thus, in the abstraction of the flag, the extent of the dramatic hero’s fall is not visible. And that is intentional. Often, threats come on soft soles. Edward Hopper knew exactly what he was doing, he did not want to make things easy for his audience.

As it was for the young crew, at first glance, all looks easy and clear. But with further inspection, we discover a more profound story with several layers. We are now tempted to understand what happens in the blue parts of the painting. Obviously, there’s the buoy. And the wave, of course.

Knowing the historical context, this could be the story:

A group of four young people, three young men and one young woman, prepare the sailing yacht of one of the wealthy fathers of the friends in the harbour for a relaxed sailing trip. The weather is summery, a bit moist perhaps, but there is a warm wind, about 2-3 Beaufort. When they leave the Pamet harbour, South Truro, MA, the wind fades, dullness threatens, the sun is burning. The young woman on board, she is the love interest of the skipper, takes off her blouse. Under the blouse, she wears a bikini. The boys imitate her, the mood is enthusiastic, they are among themselves and look into a bright future.

With the current, they drift along the coast only to find out that they are on the wrong side of the buoy line that marks a sandbank. Just as the skipper steers the boat to port to get back into the buoy line, a triple wave runs through and shakes the ship and the buoy. The buoy’s bell sounds exhausted.

Clack. Edward Hopper presses the shutter release of his camera.

The young man at the helm has some experience and looks at the horizon with worry. Fair stratus clouds on the far horizon tell him the same story as the cirrus clouds in the sky: a storm is approaching. The little cascade of waves is a groundswell that is without wind the harbinger of heavy seas far out. Fortunately, the current turns and pulls the boat back into the safe harbour in time before the first strong wind strikes.


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