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It is Thanksgiving week and Ferrebeekeeper has a couple of little appetizer articles planned to post here before the great feast, however, before we get to those, I would like to talk about something which I have only become truly thankful for of late in life. Devout readers know that I love colors and I sometimes rue America’s puritan distrust of brilliant scintillating colors (I was recently at an airport in Richmond and everyone there was wearing black, blue, white or oatmeal!). Wouldn’t life be better if it was like a tropical coral reef or a city in Tamil Nadu?

Except, for some reason this year the Thanksgiving color palette is calling to me with a greater allure than it has ever possessed. Among the holiday color palettes Thanksgiving is the odd one out. New Years is gold, silver, and jewel-tones. Valentine’s day is bright red and hot pink. Saint Patrick’s Day is Kelly green and gold. Easter is a rainbow of cheerful pastels. Summer colors are superhero colors of red, blue, white, yellow, and green. Halloween is orange, black, purple and green. Christmas is red, green, and gold. However, Thanksgiving is russet, burgundy, harvest gold, and drab. It’s like a sheet set from 1975! Except now I see that within that rainbow of brown is the stubble in the autumn fields, and the feathers of buff turkeys, and the g;owing leaves of the bald cypress before they fall away.

Throughout my life I have chafed at the earth toned hues of autumn, but suddenly they seem more beautiful than I can ever remember. It is like they are not trying to sell some god-forsaken novelty or social pretense but are are simply the colors of Mother Earth herself.

Anyway, I don’t have a bigger point–although my other posts this week are related to this and come to think of it, lately my artwork has changed to reflect the somber beauty of the autumn woodlands too. Maybe I am finally coming to except that I will never be a triggerfish or a macaw and must be content to be an olive flounder or a tawny owl…or maybe the next season will reveal a new set of colors which delight me and my tastes will keep changing like the seasons and the years.

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The Peasant and the Birdnester (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1568) oil on panel

Ferrebeekeeper has blogged a great deal about fancy modern colors like follyMountbatten pink, mauve, and greenery.  The names and high-falutin’ synthetic chemistry underlying the pigmentation of these faddish vogue colors really is quite recent (in the grand scheme of things I mean).  Today though, to celebrate autumn, we have a very beautiful color which has an ancient name (which goes back to at least Middle English).  According to color theorists, russet is a tertiary color–the result of combining purple and orange.  What this means in practice is that russet is a medium dark reddish-brown which looks like the floor of a forest or the unswept corners of a poultry yard. We know the word was around at least in 1363, because an English statute of that year required poor people to wear russet (although it may have been referring to a coarse woolen cloth dyed with woad and madder which, for a time was synonymous with the color).

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Despite its associations with the hempen homespun smallfolk (or perhaps because of it), russet has an astonishing literary history.  The first scene of the first act of Hamlet ends when “the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.”  Russet, being a somber earthen color, was associated with autumn, death, and mourning (which is perhaps why we find it in the haunted scene in Hamlet).  Cromwell also referred to the color when he preferred a disciplined and seasoned captain in russet (e.g. a commoner with a commission) to a noble soldier “which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.”

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A Bearded Old Man, Wearing a Brown Coat and Russet Hat(Rembrandt van Rijn, 1651) Oil on Canvas

There is also an artistic truth behind the color which is painful for the excitable young artist to grasp.  Drawings made in medium and dark browns have a way of coming out far more beautifully than drawings made with brighter and more fashionable colors.   When I was young I kept making drawings with violet or blood red.  Why didn’t I listen to Shakespeare and Cromwell and use russet.  Courtiers of the 14th century may have sneered at it (and brown is perhaps still not the most chic color on the catwalk) but it is beautiful and it suits living things very well…which is good, for here in the temperate northern world we are about to embark upon an entire season of russet.

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