Explaining the Painter's Despair

Joannes Richter

In in web-blog an author poses the following question 1: Did you know there is a plant called Despair of the painter ? Why this name? The explanation I hear most often is: the flower is so small that it is difficult to copy it ... So why not just admire it, instead of trying to copy. If you find other explanations, I would love to hear them. Enjoy your Day ! Just the other day my French girlfriend Catherine told me what may have caused the Painter's Despair. That's why I decided to search the web for answers... But first of all we need to define the plant as either the purple-rose (or white) Heuchera or the white and small Saxifraga umbrosa which in its tiny details is really small and hard to paint. In French both have been named “Désespoir du Peintre", that is: the painter's despair.


Fig. 1: Tolmie's Saxifrage (Saxifraga tolmiei)
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Published by Walter Siegmund 1 Désespoir du Peintre / Despair of the painter

2.5 Generic license.

The same idea of an overwhelming abundance of the detailed little flowers in Heuchera is given in the French Wikipedia2, but this does not really make sense. Any painter knows how to handle a great number of details. Sometimes it is even easier to paint a very detailed bush of Heuchera flowers than a singular, bur complicated orchid. To my idea any orchid is more difficult to paint than a detailed Heuchera or Saxifraga.

Fig. 2: Heuchera elegans
Photo of Heuchera elegans at the Regional Parks Botanic Garden, Berkeley, California, taken April 2007 by User:Stan Shebs and published under GNU Free Documentation License.

2 French Wikipdeia entry for Heuchera: Ses espèces sont aussi appelées « désespoir du peintre » en raison de leur floraison en une abondance de fleurettes minuscules. Ce genre comprend une cinquantaine d'espèces1.

The Color Problem
The reason for the painter's nightmare, I was told by Catherine, was the color purple, which in some of the 50 species Heuchera did consist various amounts of red and blue hues, which may be causing physical troubles in the human vision. Our eyes have been equipped with three types of color sensors, which have been specialized on red, blue respectively green. An exact coloring process in a paining of the purple Heuchera flowers requires a correct choice of the red and blue pigments we need to find a balanced and correct image for our eyes. Of course the problem may aggravated by varying conditions if a painter is working in bright sunlight, in which the red and blue components are changing form hour to hour. The varying contributions of red and blue – said Catherine – were dazzling our brain with their permanently changing sensory inputs. I am not so sure about Catherine's explanation, but I think the color-based explanation must be as good as the detail-based story. It is up to the reader to decide what's right or wrong... Purple however is a remarkable and exceptional color, as it is the only color, which is missing in the solar spectrum. That may explain why the painter's despair may only be observed in painting it purple. “The purples are colors that are not spectral colors – purples are extra-spectral colors. In fact, purple was not present on Newton's color wheel (which went directly from violet to red), though it is on modern ones, between red and violet. There is no such thing as the "wavelength of purple light"; it only exists as a combination.[2] “3

Fig. 3: Purple Mountain Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) close-up photographed near Upernavik, Greenland.
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Published by Kim Hansen

3 Source: Wikipedia's Purple.

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