Unpainted For Far

We usually think of very old buildings and statues as plainly colored, with just the color of the stone, but in fact they were usually painted colorfully, as the Greek pictures below show. Mayan temples and gothic churches were also wildly colored. But if so, why don’t we see the remaining buildings, statues, etc. painted like that today, so people can see what they looked like? They are often painted, but with plain stone color paint!

You might say it is because we can’t be sure exactly what colors were where. But we often renovate the buildings themselves extensively, and add in missing statutes, even when we aren’t sure exactly what the original buildings or statues looked like.

Also consider that cities like Paris and Washington DC designed their buildings and building codes to look like ancient buildings, except without the paint. Same for many universities like U. Chicago. You might explain this as due to people believing incorrectly that the ancients didn’t have paint. But paint isn’t remotely a recent invention, why would anyone think it was?

Here’s another explanation: thinking of the distant past evokes our far mental mode, in which we tend to think of objects having fewer relevant surfaces and less texture detail. Unpainted buildings and statues appear to have fewer surfaces and less texture – they look more far. We subconsciously think that unpainted things make more sense as something associated with the distant past.

Since power evokes a far mode, your architecture can evoke a far mode that suggests power if it has fewer relevant surfaces and a simpler texture. So people have seen the unpainted ancient style as more distinguished, and places like Paris and Washington DC required such a style as a way to assert their power.

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  • http://www.gwern.net gwern

    Minimalism and elegance are Far.

    • http://www.gwern.net gwern

      Actually just thought of another contrast: dinosaurs.

      They used to all be painted or depicted as dull flat earth color skins. Then came the feather revolution, and now we’ve unearthed enough pigmentation we can actually describe their bright color schemes. Dinosaur illustration has kept up with the discoveries, despite all this being either cutting-edge or a few years ago discoveries.

      In contrast, this Greek stuff has been known for decades with no change in depictions except maybe in specialist textbooks (which I wouldn’t know about).

  • http://www.uweb.ucsb.edu/~criedel/ Jess Riedel

    Are the buildings of Paris, DC, and the University of Chicago less detailed in architectural features other than the paint? I don’t think so. If anything, I think they are even more detailed and ostentatious than the originals.

    Instead, I would guess the reason they don’t use color is that the color on ancient buildings has faded, and we associate the faded color with old and impressive. If it were just a matter of details and far mode, we would expect most details to be subdued. But it’s only those details which are faded by time naturally which we suppress.

    Likewise, people tend to think that sculptures without arms (e.g. the Venus de Milo) are timeless and impressive, because the only statues that anyone cares enough about to look at after a thousand years tend to have some damage. But that doesn’t really tell us anything about far mode.

    • Sid

      While many of the ‘impressive’ buildings might have a lot of features, these features really do not stand out, and with just a glance, you’ll definitely overlook them. You can make them out if you observe closely and you feel special and rewarded when you do notice it. This might add to the desired effect.

      But, the far mode might not be the whole story. Most poor neighborhoods are dull and featureless. They are not impressive.

  • http://facelessbureaucrat.blogspot.com Bill Harshaw

    History. People have been touring Rome since the Renaissance. Our perceptions of what is classical Rome and Greece are based on the experiences of those early tourists. And given the 1000 years of weathering there was no evidence apparent as to the original colors. By the time research and technology had advanced to the point where we knew differently, the style was too well established to be overturned.

  • http://reflexionesfinales.blogspot.com/ russell1200 are

    Victorian era up to the early 1920s homes were also often very colorful. Similarly there restoration often has them in a rather monochrome finish.

  • Vaniver

    So, whenever I see a depiction of what the Parthenon looked like when it was built, I think “man, is that tacky.” Could it be that the gaudiness is unglamorous now for reasons not dealing with near/far, and so people don’t update their depictions because of that?

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      I’ve got a similar opinion, agnostic would say that’s a result of a falling-crime environment producing anti-social haters of ornamentation.

  • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

    Many of the pigments used then are not available now. Some of them because they are quite toxic. There is nothing like lead oxide to make really white paint. Nothing like cadmium and lead chromates to make nice yellow. Nothing like mercury to make vermillion red.

  • WL

    As someone who has worked on these things- the reason is far simpler- cheaper maintenance.

    Remember that while the statues themselves survived to this day, the paint clearly did not. Similarly, on brightly painted building, its the bright paint that shows wear quickest. Plain colors show less wear and are generally cheaper to maintain.

    • John

      Those maintenance costs are likely a big part of what made bright colors such an effective status display when the buildings were new.

  • Evan

    You might explain this as due to people believing incorrectly that the ancients didn’t have paint. But paint isn’t remotely a recent invention, why would anyone think it was?

    It’s not that people believed the ancients didn’t have paint. It’s that they believed that the ancients had paint, but chose not to use it on sculptures.

    I think Bill Harshaw is correct, the preference for unpainted sculpture is simple historical inertia. One way to test his theory might be to examine the history of painting and sculpture in non-Western countries where people hadn’t been touring Rome since the Renaissance. Did Asian countries develop a preference for unpainted sculpture independently or was it copied from the West?

    If unpainted things evoke Far Mode thinking why didn’t the ancients leave their statues unpainted? The statues might have been new back then, but they usually depicted deities and other entities that were regarded as spatially and temporally distant and also extremely powerful.

    I think that your work on Near and Far modes of thinking is some of the most important and impressive work you’ve ever done. But I always thought that “near” and “far” were just useful metaphors you used to describe those thought modes. I didn’t realize you literally meant that our neurons for thinking about spacially and temporally distant things are physically linked to the part of our visual cortex that perceives distant objects in our field of vision. Or that you meant that that connection means that making objects resemble the way spatially distant things look causes us to use our Far Mode to reason about them. That seems like extending a useful metaphor way way too far.

    • Vaniver

      Did Asian countries develop a preference for unpainted sculpture independently or was it copied from the West?

      Do they have that preference? Most of the Asian religious iconography that I’ve seen that parallels the Greek or Mayan iconography has been painted. For example, some Hindu gods.

      • Evan

        I don’t know if they have that preference for ancient art, but when I googled images for “statue Tokyo” “statue Beijing” and “statue Seoul” I got lots of pictures of unpainted statues of samurai, lions, emperors and Buddhas (the Gundam statue in Tokyo was painted, but it’s an obvious exception). “Statue New Delhi” came up with some painted and some unpainted.

        But again, a lot of those are probably recent statues that could have been influenced by the West. Or maybe they let the paint wear off the old ones to emulate the West.

  • brian

    If you accept the argument, then why were the old Mayan and Greek buildings decoratively painted?

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  • Kathi

    Then again, if lack or ornamentation, texture and detail make us think powerful and impressive, why are the boring, smooth, glass office building of recent years not aging gracefully and growing in popularity. Even in interior decorating, neutral colors look rich and lots of bright color is considered young and garish and relegated to the children’s bedrooms.

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