Genesis of a System

The series Fourths & Fifths was a three-year project developed through intuition and research resulting in a system from which the paintings were then executed.


Synesthesia (union of senses) is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. I sometimes see, smell and hear color simultaneously.

One day while mixing colors I heard a major D chord. But which chord, a third, a fourth? Would extant literature on color theory or music theory provide any clues? Would it be possible to map color to musical chords?

At the time, I had been looking for a new way to approach my painting practice, to obliterate muscle memory and habitual responses in order to create something fresh. The possibility of linking color theory with music theory seemed as good a place as any to begin, plus the questions it posed took hold of my imagination. I stopped work in the studio and immersed myself in research.


Interference: A Grand Scientific Musical Theory by Richard Merrick relates early efforts at tuning the lute using geometry, specifically the theories of Pythagoras. The Pythagoreans were searching for a unified theory of everything, just like physicists today. Is there an underlying harmony behind the veil of our senses which unites all phenomena? So they, the Pythagoreans that is, came up with the idea of stacking musical fifths, believing that "a stack of five perfect 5ths should close to form a pentagram at the third octave." (By the way, it doesn't.) This idea came from their belief that one could associate sounds with certain regular, geometric forms, in this case the pentagram, an important form in sacred geometry, if not the most important form because it generates more instances of the phi ratio than other forms.

This mention of perfect fifths and the pentagram led me to return to Robert Lawlor's book Sacred Geometry which I had read many years ago. Opening that book, I was amazed to find a chapter titled "Mediation: Geometry Becomes Music," a chapter I did not remember. There Lawlor explains how the perfect fourth and perfect fifth chords hold special meaning in harmonic progression. Harmonic progression is based on one of three types of median proportion: arithmetic, geometric and harmonic. A median proportion is formed from any group of three numbers where a is greater than b and b is greater than c.

Plato held that the study of mediation — the resolution of two extremes through a shared quality (the mean term) — is the basis for essential knowledge, as opposed to particular knowledge, the latter being simple amassing of facts. The harmonic progression is the most complex of the three median proportions, combining the other two types, and it results in two mean terms: the perfect fourth and the perfect fifth.

The System

If two primaries, say yellow and red, are considered the two extremes of a median proportion (the first and last notes of a musical octave), what colors would be the fourth and the fifth chords when those two primaries are mixed?

Rather than adhere to a strict mathematical approach to this question, which wouldn't be much fun, involving a lot of slavish measuring, I decided to return to intuition. Put another way, having the mathematical foundation for my original question, I could discard it.

Once I began mixing color and making swatches, it became obvious that I needed to work with not three primaries, the most widely accepted color theory system, but with four: red, yellow, blue and green. (In paint mixing it is not possible to mix all colors from the standard three primaries of red, yellow and blue, so green is added by some theories. Albert Munsell proposed five: blue, purple, red, yellow and green — this makes sense when you see the colors of the visible light spectrum, in a rainbow for example.)


To me, the most basic question in painting is how to apply the paint to the support — what mark to make. I had become disenchanted with the purely flat paintings I had been creating. I wanted to slather on the paint in a fluid gesture, somewhat like icing a cake or plastering. I wanted to break free from the obsessive attention to surface required by the flat paintings and instead enter into a dance with the paint that would at once be more liberated and also honor the specific materiality of oil paint.

After experimenting with marks made by pottery and baking tools, I settled on a flat spatula. And to give the paint the body I required for heavy impasto, I used a custom medium of marble dust or silica, modified oil blends, and other ingredients made by Don Harger in New Jersey.

A series of studies was completed in 2012 and first shown in Marfa, Texas in the fall of that year. I then completed the final works in this series in 2012 and 2013, which debuted alongside a selection of the studies in Milan, Italy, in October 2013.

David Hirschi
Marfa, Texas